Daily | Jan Švankmajer @ 80

Jan Švankmajer

Jan Švankmajer

A very happy 80th to the Czech artist, filmmaker and surrealist Jan Švankmajer, a major influence on the likes of Terry Gilliam and the Quay brothers. Born in Prague in 1934, he was given a puppet theater for Christmas when he was eight and eventually studied puppetry at the city’s College of Applied Arts. He worked with director Emil Radok and the Laterna Magika, founded the Theatre of Masks and would eventually join the Czechoslovkaian Surrealist Group, but first, in 1964, he directed his first short, The Last Trick. Dan North wrote about it in 2009:

For eleven minutes, two magicians do battle, and their tricks require a montage of colliding images and a range of animation techniques… Combative communication and variegated violence will recur in Dimensions of Dialogue and Virile Games amongst others…, piling up a snowballing rush of physical destruction. A number of the short films construct these repetitive, mechanical situations that continue until the mechanism breaks down, as if the film itself is wearing out its own structural circuit. While the puppethood of the characters in The Last Trick blocks the verisimilitude of the violence, it urges allegorical readings: puppets are what we use to stand in for or embody a particular theme, ideology or emotion when a human performer might pollute it with specificity and individuality. The “story” element of dueling magicians jealously escalating their competitive spectacles might be a premonitory tale of art spoiled by human partiality or commercial pressures (the winner will be he who compromises himself the most, sacrificing his body and soul for the audience’s delectation), or it might be a snapshot of how the most ferociously fought battles are internecine struggles rather than those between competing ideologies, a drama about the impossibility of compromise, of selfless dialogue.

“Švankmajer is evidently extending the fertile traditions of Czech folk puppetry of the past two centuries,” writes Jan Uhde in Kinema. “He is also continuing the renowned legacy of the Czech puppet-film and experimental animation brought to mastery by Karel Zeman (The Fabulous Baron Munchhausen), and Jiří Trnka (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Hand). Yet Švankmajer’s definition of the film puppet is considerably broader than Zeman’s or Trnka; unlike the traditionally poetic-lyrical approach of the two above-mentioned artists, this director often explores the bizarre, the dark and the absurd.”

Pam Rogers in 2002: “Švankmajer was banned from making films by the Czech government from 1972–1979 in response to the negative references to Czech politics in his film Leonardo’s Diary. During this time he created Tactile Experiments in the form of dioramas, sculptures and poetry.” When he returned to filmmaking, he “collaborated with his wife, Eva, to establish a haven for surrealists in an old chateau in Horni Stankov, near the German border.” She passed away in 2005. “Lewis Carroll, with whom he considers himself to be ‘mentally on the same side of the river,’ is one of Švankmajer’s major influences. He also pays homage to Charles Bowers (an early innovator in the combination of live and animated footage), Salvador Dalí, Sergei Eisenstein, Federico Fellini, Sigmund Freud and Walt Disney.”

“Heads devour one another in devastating conversations, objects collide painfully with mismatched intentions, lovers’ bodies melt into one in a tender embrace,” wrote Cathryn Vasseleu in 2009. “A master at extending filmic experience to include tactile as well as audiovisual sensations, Švankmajer also offers us a unique vision of the communicative powers of touch.” Also in the Animation Studies Online Journal, Meg Rickards: “The uncanny—a mysterious experience in which familiar objects or events reference unconscious material and seem suddenly and frighteningly strange—turns out to be particularly useful in revealing how character interiority is externalized in Švankmajer’s films.” The “phenomenon manifests itself in Švankmajer’s work by various means: by undermining the familiar; by enacting animism; by dismembering, repeating and doubling; and by effacing the line between life and death, and between reality and imagination.”

“With his continually growing vocabulary of technique and objects Švankmajer mines the concealed, with an anger and a sense of sabotage, to unlock surreal and ambiguous mythical vistas,” wrote Dirk de Bruyn in Senses of Cinema in 2001. “His metaphorical approach, as with many creative artists, situates him on the dark side of allegory, tapping the unconscious, a place where critique and dissent were able to creep out from under the gaze of the Communist Party’s Thought Police. Švankmajer’s work shows him to be deeply attached/connected to the history of his place, his country, in a way that keeps him to true to himself.”

For more on Švankmajer, see the Guardian, Kinoeye and Wendy Jackson‘s 1997 interview.

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