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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: Ideya Gagarina
Release Date: 1981
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Cabaret © SoyuzmultfilmBased on plays by Federico García Lorca, Cabaret (a better translation would be ‘farce’) is a puppet animation film, using puppets in a puppet theater.

The film is something of a musical and tells about the love between Donna Rosita and Don Cristobál. The music, by world famous composer Sofia Gubaidulina is odd and rather unconvincing in its avant-garde version of the musical genre.

The film falls into two parts: the first part looks most like an ordinary puppet play: it’s fast, hectic, humorous, and even vulgar, with a strong sense of eroticism. Halfway the film, however, the mood changes drastically. Don Cristobál gets rid of his strings and tears off his grotesque mask to reveal a more noble face. With that the film enters the second part, a dreamlike, lyrical one. Unfortunately, the narrative gets lost in this part, and in the end the film suffers from its length, from its meandering music and beautiful, but vague imagery.

‘Cabaret’ was Gagarina’s Fourth film, and her third after she had joined Soyuzmultfilm in 1976. In 1988 Gagarina and Gubaidulina would work together again on “The Cat That Walked by Itself”, a feature film based on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’. Unfortunately she came to a tragic end, as she was murdered in her own house in 2010.

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

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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