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Directors:Ivan Ivanov-Vano & Leonid Amalrik
Release Date: 1933
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Black and White © SoyuzmultfilmOf all animated Soviet propaganda films, ‘Black & White’ certainly is one of the most powerful. The film is essentially silent, but it’s accompanied by the beautiful negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” sung in a deep mournful voice. 

The film is based on a poem of the same name from 1925 by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who wrote the poem during a trip to Cuba. Like the poem, the film shows American racism and the exploitation of black people. We watch them being oppressed by the white, as if they were still slaves, and kept quiet by religion. The images are strong and very stylized. Each image of the film is staged wonderfully to the best effect. A most impressive image is that of numerous blacks in prison, but the bleakest of them all is the final shot of a car passing a lawn with a black man hanging on each tree.

The overall mood of the film is absolutely depressing, especially when one realizes that for once the Soviet propagandists were not too far from the truth. Nevertheless, the Soviet solution, “Lenin”, may be a little too short-sighted, and I doubt whether this film has ever been watched by its intended audience, and if it struck any international chord at all. Who knows? At least, Cuba has been the only country in the Americas to experience a Marxist regime…

Anyhow, despite its abrupt and inapt Lenin-ending, ‘Black & White’ is one of the darkest and strongest of all animated films of the 1930s, and certainly the most interesting animation film to come from the Soviet Union in that decade.

Watch ‘Black & White’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Black & White’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’

Director: Berthold Bartosch
Production Date:
 1930-1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

L'idée © Berthold BartoschWhile the cartoon industry flourished in the United States, animation film was developed as an art form in Europe.

In the 1920s Germany had lead the way, with films by Lotte Reiniger, Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger, but by the early 1930’s France had taken over, albeit almost exclusively by foreigners, with great films like ‘Le roman de Renard’ (1929-1930) by Russian animator Władysław Starewicz, ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve‘ (1933) by his compatriot Alexandre Alexeïeff, ‘La joie de vivre’ (1934) by British artist Anthony Gross and American artist Hector Hoppin, and ‘L’idée’ (1930-1932) by Austro-Hungarian animator Berthold Bartosch (1893-1968).

‘L’idée’ was based on a wordless novel of the same name by Belgian woodcut-artist Frank Masereel (1889-1972), who initially co-operated on the film, until he discovered how laborious animating really was. Masereel’s groundbreaking work has a strong expressionistic quality, which is also very present in Bartosch’s film.

Both the international character and the mood of the wordless film are greatly enhanced by the beautiful musical score by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who used the whooping sounds of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928, to great effects. According to Wikipedia, this makes Honegger’s score for ‘L’idée’ the first film music to employ and electronic instrument.

The film tells how an idea can originate and grow, despite dejection, oppression and censorship by the establishment. In practice, Bartosch’s idea has a strong communistic character, becoming an idea of the working class, and being oppressed by clear capitalistic forces. The idea itself is presented as a naked woman, symbol of innocence and purity, and she grows, accompanying the people who become victim of the oppression to the very end. The emotional highlight of the film is when she visits the very person who had invented her the night before his death sentence.

Bartosch had previously worked on Lotte Reiniger’s films, and used her cut-out technique on Frank Masereel’s stark cut-outs to a great effect. The imagery of Bartosch’s film is much more poetic, however, than Masereel’s own work, with a lot of soft-focus, and milky effects, especially on the idea itself, which Bartosch created with the help of soap. The film is also noteworthy for its great sense of depth in some scenes, which can reach a stunning level of complexity. There is for example a scene showing crowds and cars passing by a window, and another with numbers of soldiers marching. Bartosch achieved this sense of depth with a multi-plane camera of his own design, using several glass plates below each other. It’s interesting to note that his device predated Disney’s multiplane camera by five years. True, these soap- and multiplane techniques at times blur the images too much, rendering them too murky to understand what’s happening on the screen, but mostly the film is an excellent example of expressionistic storytelling, and what animation can do.

Unfortunately, the film itself suffered from censorship, delaying its release, which often only happened with an altered, less provocative intro text, and Bartosch never gained any money from it. Nevertheless, it was released in 1934, creating a sensation in Europe, with exception, of course, of Nazi Germany, where it was banned. Bartosch’s second film, ‘Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares’ (1933-1938), apparently an anti-war film, was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. After that Bartosch tried to work on a third film about the Cosmos, but because of his deteriorating health work was abandoned. He devoted the rest of his life to painting. Thus ‘L’idée’ sadly remains his only surviving film, but it’s a great testimony of Bartosch’s art, and without doubt it single-handedly places him in the pantheon of great animation film makers.

Watch ‘L’idée’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’idée’ is available on the Re:Voir DVD ‘Berthold Bartosch – l’idée’

Director: Oskar Fischinger
Release Date:
 December 1933
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Kreise © Oskar Fischinger‘Kreise’ is most probably the first full color film made in Europe.

Made with ‘Gaspar Color’ it certainly makes clever use of color’s new possibilities. ‘Gaspar Color’ required too much exposure time for live action, but for Fischinger’s animations it was perfect.

Color certainly added a great deal to Fischinger’s films. ‘Kreise’, for example, literally explodes with color. As its title implies, the film is composed of circles, only, which move and grow in various ways on an instrumental excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

The film ends with a slogan: “Alle Kreise erfasst Tolirag” (Tolirag reaches all circles [of society]), revealing that this totally abstract film is actually a commercial for an advertising agency. This was Fischinger’s trick to get the film past the Nazi censors, who in 1933 had come to power, and who were strongly opposed to abstract art.

Later the film also advertised other companies, like the Dutch Van Houten chocolate company. The film clearly shows that Walt Disney was not the only one who knew how to deal with color, but one wonders whether Tolirag (or Van Houten for that matter) did get a lot of new customers out of it.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Kreise’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kreise’ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Director: Oskar Fischinger
Production Date:
 1930-1931
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Studie Nr. 7 © Oskar FischingerIn Fischinger’s study No. 7 , made in 1930-1931, the shapes of Study No. 6 move to the 5th Hungarian dance by Johannes Brahms.

Like Study No. 6 Fischinger made this film with charcoal on paper. In this short the synchronization of music and movement is even better than in Study No. 6. Fischinger uses less diverse shapes than in No. 6, making the film more consistent. Some of them look like fluttering and folding pieces of paper.

According to William Moritz this particular film prompted four film makers into animation: Norman McLaren, Alexandre Alexeieff, Claire Parker and Len Lye. These four all became major players in avant-garde animation. This fact makes Study No. 7 one of the most important animation films in history.

Watch ‘Studie nr. 7’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Studie nr. 7′ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Director: Oskar Fischinger
Production Date:
 1930
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Studie Nr. 6 © Oskar FischingerIn this short study we watch white shapes moving on a black canvas to upbeat dance music (‘Los Verderones’ by Jacinto Guerrero).

Made with charcoal on paper, the result looks like a filmed sketch by Wassily Kandinsky. The only recognizable shape is an eye, which reoccurs a few times.

The twirling shapes are elegantly drawn, their movements match the jolly music perfectly, and there’s a feeling of gaiety that transcends the film’s abstraction.

In 1931 Oskar Fischinger’s friend Paul Hindemith and some of his students made new scores for this film, but unfortunately they were all lost in World War II.

Watch ‘Studie nr. 6’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://www.tudou.com/listplay/R8qsaMltb9Y.html

‘Studie nr. 6′ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Director: Svend Noldan
Release Date:
 1930
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Hein Priembacke in Afrika © Svend NoldanHein Priembacke was a cartoon character conceived and animated by Svend Noldan. Noldan had his origins in the German dadaist avant-garde scene, something that is not visible in this cartoon.

‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ is a silent film and uses German title cards in rhyme. Hein Priembacke is a sailor who’s washed ashore an African desert. Being hungry he first tries to retrieve a coconut, which turns out to be a wallaby. Later he goes to a settlement (which was visible in the background all the time), where he pulls two turnips, which turn out to be Negroes (forgive me the word – it’s used as such in the film itself). The angered cannibals soon chase our hero (“Jetzt wird’s bedenklich, lieber Christ. Der Neger ist kein Pazifist” reads the title card, which translates as “Now it becomes questionable, dear Christ, for the negro is no pacifist“), but he manages to escape to his homeland, hanging on the legs of a stork.

The animation is surprisingly well done, although the action is at times ridiculously slow. The film’s highlight are the animation of the waves and of the landscape on Priembacke’s flight back home. Done with cut outs, the landscape moves stunningly realistically under our hero, creating a great sense of depth, predating Disney’s multi-plane camera by seven years.

Indeed, special effects turned out to be Noldan’s expertise. His star rose when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, and many film makers left Germany. He later provided special effects for German propaganda films, like Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumf des Willens’ (1935), and ‘Der ewige Jude’ (1939). During World War II he worked for the German war industry. Although his role in Nazi Germany is dubious to say the least, he survived the war unscathed, and returned to making films, which he kept on doing until the end of the 1960s.

Watch ‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation 2: Cannibals!’

Director: Lotte Reiniger
Release Date: 1928
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Der scheintote Chinese © Lotte Reiniger‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is a short film by Lotte Reiniger, made in the same vein as her stunning feature film ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’ from 1926. Unlike her feature, this isn’t a romantic film, however, but a comical one, exploiting some surprisingly dark humor.

It starts when a couple makes fun with Ping Pong, the emperor’s favorite humpback. Unfortunately he chokes on a fishbone, leaving the couple believe he’s dead. They try to get rid of him, and so does every other citizen who finds the body on his doorstep. Finally a drunk is caught and sentenced to death for the brutal murder on Ping Pong. When the innocent drunk is almost hung at the gallows, the other people get remorse, and each pleads guilty in succession. Luckily, at that moment, Ping Pong awakes.

‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is an entertaining story, and Reiniger’s designs are as delicate as ever. But the animation is crude and stiff, and her timing rather tiresome. Thus the film fails short to become a timeless classic.

Watch ‘Der scheintote Chinese’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is available on the DVD ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Ahmed’

Director: Priit Pärn
Release Date: 1992
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Hotel E © Priit PärnIf ‘Breakfast on the Grass‘ was a dark and disturbing portrait of life in the Soviet Union, Priit Pärn’s next film, ‘Hotel E’, took off the mask from the former Soviet state like no other film.

Released shortly after Estonia’s declaration of independence on 20 August 1991, it’s the film on the fall of the iron curtain, seen from an Eastern European perspective. Pärn paints Eastern and Western Europe in the most extreme contrasts, and with different animation styles.

Western Europe (named ‘The American Dream’) is a lethargic dream room, filled with rich, lazy, and spoiled people, filling their empty lives with petty problems, and hardly capable of communicating with each other. This world is filmed in slow, rotoscoped movements in the most colorful pop-art style.

Meanwhile, next door, in the Eastern European room, things are very different indeed. This world is depicted in Pärn’s crude scratchy animation style, it’s dark, it’s filthy, and life there is extremely stressful. The inhabitants all sit around a round table, and their presence is constantly checked by a moving clock hand. The room is frequently illuminated by search lights, and if one fails to stay in place for whatever reason, he’s executed immediately. Paranoia and secrecy reign. Moreover, chances can change randomly, and someone who was in favor first, can be out of luck next time.

One of the inhabitants of this cruel world manages to break free and he’s capable to visit the other world next door. He repeats his visits, despite the fact that he has to leave his concerned wife behind, and despite the fact he’s increasingly seen as a traitor by his fellow citizens. Even worse, he seemingly has little to add to the luxurious world of the West, and his longings there are hardly answered, let alone his problems understood. Only in the end he manages to find his place in this society, when only he turns out to be able to restore the inhabitants’ happiness. At that point we watch the wall between the two rooms collapsing, exposing the rotten world of the East and its eager inhabitants, and we hear one Western woman exclaim ‘o, shit…’.

‘Hotel E’ is Pärn’s most openly political film. It must be regarded as one of his masterpieces, and because of its historical significance, the most important film by the Estonian master. Pärn’s visual language is at its most extreme here, and the film is very difficult to decipher. In fact, much of what is happening is hard to comprehend. But anyone who takes the plunge, is rewarded by a most moving, and impressive film, indeed, the message of which still rings today.

Watch ‘Hotel E’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://www.totalshortfilms.com/ver/pelicula/138

Director: Priit Pärn
Release Date: 1987
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Breakfast on the Grass © Priit PärnMade directly after ‘Time Out’, ‘Breakfast on the Grass’ is one of Priit Pärn’s most powerful films.

It’s also one of his most difficult, and its message is at times hard to decipher. Pärn doesn’t tell straightforward stories, and much remains unexplained. Most importantly, it’s one of the few films showing insight in Eastern European life under the communist oppression. Its atmosphere is gloomy, its graphic style crude and scratchy, its humor dark, and its surrealism disturbing.

In ‘Breakfast on the Grass’ we follow four people, two men and two women, who struggle in their daily life. The first, Anna, strongly feels she’s an outcast in the society. She’s not really part of the system, and misses out on its benefits, as exemplified by her search for rare apples. The second, Georg, imagines himself a playboy, but reality is harder. In pursuit of a suit, with which he can fulfill his playboy dreams he has to go through a grind of corruption. Everyone wants something rare in exchange for offered service. Berta has lost her face as soon she became a mother. She only regains it when she finds the attention of a man. And finally, Eduard shrinks when he needs a paper signed from a very high official. Luckily he gets help from a female friend…

Also starring in these stories is an anonymous artist, who is constantly followed by a flock of crows or dragged around by two state officials. A clearer statement of oppression is hard to find in any Soviet film.

In the end, the four people succeed in their aim, and together they go to a park, where they form a life tableau of Edouard’s Manet’s painting ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe‘ (1863) which lends its name to the film’s title. This hopeful statement of beauty, freedom and art is as quickly dismantled, however, and the final shot is for the artist, whose arm is smacked by a steam roller…

Like few other films ‘Breakfast on the Grass’ shows what life is like in an oppressed state, where food is scarce, where bureaucracy and corruption run freely, and where the role you play is more important than your personal preferences. Even though the Glasnost was in full flight in 1987, it’s a wonder such a dark accusation was possible in the Soviet Union, of which Estonia was then still part.

Watch ‘Breakfast on the Grass’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Priit Pärn
Release Date: 1984
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Time Out © Priit Pärn‘Time Out’ is Priit Pärn’s fifth film, but the first to gain a widespread attention, and to win a number of international prizes.

It shows the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic style and unique surrealism, without the dark side, often present in his other films. The film is filled with child-like wonder, and a happy atmosphere, enhanced by the joyful reggae music by composer Olav Ehala.

The film opens with a room in which a very stressed out cat lives. The cat is in a constant need to check his alarm clock, which is on a shelf too high for him. When he finally reaches the clock, he discovers he can’t read it without his glasses, so he has to find them first, etc. Pärn shows this pointless ritual in several variations over and over again, following the cat running around in his room.

At one point, however, the alarm clock breaks, and time stands still. At this point of the film the cat finds himself in a fantastic world where everything can happen. This part is extremely rich in visual tricks, which go all the way back to Émile Cohl’s ‘Fantasmagorie’ (1908). Nothing is what it seems, and metamorphosis runs freely. Unfortunately, in the end, time is restored, and the cat has to face his former stressful life once again.

‘Time Out’ certainly shows Priit Pärn’s mastery, and excellent timing. His fantasy is extraordinary, and the film shows the power of animation like few other films do. It’s also a reminder that we should snap out of the daily routine, and let our mind wander, and be really creative. When one takes time, everything may be possible!

Watch ‘Time Out’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1989
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Darkness Light Darkness © Jan SvankmajerIn ‘Darkness Light Darkness’ we watch several body parts entering a small room in order to assemble a complete man.

Together with ‘The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia’ (1990), ‘Darkness Light Darkness’ is Švankmajer’s last classic animated short film before he embarked on a career of directing features, which featured less and less animation.

‘Darkness Light Darkness’ is on the same level of virtuosity as ‘Dimensions of Dialogue‘ (1982): its stop motion animation, by star animator Bedřich Glaser, and its sound design, by Ivo Špalj, are both no less than perfect. However, it’s much lighter of tone than the earlier film. In this short film Švankmajer and Bedřich Glaser use a particularly cartoony type of animation. For example, the entry of the genitalia is a hilarious highlight.

Nevertheless, even this film has a darker side: when the man is complete, he completely fills the room, which is way too small for him. We hear him breathing heavily, and can assume he his in great pain in his cramped position. The cartoon ends with this claustrophobic image before darkness enters again. So, somehow, even this enjoyable film tells something about the human condition, how during our lifetimes we can develop ourselves only to end in the eternal dark again…

Because of its unity of space and time, and because of its unique inner logic, ‘Darkness Light Darkness’ is one of the best told animated shorts ever. It shows Švankmajer’s mastery. In that respect it’s unfortunate that in the 1990s he moved on to live action films.

Watch ‘Darkness Light Darkness’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Darkness Light Darkness’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’ and on the DVD ‘Alice’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: September 1988
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Another Kind of Love © Jan Svankmajer‘Another Kind of Love’ is a beautiful result of the glory days of MTV: A video clip by Jan Švankmajer!

Švankmajer treats Hugh Cornwell’s charming if rather forgettable song in his own typical way: the setting is one windowless room, he films the ex-Stranglers singer’s mouth a lot in close-up, there are objects with tongues (in this case singing shoes) and there’s a beautiful clay woman, who shares features with the woman in ‘Dimensions of Dialogue‘ (1982), apparently because the same template has been used.

Highlights form the deformations of the singer’s head, whose features have been reproduced very well in the clay model, and the clip’s finale, in which the woman emerges from the wall to embrace the singer, and drawing him into the wall, leaving the room empty.

Watch ‘Another Kind of Love’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Another Kind of Love’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Virile Games © Jan SvankmajerŠvankmajer’s films in the communist years preceding the velvet revolution of 1989 show a lighter tone than his earlier films. It’s like one can breath some of the thawing atmosphere in Czechoslovakia during the Perestroika years.

‘Virile games’ is a typical example. Although the film contains some very graphic violence, the film remains a rather cartoony atmosphere, and its end is rather tongue-in-cheek.

In ‘Virile Games’ we follow a mustached man watching a football match on the television. It’s a very weird soccer match, however: all players have the spectator’s face, and scoring happens by killing the opponents. These killings occur in the most bizar ways, all deforming the opponent’s head till the player drops dead. One opponent for example is killed with cake forms, another by toy train….

In the second half the football match moves to the spectator’s own home, and the killing continues with the man’s own kitchen tools. However, tied to his screen, the man keeps watching the television set, not noticing that the violence  occurs just around him.

In this film Švankmajer blends live action, stop motion, rather Terry Gilliam-like cut-out animation and pixillation with the stunning  self-assurance of a mature film maker. Especially the clay-animation is top-notch. Like Georges Schwizgebel’s ‘Hors-jeu‘ (1977) the film directly couples soccer to violence, a clear indication of the author’s worries about growing football hooliganism. Apart from that, the film shows the maker’s trademark ingredients, like his obsession with food.

Watch ‘Virile Games’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Virile Games’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Mark Baker
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Hill Farm © Mark Baker‘The Hill Farm’ is a long animation film exploring man’s relation to nature.

First we watch the inhabitants of the hill farm themselves: simple farmers, who know the dangers and hardships of nature, and who treat their livestock without romanticism (as exemplified by the farmer’s wife killing chicken without ado).

At one point the hill farm is visited by tourists, who are completely alienated from nature. One of them faints at the sight of the farmer’s wife killing a chicken. When confronted by nature’s dangers (as embodied by a gigantic bear-like beast) they don’t recognize the danger at all. To them nature is something to visit, something to make snapshots from. The third party is a group of huntsmen, who (try to) kill everything in sight, including even the farmer’s bees.

The whole film takes place at a leisurely speed, without dialogue. Mark Baker’s visual style is simple, but very effective. His angular designs and graphic backgrounds are beautiful, and his animation has a unique timing, which is as comical as it is to the point. The narration is very open, leaving the interpretation to the viewer. The end result is one of the most beautiful animation films of the 1980’s.

Watch ‘The Hill Farm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Hill Farm’ is available on the DVD Box Set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’

Director: René Laloux
Release Date: January 28, 1988
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Gandahar © René Laloux‘Gandahar’ was to be René Laloux’s last feature, and like his former two feature films, ‘La planète sauvage‘ (1973) and ‘Les maîtres du temps‘ (1982), it’s a science fiction film set on a strange planet.

The film is especially related to ‘Les maîtres du temps’. Not only in visual style, but also with its story line involving mindless oppressors and time travelling. This time we’re on the paradise-like planet Gandahar, which is suddenly attacked by a powerful, yet unknown force. Soldier Sylvain is send away to find out who these enemies are…

‘Gandahar’ is the least successful of Laloux’s features. Its story, based on a 1969 novel by Jean-Pierre Andrevon, is entertaining enough, but the film’s narrative style is terrible. Practically everything that’s happening is explained by the main characters to us, even when we as viewers had come to our own conclusions. This is most preposterous in an early scene in which Sylvain finds his love interest Airelle, who immediately exclaims she’s falling in love with our hero. This must be one of the worst love scenes ever put to the animated screen.

The film’s ultimate villain is rather surprising, as is his downfall, even though he’s killed off ridiculously easily. Strangely enough the creature is given a long death scene, before the film abruptly ends. We don’t even watch Sylvain reunite with his love interest! Not that we did care, anyway, for the film’s main protagonists are as characterless as possible.

It’s a pity, for the film’s aesthetics are quite okay for a 1980s film. The animation, by a North-Korean studio, is fair, if not remarkable, and the designs by French comic book artist Philippe Caza are adequately otherwordly. Sure, he’s no Moebius, let alone a Roland Topor, and he never reaches the strangeness of the latter’s fantastic planet from 1973. In fact the film rarely succeeds in escaping the particularly profane visual style of the 1980s (e.g. ‘Heavy Metal’). Most interesting are the backgrounds, and Gabriel Yared’s musical score, which is inspired and which elevates the film to a higher level.

Watch ‘Gandahar’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Nicole van Goethem
Release Date: 1985
Rating:
Review:

Een Griekse tragedie © Nicole van Goethem‘A Greek Tragedy’ won an Academy Award and the first prize at the Annecy Inernational Film Festival. I remain puzzled why.

‘A Greek Tragedy’ was Van Goethem’s first own film. It’s a classic gag cartoon featuring three living, scarcely clad female caryatids supporting an old ruin. When the ruin crumbles, and they’re finally free, we watch them dancing into the distance.

The designs are trite, the synthesizer music is ugly, the humor is poor, and the story forgettable. If this short has a hidden, perhaps feminist message, it’s lost on me. And then to imagine, that one of the short’s competitors for the Oscars was ‘Luxo jr.’, a far more convincing and rewarding film in every respect!

Watch ‘Een Griekse tragedie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Een Griekse tragedie’ is available on the DVD Box Set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: August 3, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Alice © Jan SvankmajerOf all classic literature, Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is certainly the most dreamlike, and it’s no wonder that it came to the attention of Czech master surrealist Jan Švankmajer.

Already in 1971 he had made a film on Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, but arguably, this film has little to do with the poem. ‘Alice’ continues the surreal atmosphere of his earlier film and remains faithful to the book.

‘Alice’ was Jan Švankmajer’s first feature length film, and it really shows his craft and strikingly original vision. It is one of the best, probably the most original, and certainly the most disturbing film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s world famous book. In any case, it’s among the best animated features of all time.

Where the Walt Disney version focused on the loony, fantastic parts of the story, Švankmajer emphasizes its irrational, surreal character. Švankmajer puts the story in a setting completely his own. Although the film opens with the classic opening near the brook, after the titles, the action takes place mostly indoors, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere typical for this film, only matched by Švankmajer’s second feature film, ‘Faust’ (1994). In Švankmajer’s film ‘wonderland’ consists of an endless string of dirty old rooms, connected by many doors and desks with drawers, all of which the knob comes off. Even the lovely garden is no more than a stage with props.

The drawer knobs form the running gag in a movie which is low on humor, but high on unsettling and impressive images, starting with the stuffed rabbit suddenly coming to life and smashing the glass of its glass display with its scissors. Other highly memorable scenes are the stuffed rabbit eating sawdust, which falls out again its open belly; the mouse cooking on Alice’s head, the room of hole-digging socks; and the mindless and mechanical repetition of the mad tea-party scene, timed to perfection.

Švankmajer’s wonderland is a morbid world. Its inhabitants are stuffed animals, dolls, playing cards, and even a bunch of macabre fantasy creatures, oddly joined together from body parts from different animals and lifeless objects, and which form a real threat to the little girl. In this world, anything can become alive, as demonstrated by e.g. Alice’s own socks. At the same time, Alice remains the only really living thing, and even she turns into a doll three times. Death, too, is near: at one point in the film we see the mouse, still in his clothes, caught by a mousetrap, dead. And in Švankmajer’s wonderland, the queen of heart’s orders are executed, and several characters are decapitated, including the mad hatter and the march hare…

‘Alice’ uses a perfect blend of stop motion and live action, and has an excellent protagonist in young actor Kristýna Kohoutová. If the film has one flaw, it must be girl’s voice, which provides all the dialogue and narration. It’s often unwelcome and out of place, and it doesn’t really work well in dialogue-rich scenes, like the mad tea scene or the trial scene.

Švankmajer is at his best when the action is silent and the images speak for themselves. These scenes are greatly added by superb sound design, provided by Ivo Špalj and Robert Jansa, which add to the creepy, wretched atmosphere of the film. ‘Alice’ is certainly not your average family film, but the viewer who dares to enter this film’s unique world, will not be disappointed.

Watch the trailer for ‘Alice’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Fyodor Khitruk
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Lion and Ox © Soyuzmultfilm‘Lion and Ox’ is one of Fyodor Khitruk’s most serious films. It’s a very beautiful short about an ox who befriends a lion. Unfortunately, a devious little fox sets the two against each other, with fatal results.

This simple fable is told without words. They’re not necessary, for the animation is stunning. Apart from the fox, the animals are animated very reallistically, but they still retain a strong sense of emotion, telling the tale in expressions. The designs are very graphic, with beautiful ink lines. The backgrounds, too, are gorgeous, and reminiscent of Chinese paintings in their suggestions of the savanna by using a few powerful paintbrushes.

Watch ‘Lion and Ox’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope © Krátky FilmAfter his not all too successful adaptation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘ (1980), Czech film maker Jan Švankmajer returns to Edgar Allen Poe with ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’, with much better results.

In ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ Švankmajer tries to visualize Edgar Allen Poe’s most sensory and scariest story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. He succeeds masterfully, merging the viewer with the protagonist, and retaining the horror of the discoveries of the torture chamber.

The story is told very straightforward, in black and white, without dialogue, voice over or music, giving it a raw and uncanny sense of realism. Švankmajer rejects Poe’s deus ex machina, however, but takes the story to a better, if more depressing conclusion.

‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ is essentially a live action movie, and contains little animation. However, in its disturbing take on Poe it is one of Švankmajer’s masterpieces, and definitely deserves to be better known.

Watch ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ yourself and tell me what you think:

https://vk.com/video101655_142703210?list=141142ca159bb76093

‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Down to the Cellar © Slovenská filmová tvorbaIn ‘Down to the Cellar’ Jan Švankmajer explores the fears of a child.

The film’s story is pretty straightforward: we watch a little girl (engagingly played by young Monika Belo-Cabanová) descending the stairs. She has to fetch some potatoes in a deep, dark cellar. However, her task will not be an easy one. Already her way down the stairs to the cellar is frightening, when she’s hindered by two adults who regard her all too knowlingly.

In the cellar, the girl sees strange things happening, like old shoes fighting over her croissant, and a cat growing to gigantic proportions. Even the potatoes won’t cooperate, rolling back into the case she picked them from. Worse, the cellar appears to be inhabited by the same two adults, who perform strange rites for her very eyes. Their invitations to the girl are dubious, and luckily the girl declines. Unfortunately, at the end of the short, she has to face her fears, once again.

‘Down to the Cellar’ contains a hard to define, but strong and disturbing threat of child abuse. The short is mostly shot in live action, and contains only a little stop motion animation. However, it’s arguably Švankmajer’s most moving film. Švankmajer keeps the child’s perspective throughout the movie, and we immediately sympathize with the little girl and her plight, sharing her state of wonder, fear and despair.

Švankmajer would explore the film’s theme again in his fourth feature film, ‘Otesánek’ (2000).

Watch ‘Down the Cellar’ yourself and tell me what you think:

https://vk.com/video5061134_164400011

‘Down the Cellar’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

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