Jan Svankmajer: "Succumb totally to your obsessions; Keep interchanging dream for reality and vice versa"
September 23, 2012 12:13 PM   Subscribe

"Jan Švankmajer is a major figure of contemporary East European animation whose surrealistic, often macabre work owes more to the nightmarish visions of Kafka and Buñuel than to the sunny daydreams of Walt Disney and his creative progeny. Noted for investing otherwise ordinary objects with ominous overtones, Švankmajer reached his widest audience to date with a feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice" (1988) which blended animated and live-action footage--a technique he had earlier used to hair-raising effect in "Down to the Cellar" (1983)." -- TMC. Often credited with influencing the Brothers Quay, they hadn't actually seen his work until relatively late in their careers, as they mentioned in an introduction to their documentary on Švankmajer (YT playlist). More of Švankmajer inside.

Jan Švankmajer is a Czech animator and artist, born in Prague in 1939, he was given a puppetry theater for his eight birthday, and went on to study puppetry at the College of Applied Arts. A member of the Prague surrealist group, he has made 27 short films and 7 feature-length films, and has worked in various additional artistic functions on a few films. From 1972 to 1979, he was blacklisted from making any films by the Communist Party, during which time he worked instead with sculpture, ceramics, poetry and other static art forms, resulting in a body of work he refers to as his "tactile experiments." Some of his static art and the art of his wife, Eva Švankmajerová, at his gallery, Galerie Gambra.

For quite a while, it was hard to obtain copies of Švankmajer's works, but there were fans of his surreal works around the world. This Animation World Network page, last updated in 1996, highlights some of the Švankmajer's films released up to that period. In 2007, 26 shorts were collected on 2 DVDs, as reviewed and described on Cine Outsider.

You can find his 27 shorts online, along with his first five films. Many films are without spoken language, some are only in Czech, and others have been dubbed or were released in English:

The Last Trick (1964)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy in G minor (1965)
A Game with Stones (1965)
Punch and Judy (1966)
Et Cetera (1966)
Historia Naturae (Suita) (1967)
The Garden (1968)
The Flat (1968)
Picnic With Weissmann (1968)
A Quiet Week in the House (1969)
Don Juan (1970)
The Ossuary (1970)
Jaberwocky (1971)
Leonardo's Diary (1972)
Castle Of Otranto (1973-1979)
The Fall Of The House Of Usher, part 2 (1980) with English subs
Dimensions of Dialogue (1982)
Down to the Cellar (1983)
The Pendulum, The Pit And Hope (1983)
Virile Games (1988)
Another Kind of Love (music video for Hugh Cornwell) (1988)
Meat Love (1989)
Darkness/ Light/ Darkness (1990)
Flora (1989)
Animated Self Portraits (1989), or just watch Jan's portrait
The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990)
Food (1992)

Feature length films:
Alice (1988)
Faust (1994)
Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)
Little Otik (2000)
Lunacy (2005) Czech, with Italian subs

If you want more personal insight, here's an interview with Švankmajer, circa 1997, and The Decalogue of Jan Švankmajer, or ten rules that guide his work, as written by Švankmajer himself.

And one final documentary: The animator of Prague (1990) BBC
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 96 users marked this as a favorite
I saw Alice about 10 years ago, expecting something akin to a Wallace and Grommet version of Alice in Wonderland.


Hard-core nightmare fuel.
posted by pla at 12:20 PM on September 23, 2012

Warning: If you found Alice to be nightmare fuel, some of his later films get even more twisted.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:22 PM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, yessssss. Thank you! My Sunday's done for.
posted by heyho at 12:29 PM on September 23, 2012

Holy crap! Thanks for putting all these shorts together in one spot! There are a number of people I'd like to introduce to Svank (as I affectionately refer to him), but his best (in my opinion) work is strew across any number of best-of compilations.

His stuff is delightfully creepy. I love it.

Someone told me a while back that Alice has a bunch of political overtones you'd only get if you were familiar with communist-era Czech politics. I can neither confirm nor deny these rumors.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:29 PM on September 23, 2012

Awesome - introducing people to Svankmajer is one of my life purposes, you have just made it many times easier. And I know very little about his wife, so I especially appreciate that link. Thanks!
posted by Stacey at 12:39 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Amazing Collection, thank you!
posted by homodigitalis at 1:07 PM on September 23, 2012

So glad this is not the obituary post I thought it was!

I thought you were missing the excellent Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner clips, but I see they are included as the "Food" video. Don't miss that one! "Darkness, Light, Darkness" is another favourite.
posted by oulipian at 2:03 PM on September 23, 2012

I saw Alice for the first time on its first UK run, in the late 1980s. I'm not boasting, just trying to give you some context for when I tell you that I was on a first date, and the person I was with had needed a bit of convincing to go and see an animated movie.

It ended swiftly and not particularly well.
posted by Hogshead at 2:32 PM on September 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Švankmajer's Muzné hry (here as "Virile Games," but perhaps better as "Manly Games") really gives the flavor and excitement of a well-played soccer match. American football doesn't come close.
posted by Nomyte at 2:45 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

It ended swiftly and not particularly well.

I had the same experience, only the film in question was one of Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle.
posted by acb at 3:06 PM on September 23, 2012

Ha! The Date Breaker movie for me was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Anyway, I've tried to watch Alice several times now, while very cool looking but man, does it drag. I've fallen asleep twice while watching it, with some ...interesting ... dreams as a result. The other two times I got bored. Maybe the shorts films are more my speed.
posted by KingEdRa at 5:07 PM on September 23, 2012

Came here to recommend Meat Love :)
posted by victory_laser at 5:25 PM on September 23, 2012

“...said the White Rabbit...”

I always thought Alice would have been a little better as a purely wordless movie. Or maybe it’s just the English versions of the voice overs? (Or are the lines merely JS’s excuse for creepy mouth close-ups?)

Conspirators of Pleasure is one of my all-time favorites. A perfect combination of creepy, bleak, true to life, and hilariously silly.
posted by mubba at 6:41 PM on September 23, 2012

I love his Faust so much.
posted by Brainy at 7:55 PM on September 23, 2012

I experienced Little Otik in the theatre. Seriously messed up...and awesome...and an experience.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 7:58 PM on September 23, 2012

Someone took me to see Lunacy as an early date and having somehow convinced myself I had no interest at the time in "art films" I almost bailed. Instead, I became an instant Svenkmajer fan AND my date and I are together some 6 years later. Thanks Jan and your animated meat!
posted by thecjm at 9:26 PM on September 23, 2012

"Decalogue" link points at this thread--please fix if you could, I'd be very interested in that.
posted by skwt at 10:41 PM on September 23, 2012

Just stopped in to ask if there's been a novelization of "Little Otik"?
posted by sammyo at 3:48 AM on September 24, 2012

Mod note: Fixed the "Decalogue" link.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:39 AM on September 24, 2012

Švankmajer has a permanent place in my heart. My creepy, off-kilter beating, with dim flickering lights, pulsating, sliding just out of view, heaving heart.

(j/k, no medical problems here!)

Conspirators of Pleasure and Food are my favourites.
posted by Theta States at 6:30 AM on September 24, 2012

Thank you! I love Alice and have always meant to check out more of his work. You just made that about a billion times easier for me.
posted by jessypie at 11:31 AM on September 25, 2012

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