Jan Svankmajer  

A classic surrealist from Czechoslovakia that uses animation, claymation, stop-motion and puppetry mixed with live action to deliver his messages and imagery, usually with a heavy dose of dark humor. He loves rough textures, rot and decay, earth, mud, wood, and clay, and is particularly fond of making food and the act of eating look unappetizing. All of his movies are unforgettable experiences with a tangible texture and humor that slinks under your skin. His full-lengths make more and more use of live action but he is at his best in his earlier short films (not listed here), of which he has over a score, some of them masterpieces.


Svankmajer's vision of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is darkly humorous, imaginative, surreal and even creepy at times. Using his usual tricks of blending a live person with puppets, claymation and stop-motion techniques, he shows us a fascinating fantasy/dream world where nothing makes sense. Instead of tunnels, they crawl through desk drawers, a caterpillar is a sock with false teeth that burrows through the wooden floors, the rabbit and some creatures are stuffed dummies that leak sawdust when wounded, Alice turns into a doll when she shrinks, food is dangerous and often contains nails, thumb tacks and cockroaches, etc. There are many unforgettable scenes such as when a rat swims 'ashore' on Alice's head and builds a campfire. All this visual fun is undone however by the annoying, repetitive idea of showing a close-up of Alice's lips saying things like 'said the rabbit' after every line of dialog is spoken.

This self-aware, multi-layered, humorous, inventive, surreal retelling of the Faustian myth is a magical piece of work. It can be enjoyed at various levels: The story of Faustus itself (from various sources) about an intellectual in search of higher knowledge who sells his soul to the devil (with elements of Bulgakov), the archetype of an ordinary man off the street manipulated into a role, exquisite dream-logic surrealism where you keep trying to escape only to find the settings abruptly changed and the circumstances the same and you find yourself doing things beyond your control, and finally, the fascinating blend of realism, surrealism, stage-acting, historical settings, puppetry, stop-motion and claymation and the seamless shifting between them. For example, you see puppets who are really humans, puppets escaping to the real world and terrifying an ordinary person on the street, puppets both part of the entertainment and the actual story, and puppets interacting amongst themselves in private. The two flaws here are some of the seemingly meaningless sequences and the heavy use of puppetry in the latter half of the movie. Otherwise, this is a dense, unique and fascinating experience with a neat twist at the end.

Little Otik  
Svankmajer's unique take on another fairy tale, this one about a childless couple that adopt a baby made of wood. The father attempts to console his unstable wife with a piece of wood in the shape of a baby but she soon becomes obsessed with it, pretending to be pregnant, complete with pickles, pillows and morning sickness. As it comes to life the monstrous baby grows quickly and develops a ravenous appetite for all things fleshy. A young neighbourly girl starts to catch on while being ogled by a pedophiliac old man. This is horror spiced with Svankmajer's unique humor and self-awareness, but is by far the most mainstream of his features, using mostly live actors and a simple narrative with only a sprinkling of stop-motion animation and surrealism. A more popular and audience-friendly movie by Svankmajer, and at first I found this too simple and overlong, but Svankmajer's as-always unique use of textures and memorable fleshy characters and visuals, as well as the delightful humor and surrealism in the first part of the movie helped make this one grow on me over time.

Another great work by Svankmajer, more reminiscent of the multi-layered, dark and philosophical Faust than his forays into fairy-tales. Jean recently lost his mother who was locked up in a lunatic asylum, and is picked up by a mysterious Marquis who likes to rant blasphemy against God, hammer nails into Jesus, conduct strange rituals, and play twisted pranks. His friend runs an asylum with a libertine philosophy and techniques of preventive therapy that basically allows lunatics to do what they want and heal themselves through their own fears. A local nymphomaniac convinces him that all is not what it seems. Svankmajer playfully but deeply explores libertine attitudes vs. strict conservatism and rules, taking each to their extreme, also comparing lunatics and people on the other side of the cage, humans vs. animated meat, painting a bleak but amusing portrait of humanity torn between two but equally insane approaches to life. Add to that some great circular twists in the plot, elements of Poe and De Sade, and lots of animated pieces of meat, and you have another unique and rewarding Svankmajer movie.

Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)  
Svankmajer has never been funnier, more delightfully surreal, and more at the top of his game than in this movie. This is a psychoanalytic comedy and detective story, about a man who becomes obsessed with his dreams of a mysterious woman. It doesn't seem to be about lust, and yet subconsciously he knows that there is something very emotionally important about her. So he tracks down books that will help him return to the dream, getting in trouble at work and with his wife. He also visits a very, umm, helpful female shrink, providing the most hilarious scenes in the movie involving animated pictures of Freud and Jung taking part and competing in the increasingly convoluted psychoanalysis. Dreams, symbolic psycho-imagery, and reality blend effortlessly in a movie that is part Gilliamesque cardboard cut-out stop-motion animation, part live-action. The imagery is rich and endlessly surprising, with brutish dog bosses, snakes spitting out buttons, naked shrinks, and an endless stream of funny surreal props and body parts emerging from windows. This is the kind of fun and inventive movie that makes you love the director. Superb.

Of Some Interest

Conspirators of Pleasure  
A surrealistic satire about sexual perversions, obsessions and fetishes and their individualistic nature. Six people, each with his or her own bizarre obsessions and fantasies, occasionally interact with each other but they are always off in their own world of obscure and personal sensuous gratification. In typical surrealistic style, their intricately detailed fetishes in this movie are very off-the-wall and bizarre to the point of being drop-dead hilarious. For example, one man fantasizes about being a strong chicken that terrorizes his sadistic neighbour, and to this end he builds a chicken head using clay, pornography magazine clippings, and feathers. Others make balls out of bread fragments for strange purposes, or build complex objects with nails, rolling pins, fur and brushes for rubbing against the skin. Most of the movie is live action with no dialog, and stop-motion/claymation is only used for the 'orgasmic' sequences. There is no sex and hardly any nudity considering the subject matter. Towards the end, their fantasies merge into reality and converge in surprising and surreal ways. A fetish movie about fetishes made with a fetishistic focus on detail.

Svankmajer covers the play "Pictures from the Insects' Life" which, perhaps a bit like Animal Farm, uses insects as humans to satirize society. Except that, as usual, Svankmajer covers it from the 'meta' angle, bringing the story to a modern setting and incorporating it into the film in snippets and using stop-motion surrealism. Unfortunately, unlike his 'Faust' which did a similar thing, he uses too much 'meta' here, constantly exiting the scenario with random, humoristic, behind-the-scenes footage, in addition to making the film about a stage director trying to stage an incompetent performance of the play with a troupe of odd and listless actors. So there are at least three or four levels here. I expected him to make the content of the play bleed into all levels of reality via surrealism at some stage, including the behind-the-scenes layer involving Svankmajer himself, but this didn't happen. In addition, as opposed to Faust, not enough of the play was included to provide themes and add meat to the film. So the end result is rather meandering and pointless, albeit peppered with plenty of nonsensical entertainment. This includes many eccentric characters, many creepy insect hallucinations, bugs and animated dung-beetles, and violence from the play bleeding into the set including eating of human larva. But rather than propel a story or themes forward, these just invade the film at random scenes, making the film a slave to a whimsical imagination.

1999- by The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre Table of Contents