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Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: September 10, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

‘Lekce Faust’ (literally ‘Lesson Faust’) is Jan Švankmajer’s second feature film. It contains much less animation than his first feature film ‘Něco z Alenky’ (Alice) from 1988 and can be considered his first live action movie.

However, this film is still much connected to his earlier work, mostly through the use of life-sized puppets, which goes all the way back to ‘Don Šajn’ (Don Juan) from 1969, and of advanced clay animation, which Švankmajer first used in ‘Možnosti dialogu’ (Dimensions of Dialogue) in 1982. Moreover, there’s little dialogue in the film, with the first lines only appearing after 15 minutes. Instead, the film relies heavily on stark imagery and exquisite sound design (there’s no musical soundtrack), just like in animation film. The English dub, by the way, is excellent, and there’s no need to find the original Czech version.

Švankmajer retells the story of Faust in his own unique way, with an inner logic that is unique to his brand of surrealism. For this Švankmajer uses texts from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two Faust plays (1808 & 1832), as well as Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus from 1592, enhanced with text traditions from Czech puppet theater productions based on the same legend. Even a part from Charles Gounod’s opera ‘Faust’ from 1859 is used in a scene that features four ballerinas and which is probably the least essential and least successful episode in the entire film.

Importantly, the film stars an unnamed everyman (played by the deadpan Petr Čepek in his last role before his death in 1994), who’s slowly lured into the devil’s clutches. By using the most common protagonist imaginable we’re given the opportunity to live the nightmare the man experiences ourselves. There’s a sense of ‘this could happen to anyone’, with which we enter the bizarre series of events.

The film starts with two characters handing out copies of a map with a red spot but no explanation to passers-by. Our man gets one, too, and has a short look at it, before he discards the piece of paper. Nevertheless, immediately strange omens pile up around him: he watches a doll’s head getting crushed between two doors, a black chicken flees his home apartment, and when he goes eating he finds an egg inside his bread. As soon as he opens the egg, the man seems to be lost, and the next day he goes exploring…

The film mostly takes place indoors, and like in ‘Alice’ there’s a genuinely claustrophobic feel to it, with a total lack of logic with which the different spaces are connected. This of course contributes to the nightmarish atmosphere that stays throughout the feature. Nevertheless, Švankmajer occasionally returns to outdoor scenes, sometimes very abruptly, with staged sets switching to scenes taking place in nature, parks or ruins, and vice versa. But sometimes more naturally, with the man reentering the streets of Prague a couple of times.

Yet our hero never stays out of the clutches of the devils for long, and all too soon his curiosity brings him back to the theater set where he more or less has to play his part. For a long while, the man takes the whole play for a joke. It certainly doesn’t help that the part of the good angel is played by a puppet as well, making the man’s only chance to repent by all means a rather silly occasion. Thus only too late the man realizes that the devil will indeed collect his soul.

As the film progresses, the man transforms more and more into the character of Faust, and he becomes more and more a puppet himself. Indeed, several important scenes, like the signing with the blood, take place in puppet form. While the man becomes a puppet more and more himself, the puppets around him seem to behave more and more freely. First they are only seen operated by anonymous stage hands. But later we watch a devil, who’s summoned by the Jester, walking in and out of the street by himself. Later still, we can clearly see a puppet of a queen breathing, making its stagy death all the more poignant.

Like the man himself, the viewer has a hard time following the surreal course of events, but the film nevertheless progresses slowly but steadily to its logical and macabre conclusion. The film ends with the cycle starting all over again: as the man flees the devil’s place in horror, another one enters. But the man cannot escape the devil’s clutches: if the devil may not be able to take him in his puppet form, he’ll do it in real life, on the streets of Prague…

Despite the dark subject matter, there’s room for some comedy. For example, when the burning wagon rides off stage, it’s followed by a fireman in a cartoon fashion. More comic relief comes from a Jester puppet, who speaks in rhyme, and whose lines clearly come from the puppet theater tradition. In a way the Jester is smarter than his master, being able to tame a devil without losing his soul to it. Scarier, but still amusing are a bum carrying a severed leg, and the two men from the first scene, who return several times, showing their playfully mischievous characters repeatedly, e.g. making the man pay for all their beers, and stealing snacks during intermission.

Animation reoccurs throughout the film, which nevertheless remains essentially a live action movie. For animation lovers highlight is a rather unsettling scene in which the man creates life, which quickly ages and transforms into a gruesome skull. This is done in Švankmajer’s characteristic virtuoso clay animation. A highlight of puppet animation is a short scene in which little devils molest and abuse little angels in order to make Faust sign his soul away.

The Best scene of the whole film, however, features little animation. This is when the man summons Mephistopheles. This scene is full of compelling images, with brooms dusting as if they were alive, drums playing themselves, crossbows appearing from pillars, and a burning wagon circling the summoner. During this scene the scenery changes from indoor to outdoor repeatedly, with the man finding himself in the woods, on top of a mountain and on a snowy plain.

Švankmajer tests the general viewer with his typical way of filming, using extreme close-ups, virtually no dialogue, fair use of puppetry and stiff old fashioned language during the staged parts. But viewers who stay are rewarded with a deeply layered film that will cling into the back of the mind for quite a while after viewing. To me ‘Lekce Faust’ is the best of his feature films, and together with ‘Jabberwocky’ (1971) and ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ it forms the pinnacle of the Czech master’s art.

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

‘Lekce Faust’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: December 14, 1908
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Les frères Boutdebois © Émile Cohl‘Les frères Boutdebois’ are two wooden puppets who perform some acrobatic tricks against a theatrical backdrop.

The film contains no story and ends abruptly, but the stop-motion is quite good, and an enormous improvement on ‘Japon de faintasie‘. The two puppets seem to have some character, and the trick photography is pretty convincing.

Somehow this short little film seems the direct ancestor of Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion films, both in animation style and in atmosphere, even though this film lacks Švankmajer’s surrealism (or that of Cohl’s own ‘Fantasmagorie’ for that matter).

Watch ‘Les frères Boutdebois’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les frères Boutdebois’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

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

Flora © Jan Svankmajer‘Flora’ is an ultra-short film made for MTV. It only lasts 30 seconds.

In it we watch a woman who’s tied down to a hospital bed. She apparently consists partly of vegetables, which are quickly rotting away, as if life is leaving her by the seconds. There’s a relieving glass of water nearby, but out of her reach. This is a puzzling and rather unsettling image, which knows no release.

Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers, and her features resemble that of a Giuseppe Arcimboldo-character, another homage by Švankmajer to the Renaissance-master, after ‘Dimensions of Dialogue‘ (1982). But how did the goddess come into this setting of utter distress? Watching her decaying alive is painful, even within this short time-frame.

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

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

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 bizarre 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 pixilation 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: 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 the 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:

‘Alice’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1982
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Dimensions of Dialogue © Krátky filmTogether with ‘Jabberwocky‘ (1971), ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue’ can be considered Švankmajer’s masterpiece. It mixes excellent design with virtuoso animation and astonishingly original story material.

With ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue’ Švankmajer defined a style he would maintain into the early 1990s, resulting in most of his best films, including the feature lengths ‘Alice‘ (1987) and ‘Faust‘ (1994). ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue’ contains three different ‘dialogues’, without using any real dialogue in the soundtrack. These three dialogues are pure visual encounters, making this film very universal.

Like in all his films, Švankmajer’s visual language is highly surreal. Yet, the three dialogues follow their own inescapable inner logic, with disturbing results. The film does not as much feature dialogue as well as rather violent clashes. It seems to show the inability of humans to communicate.

The first, ‘Factual dialogue’, is the most violent of the three episodes. It shows three heads moving in a 2-dimensional space. The three heads are clearly inspired by renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo and consist of food, household tools and office equipment, respectively. The heads devour eachother, destroying their parts more and more before spitting them out. Like ‘Et Cetera‘ (1966) there is a sense of pointlessness in this endless string of violence, which tells something about humanity.

The second part, ‘A passionate dialogue’, is the most virtuoso episode of the three. ‘In this part Švankmajer and his animating collaborator Vlasta Pospíšilová introduce a new level in claymation. The film features a stunningly realistic human couple made out of clay. The man and woman are animated beautifully when they embrace passionately, until they become one moving lump of clay of pure desire. When they part again, however, there’s some leftover: a little lump of formless clay yearning for affection. Unfortunately, neither of the two lovers accepts this petty piece of clay, and the innocent leftover brings the couple to rage. In their conflict they once again become a clay lump, but now one of utter destruction…

The third part, ‘An exhausting dialogue’, is the most comical one, and seems to portray a discussion going haywire. It features two realistic heads on a table, producing a toothbrush and toothpaste, bread and butter, a shoe and a shoelace and a pencil and a sharper in more and more absurd combinations to the exhaustion of both. The soundtrack is perfect throughout the picture, but exceptionally so in this third part in its combination of Jan Klusák’s music and train sounds.

‘Dimensions of a Dialogue’ is inexplicable, but communicates on a subconscious level, like all great surreal art. It perfectly shows the power of animation in showing the human condition using the very outskirts of imagination. The result is no less than one of best animation films ever.

Watch ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’ and on the DVD ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1980
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Fall of the House of Usher © Krátky FilmJan Švankmajer retells this famous story by Edgar Allen Poe using a narrating voice over and black and white images of several different objects.

The images, some of which are animated, are sometimes quite disturbing, and are at points even able to evoke the horror of the story. However, most of the time they seem totally unrelated to the narration, and their visual power in fact often distracts from the voice over, making the story very hard to follow, indeed.

‘The House of Usher’ is a daring experiment in cinematographic storytelling, but not really a successful one, and Švankmajer would not repeat it. Nevertheless, three years later, the Czech film maker would return to Edgar Allen Poe, in ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope‘, with much better results.

Watch ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Keith Griffiths, Quay Brothers
Airing Date: 1984
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer © Quay Brothers‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is a documentary about the Czech master of surrealism.

It was made by the Quay Brothers with the sole purpose of being able to watch Švankmajer’s films themselves. Advertised to the BBC as a documentary on French and Czech surrealism, the film is rather highbrow, featuring artists and art historians, whose remarks are sometimes very difficult to grasp, indeed.

Unfortunately, the master himself refused to be interviewed and he is not shown at all. Luckily, Švankmajer’s strong images speak for themselves, and the documentary undoubtedly helped to raise interest in Švankmajer’s films in the West.

The documentary shows excerpts from Švankmajer’s films ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue‘ (which de facto is shown in its entirety), ‘The Last Trick‘, ‘The Flat’, ‘Et Cetera‘, ‘Jabberwocky‘, ‘Historia Naturae, Suita‘, ‘The Ossuary‘, ‘Games with Stones‘, ‘Punch and Judy’, ‘Don Juan‘ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘.

However, ‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is also interesting for animation buffs, even for the one who have seen all Jan Švankmajer’s films, for its original interludes, which are animated by the Quay brothers. These interludes have a truly Švankmajer-like atmosphere, highlighted by the reuse of music from Švankmajer’s films. They feature a Švankmajer-like teacher, made of household objects, and his apprentice, a doll, whose head is emptied in order to let him experience the world anew.

These interludes are no less than wonderful and form an animation short in itself, which is both a great homage to the Czech master and a showcase of the Quay brothers’ own art. In fact, the Quay Brothers compiled the interludes and these are available and widely known under the same name as the complete documentary, which is, in fact, eclipsed by the animated short version.

Watch the animated interludes from ‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1971
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Leonardo's Diary © Jan SvankmajerAnimated sketches of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are alternated with excerpts from stock live action films.

Atypically for Jan Švankmajer, this film uses pencil animation only (except for a short stop motion segment of a pencil drawing a hand). The animation of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings is both stunning and very convincing. Unfortunately, the nonsensical interruptions with stock film wear the film down, rendering a boring film with an unclear message.

Nevertheless, the Czech communist authorities responded negatively to Švankmajer’s unauthorized post-production of this film, with the incorporation of images related to daily life – presuming a hidden political message. So after ‘Leonardo’s Diary’ Švankmajer was forced to lay down his work for seven years. Only in 1979 he would make the start of a second career, in which he would produce his best films. However, Švankmajer would never return to drawn animation, and ‘Leonardo’s Diary’ remains the only testimony of his skills in this form of art.

Watch ‘Leonardo’s Diary’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Leonardo’s Diary’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1970
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Ossuary © Jan Svankmajer‘The Ossuary’ is a commissioned documentary film about a Czech chapel in Sedlec, which is decorated with thousands of bones and skulls of victims of the 1318 plague and of the Hussite wars of 1421.

Two versions of this film exists: one with a soundtrack of a rather mundane guide guiding a group of children, in which she repeatedly warns not to touch the bones on a penalty of fifty crowns. Her tour is mixed with the uncanny sound of a rattling bicycle. For unclear reasons this soundtrack was considered subversive and forbidden by the Czechoslowakian regime. Therefore a second version was made using a jazz soundtrack.

In both versions the soundtrack conflicts with the morbid images, which are composed in a rhythmical way that even appeals when watched silently. The film contains no animation, but is full of Švankmajer’s idiosyncratic cinematography.

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

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

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1969
Rating: ★★
Review:

A Quiet Week in the House © Jan Svankmajer‘A Quiet Week in the House’ is the last film in a series of four involving people facing surreal settings, which Švankmajer made in 1968-1969.

in this film a fugitive seeks shelter in an abandoned house. Every day he digs a hole in one of the doors of the corridor in which he sleeps. Every day he looks through the hole to watch weird surrealistic images of inanimate things behaving strangely. After a week he sets up a device to blow up all doors.

The live action footage is shot in black-and-white, and is accompanied by the sound of a camera. The surrealistic images, on the other hand, are shot in color and completely silent. Unfortunately, the film is too long, and it fails to be as impressive as related films like ‘The flat’ (1968) or ‘Jabberwocky‘ (1971), being neither completely disturbing nor very entertaining. ‘A Quiet Week in the House’ remains one of Švankmajer’s rare weak films.

Watch ‘A Quiet Week in the House’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Quiet Week in the House’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1967
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Historia Naturae, Suita © Jan Svankmajer‘Historia Naturae, Suita’ is an abstract, yet morbid and disturbing film.

It uses drawings, models, skeletons, stuffed and live animals, which change into each other and which perform morbid dances. Their antics are interspersed with a close up of a man eating meat.

We see molluscs (Aquatilia, foxtrot), insects (Hexapoda, bolero), fish (Pisces, blues), reptiles (Reptilia, tarantella), birds (Aves, tango), mammals (Mammalia, menuet), monkeys (Simiae, polka) and man (Homo, waltz), successively.

It shows us that we, men, are made from the same mortal matter as the rest of the animal kingdom, which in this film appear to us only as collectibles or food. This unsettling reminder is emphasized by the last shot, in which the human is replaced by a skull, eating…

The music is a perfect match to the surrealistic imagery, with its rather abstract, uncanny and atonal renderings of the dance forms mentioned.

Watch ‘Historia Naturae, Suita’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://www.totalshortfilms.com/ver/pelicula/379

‘Historia Naturae, Suita’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1966
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Et Cetera © Jan SvankmajerIn ‘Et Cetera’ three faceless human figures demonstrate repetitive and aimless actions.

The first shows how to fly with wings, only to reach his own starting point. The second transforms himself into the animal he’s training using a whip, and the third keeps on drawing houses he cannot enter or leave.

Unlike most of Jan Švankmajer’s films, ‘Et Cetera’ uses 2d animation. It’s a clever and somehow saddening film: although the three little stories are extremely simple, they seem to tell something about the condition humaine. ‘Et Cetera’ uses great electronic music, which adds to the surrealistic atmosphere.

Watch ‘Et Cetera’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Et Cetera’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1965
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

A Game With Stones © Jan SvankmajerIn ‘A Game with Stones’ (also known by its German title ‘Spiel mit Steinen’) an odd construction, consisting of a clock, a tap and a bucket, produces stones by the hour. These stones form patterns to the music of a music box until the bucket is emptied, dropping the stones on the floor.

The stones’ abstract patterns are indeed game-like, but they become more and more grim, ending in a destructive game, destroying the stones, and eventually, the bucket, leaving the machine useless. The game is over. It is Švankmajer’s genius that he’s able to give this fairly abstract film a heart and an unsettling, sad ending.

‘A Game with Stones’ is Švankmajer’s first film to use stop motion animation extensively. The fourth game contains faces made of numerous small pebbles, which anticipates similar heads in ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ (1982), a film in which Švankmajer’s stop motion techniques reach a stunning apex.

Watch ‘A Game with Stones’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Game with Stones’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1964
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Last Trick © Jan SvankmajerIn ‘The Last Trick’ two magicians in large masks perform their impossible tricks one after another against a black, empty background.

Although they stay polite, their congratulationary handshakes between the tricks gradually become more and more violent, ending in a disastrous mutual disembodiment. The last shot is of the only really living organism inhabiting this surrealist world, a beetle, dead.

‘The Last Trick’ is Czech film maker Jan Švankmajer’s first film, and already his obsessions with puppets, body parts and death are full blown. Its humor is dark, its images are grim and its story is very unsettling. Švankmajer’s first film (which contains a little stop motion animation) is also his first masterpiece.

Watch ‘The Last Trick’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Last Trick’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

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