Švankmajer: Shorts 4

Damn I missed this one, since the listing I looked at this morning said 6.30, but it was actually at 5…

Sat 30 November: Duke of York’s 6.30pm JAN ŠVANKMAJER SHORTS 4 1988-1992 (55 mins. approx.) FREE ENTRY Virile Games  (Cz 1988. 14 mins.) Another Kind of Love (Cz 1988. 4 mins.) Meat Love (USA, UK, Ger 1989. 1 min) Darkness-Light-Darkness (Cz 1989. 8 mins.) Flora (USA, Cz 1989. 30 secs.) The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (UK 1990. 10 mins.) Food (Cz, UK 1992. 17 mins.).

[it’s also the listing that says conspirators of pleasure was at 6 when actually it was 6.30 – that mistake worked out better for me]


Švankmajer: Lunacy

“Ladies and Gentlemen, what you are about to see is a
horror film, with all the degeneracy peculiar to that
job. It is not a work of art. Today, art is all but
dead anyway. In its place is a kind of trailer for the
reflection of the face of narcissism.

Our film may be regarded as an infantile tribute
to Edgar Allan Poe, from whom I’ve borrowed a number
of motifs, and to the Marquis de Sade, to whom the
film owes it blasphemy and its subversiveness.
The subject of the film is essentially an
ideological debate – about how to run a lunatic
asylum. Basically, there are two ways of managing such
an institution, each equally extreme.
One encourages absolute freedom. The other, the
old-fashioned, world tried method consists of control
and punishment. But there is also a third one, that
combines the very worst aspects of the other two.
And that is the madhouse which we live in today.”

And so begins Lunacy.

[no subs]

Now i can’t say i liked this one very much. I’d seen it before in a downloaded then slept through it sort of way and normally anything involving Sade can hold my interest, but Quills is a much better examination of him. Not that Svank was trying to do anything similar to that here. I find it hard to see what he was doing to be honest, whereas normally i can kind of “get it” intuitively.

The interludes with animated meat were disgusting.

The protagonist annoyed me because he lacked agency and worse than that he failed to rescue the woman he clearly fancied whenshe tried to escape. What sort of person is that? Who sees someone terrified and at risk of death and doesn’t intervene? But yeah it’s just a movie and it doesn’t need to make sense.

Svank i guess does a good job of creating a very unhinged feel, perhaps this why i don’t like it. You can taste the madness in the asylum.  I think he’s just exploring things and perhaps goes too far. What is too far he might counter. Well… i dunno what or where the limit is, but we know it becuase this goes over it, let’s put it like that. If as Svank suggests the film is an ideological debate about how to run an asylum, it’s not a debate I enjoyed.

To try again to put my finger on why exactly i didn’t like this, I find Sade fascinating as a figure who refused to compromise on his beliefs, which certainly led to some reprehensible acts but there is on a meta-level here a question about freedom and the evils that freedom can create. Svank approaches these questions in the film, but I don’t like the depiction or the lack of coherence.

Amazing acting all round though!


Švankmajer: Conspirators of Pleasure


I was just checking the imdb boards for this movie but there isn’t much there. Shame, sometimes there are some really perceptive comments. I think this film is my fave Svank feature, yet it’s hard to know what to think it … this is what I wrote there:

What a fantastic movie! I just watched it again straight at the cinema in Brighton, where there is currently a Svankmajer retrospective.

[no subs, but you don’t really need them. you only need to know ‘v nedeli’ = ‘on sunday’]

It’s amazing, there isn’t any spoken dialogue of note and a whole world is created. Like all his movies I’ve seen, Svankmajer judges the length adroitly and says what he wants to say in such an individualistic style. Compared to some of his other films there isn’t much animation but he really makes it count when it is employed – for example the energetic contest played out between the ‘main character’ in the cock hat and his neighbour.

I think this was the third time I’ve seen it, the first time not smashed so I’m able now to formulate some theories (my friend sat next to me seeing it for the first time said at the end “what the feck i have just seen??”)

So judging by some of the meaningful glances between the conspirators, for example in the newsagent at the beginning (and the end), and in the bedroom of the murdered woman at the end, it seems they do recognise something in each other. But what exactly?

And who is in control? One might think the postlady, since she delivers the ‘sunday showdown’ note and the breadballs. But then she is also hooked on the breadballs herself. I’m also fine with there being no-one pulling the strings, everyone just stuck in their various pursuits of pleasure.


Yet even on that approach, questions remain. At the end, the various perversions seem to be rotating – the postlady is up for buying some fish, the ‘main guy’ is thinking about building electronics, the newsagent is working on a kinky rolling pin etc etc So are there only the perversions we have seen? Or are there more? Is this group representative or is everyone at it?

So what’s it all about then? Clearly it’s about obsession. The newsagent sells news but is completely unmoved by the news stories of floods and what looks like police repression of demonstrations. He cares only for the newscaster. And I guess we’ve all been in situations when the madness of love takes over – I know I have. It’s incredible that emotions or the brain releasing specific chemicals or an energetic connection or however you want to call it, can result the inability to function normally. It’s complete and utter madness!

I’m interested what other people think, not because there is any correct interpretation, it’s just fun to bounce these ideas around. Plus I hope those fish enjoyed their participation.


PS Any film which credits the following reprobates for their “Professional Expertise” has got to be a winner:

Count Leopold Sacher-Masoch

Marquis Donotien Aldonse François de Sade

Sigmund Freud

Luis Buñuel

Max Ernst

Bohuslav Brouk


Švankmajer: Shorts 3 1979-1983

There were a few shorts in this collection which I wouldn’t rate that highly (such as The Fall of the House of Usher) BUT it also contains Dimensions of Dialogue, which is a work of staggering genius.

There’s not much i want to say about it other than to encourage you to watch it!

Of the rest, ‘Down to the Cellar’ was pretty good and had obvious connections to Little Otik so props to the programmers for showing them both on the same day.

The list:

The Castle of Otranto (Cz 1979. 17min.)

The Fall of the House of Usher (Cz 1980. 15min.)

Dimensions of Dialogue (Cz 1982. 12min.)

Down to the Cellar (Cz 1982. 15min.)

The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope (Cz 1983. 15min.)

Švankmajer: Little Otik

Little Otik is just your run-of-the-mill story of a couple who can’t conceive and decide to nurse a tree stump. The tree stump then comes to life, with um hilarious consequences. It eats quite a lot of people. It’s more hardcore than Lars and the Real Girl, let’s put it that way.

Maybe I’m getting a bit jaded, but compared to some of the other things I’ve seen, for Švankmajer this seems like quite a straight movie.But what am I saying? It’s still funny and freaky in dollops. For Marina Warner, it’s her favourite film by the Svank. I dunno if I’d go quite that far, but it is really good.

I found a piece in the Guardian which suggests the Svank has taken LSD. Whatta surprise. In his own words:

How does this relate to my most recent film, Little Otik? I don’t know. Maybe in the way the unhappy heroes of the story succumb to their desire to have a child as they might have succumbed to a drug. That desire then gives birth to the demon which destroys them. What at first looks like gratification and deliverance from their desire turns out to be a pernicious delusion.

Sorry I know this isn’t a particularly comprehensive review, I think I might be getting a bit pooped by the relentless schedule of the retrospective (in a good way). Hm what to add. I really liked the actress who played the little girl, Alzbetka and actually everyone was good. And the dad is the furry roller perv from Conspirators of Pleasure.

The Decalogue of Jan Švankmajer

The Decalogue of Jan Švankmajer
1. Remember that there is only one poetry. The antithesis of poetry is professional expertise.
Before you start filming, write a poem, paint a picture, put together a collage, write a book or an essay etc.. Because only the nurture of the universality of expression will guarantee that you create a good film. 

2. Succumb totally to your obsessions. You have nothing better anyway. Obessions are relics of your childhood. And from those very depths of your childhood come the greatest treasures. 
The gate has to always remain open in that direction. It’s not about memories but about emotions. It’s not about consciousness but about subconsciousness. Let this underground stream freely flow through your inner self. Focus on it but, at the same time, let yourself go. When you are filming you have to be „immersed“ for 24 hours-a-day. Then all your obsessions, all your childhood transfers itself onto film without you even noticing it. In this way your film becomes a triumph of infantility. And that’s what it’s about. 

3. Use animation as a magical act. Animation isn’t moving about inert things but their revival. More precisely their awakening to life. Before you attempt to bring some object to life try to comprehend it. Not its utilitarian role but its inner life. Objects, particularly old ones, have witnessed all sorts of events and lives, and bear their imprint. People have touched them in different situations and with different emotions and printed into them their psychological states. If you wish to make their hidden contents visible through the use of a camera then you have to listen to them. Sometimes for several years. You have to become a collector and only then a film-maker. Reviving objects using animation must proceed naturally. It must come from the objects and not from your wishes. Never violate an object! Don’t tell your own stories with the help of subjects (objects) but tell their stories. 

4. Keep interchanging dream for reality and vice versa. There are no logical bridges. Between dream and reality there is only one slight physical operation: the raising and closing of eyelids. With daydreams even that is unneccessary. 

5. If you are deciding which to give priority to – wether visual perspective or physical experience – then always trust the body because touch is an older sense than eyesight and its experience is more fundamental. Furthermore, the eye is pretty tired and „spoiled“ in our contemporary audio-visual civilisation. The experience of the body is more authentic, not yet encumbered by aesthetics. A marker which you shouldn’t lose sight of is synaesthesia. 

6. The deeper you go into a fantastic plot the more you have to be realistic in detail. Here it’s necessary to rely on the experience of the dream. Don’t be afraid of „a boring description“, pedantic obsessions, „unimportant detail“, or documentary emphasis if you want to persuade the audience that everything they see in the film relates to them, that it does not concern something outside of their world but that it’s about something, without them realising it, in which they are up to their ears. And use all tricks at your disposal to convince them of this. 

7. Imagination is subversive because it puts the possible up against the real. That’s why always use the craziest imagination possible. Imagination is humanity’s greatest gift. It is imagination that makes us human, not work. Imagination, imagination, imagination… 

8. As a matter of principle chose themes toward which you feel ambivalent. That ambivalence must be so strong (deep) and unshakeable that you can thread its knife-edge without falling off on one side or the other, or, as the case may be, falling off both sides at the same time. Only this way will you avoid the greatest pitfall: the film à la thèse. 

9. Nurture creativity as a means of auto-therapy. Because this anti-aesthetic standpoint brings art nearer to the gates of freedom. If creativity has a point at all then it is only in that it liberates us. No film (painting, poem) can liberate a member of an audience if it doesn’t bring this relief to the artist himself. Everything else is a thing of „general subjectivity“. Art as permanent liberation. 

10. Always give priority to creativity, to the continuity of the inner model or psychological automation over an idea. An idea, even the most poignant, cannot be a sufficient motive to sit behind a camera. Art isn’t about stumbling from one idea to another. An idea has its place in art only at the moment when you have a fully digested topic which you wish to express. Only then will the right ideas come to the surface. An idea is part of a creative process, not an impulse towards it. 
Never work, always improvise. The script is important for the producer but not for you. It’s a non-binding document which you turn to only in moments when inspiration fails you. If it happens to you more than three times during the shooting of a film then it means: either you are making a „bad“ film or you’re finished. 

Just because I´ve formulated The Decalogue doesn’t necessarily mean I have consciously abided by it. These rules have somehow emerged from my work, they haven’t preceded it. In fact, all rules are there to be broken (not circumvented). But there exists one more rule which if broken (or circumvented) is devastating for an artist: Never allow your work of art to pass into the service of anything but freedom. 

(1999)     copyright Jan Švankmajer, ATHANOR

Švankmajer: Faust

It’s cool that we are resolutely doing the whole damn retrospective since now certain tropes are beginning to emerge. I’ll be able to say more at the end of it all in December hopefully (now we are about halfway through it all), although I can’t say I’m 100% confident that I will have the Svank ordered and categorised into neat little boxes by then. As an initial comment, I could affirm that certainly desks feature a lot, as does the breaking of glass and indeed destruction more generally; Hand drills pop up and the use of them to make holes in things happens regularly; Another trope repeated in today’s showing, having also been seen in Alice, was the exit through the back of the stage set – this time the protagonist ends up in a dark tunnel. Luckily for him, he is carrying a torch.

Švankmajer’s version of Faust is truly odd, very dream-like and conveys the feeling of the legend in his own unique way. It starts off fairly normal but quickly veers off into weirdness, what a surprise, huh? In fact, lots of the beginning gets referenced later on (eg Faust himself becomes the person who runs into him when he is trying to find the place marked on the mysterious map) so nothing gets wasted.

I like the way Svank’s features seem to come to a close when I’m ready for them to: they don’t drag on and they don’t go too fast. They are just right. There is a good economy there. Likewise with his animation – he does just enough to make whatever it is being animated (a puppet, a skull, an apple) seem alive, in order to allow us to willingly suspend our disbelief. But no more or less.

[sorry no subs]

The actor playing Faust is great, he puzzles blankly and frowns his way through, but Prague is the real star for me – the decay, the big doors of the apartment blocks, the metallic postboxes, the workmen in their overalls in the bar, the beer bubbling away in pint glasses and bottles. You can almost smell the street – I think the quality of the sound engineering must be helping with that, if I’m not being too synaethestic. Some favourite places popped up too, like the Vyšehrad railway bridge (where the weirdo throws the foot into the Vltava).


There are some very strange sequences here which I suppose would aid the application of the label surrealist to the Svank: ballet dancers running through a ploughed field; the jester hilariously fucking with the devil; the weirdo who robs legs from dead men; the bird which pops up to turn Faust’s torch on and off. In his Decalogue, the Svank declares:

Never work, always improvise. The script is important for the producer but not for you. It’s a non-binding document which you turn to only in moments when inspiration fails you. If it happens to you more than three times during the shooting of a film then it means: either you are making a „bad“ film or you’re finished. 

So I guess all these touches get thrown into the mix because it seems right. And somehow it all falls together very nicely. Another winner!! This is the good patch actually, with Dimensions of Dialogue and other shorts tomorrow, then Conspirators of Pleasure on Monday… Woohoo!



PS I forgot to mention how much I love the way the devils speak. They don’t say anything, they just go ‘Bleurgh Ble-ble-bleurgh’ and bounce up and down. It’s hilarious!