Surreal September: A month of Jan Švankmajer, at the Cinefamily

the body is revolting


Among the countless filmmakers that yours truly has discovered through the freelance Movie Analyst gig, one of the few that I would unreservedly hail as deserving of the ‘genius’ tag is Jan Švankmajer, a Czech animator, filmmaker, sculptor and visual artist.

Švankmajer is best known for his remarkably detailed stop-motion animation, but what perhaps doesn’t get enough mention is what a gifted live-action filmmaker he is as well. His short films alone would constitute a brilliant career.

The movies are creepy and often outrageously funny; small wonder that Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton are two of Švankmajer’s biggest advocates. (Once you catch a glimpse of Švankmajer’s short films, you’ll see how those guys learned a lot from the Czech master.) And no wonder that Švankmajer’s countryman Milos Forman once famously summed up Švankmajer’s work as “Disney + Bunuel.”

Uh-oh. From Svankmajer's FAUST.

Uh-oh. From Svankmajer’s FAUST (1994).

Švankmajer is an avowed Surrealist, and for him Surrealism is no mere stylistic tag, but a deeply committed worldview. Born in Prague in 1934, Švankmajer’s work not surprisingly ran afoul of the Communist authorities, again and again, throughout the 1970s and ’80s; an artist obsessively drawn to the absurd and grotesque was never going to be down with the Party program.

But Švankmajer’s films, and visual artwork, and sculptures, wage unceasing war against not just political ideology (of all kinds) but rationality, period. The very idea of a natural order is turned upside down in an oeuvre where inanimate objects routinely come alive to thwart and mock the humans who presume to reign over them.

Standouts among Švankmajer’s short films include two Edgar Allen Poe adaptations: “The Fall of the House of Usher,” imaginatively told without actors, and “The Pit and the Pendulum and the Hope,” shot from the POV of a condemned man trying to escape a Spanish Inquisition torture chamber. (Only 15 minutes long, and one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.)

Other classics include “The Flat” and “The Garden,” both of which evoke Franz Kafka with eerie precision — the former as tragicomic slapstick, the latter as the sort of subtly disquieting political allegory that raised the hackles of Communist censors, even if they weren’t sure why.

All films shown in 35mm! This is good news, because Švankmajer is attuned to texture like no other filmmaker. An atmosphere of decay hangs over the films, and Švankmajer is uniquely fixated on how mutable and prone to rot all organic material is — human beings especially. The big screen should be the ideal way to let this director’s unsettling vision go to work on you.

Saturday, 9/8, 4:00 p.m.

Darkness Light Darkness: Jan Švankmajer Shorts

(The Cinefamily’s website doesn’t specify which films will make up this program; it could be that the programming staff has so many mini-masterpieces to choose from that they’re still debating which titles to include.)

Thursday, 9/13, 7:30 p.m.

Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) NOT ON R1 DVD

Saturday, 9/15, 5:00 p.m.

Faust (1994) OUT OF PRINT ON R1 DVD

Thursday, 9/20, 7:30 p.m.

Lunacy (2005)

through the looking glass, and then someSaturday, 9/22, 5:00 p.m.

Alice (1988)

Told with a mix of live action and stop-motion animation, Švankmajer’s vision of the Lewis Carroll classic is droll and memorably bizarre. The whimsy continually threatens to turn macabre but stops just short, perfect for the story of a girl faced with unsettling changes at the end of childhood. If memory serves this viewer, the 35mm film version features subtitles and not the slightly annoying English dubbing heard on the Kino DVD.



Thursday, 9/27, 7:30 p.m.

Surviving Life (2010) NOT ON DVD

Švankmajer says this will be his last film.

For more info and trailers, visit the Cinefamily website.

— Mark Tompkins

From Švankmajer’s ALICE (1988).

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