Švankmajer, Jan

views updated


Animator and Director. Nationality: Czech. Born: Prague, 4 September 1934. Education: Attended the Arts and Crafts School, Prague, 1950–54; Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (DAMU), Prague, 1954–58. Family: Married Eva Kostelec. Career: Graphic artist and painter; 1958–64—worked in puppet theatre, in Liberec, and then formed his own Theatre of Masks in Prague; also associated with Laterna Magica and Black Theatre; 1964—first film as director, The Last Trick; member of surrealist group in Prague; 1974—began experimentation with "touch objects." Award: Golden Bear award, Berlin Film Festival, for Mozenosti dialogu, 1982; Karlovy-Vary Festival, Special Jury Prize, for Lekce Faust, 1994.

Films as Writer and Director:


Poslední trik pana Schwarzwalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick of Mr. Schwarzwald and Mr. Edgar) (+ prod design)


J.S. Bach: Fantasia G-Moll (J.S. Bach: Fantasy in G Minor) (short) (+ prod design); Spiel mit Steinen (A Game with Stones) (short) (+ prod design)


Rakvickárna (Punch and Judy) (short) (+ prod design); Et cetera (short) (+ prod design)


Historia naturae (short) (+ prod design)


Zahrada (The Garden) (short); Byt (The Flat) (short); Picnick mit Weismann (Picnic with Weisman) (short) (+ prod design)


Tichy tyden v domee (A Quiet Week in a House) (short) (+ prod design)


Kostnice (The Ossuary) (short) (+ prod design); Don Sajn (Don Juan) (+ prod design)


Jabberwocky (short) (+ prod design)


Leonarduv deník (Leonardo's Diary) (short)


Otrantsky zámek (The Castle of Otranto) (short) (+ prod design)


Zanik domu Usheru (The Fall of the House of Usher) (short) (+ prod design)


Mozenosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue) (short) (+ prod design); Do pivnice (Down to the Cellar) (short)


Kyvadlo, jáma, a nadeeje (The Pit, the Pendulum, and Hope) (+ prod design)




Muzné Hry (Virile Games) (short) (+ prod design); Another Kind of Love (short) (+ prod design); Autoportrét (Self-Portraits) (short)


Zamilované maso (Meat in Love) (short); Tma-svetlo-tma (Darkness-Light-Darkness) (short) (+ prod design); Flora (short) (+ prod design)


Konec stalinismu v Cechách (The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia) (short) (+ prod design)


Jídlo (Food) (short) (+ prod design)


Lekce Faust (+ prod design)


Spikelenci slasti


Otesánek (+ prod design)

Other Films:


Faust (Radok) (puppeteer)


Ceíslice (Ciphers) (Procházka) (art d)


Adéla jeste nevecerela (Adela Hasn't Had Her Supper Yet) (Lipsky) (co-art d; animator)


Hodinárova svatební cesta korálovym moren (Svoboda)


Blazni vodníci a podvodníci (Fools, Water Sprites, and Imposters) (Svoboda)


Tajemstvi hradu v Karpatech (The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians) (Lipsky) (co-art d; animator); Monstrum z galaxie Arkana (Monsters from the Arcane Galaxy) (Vukotic) (designer of monster)


Barrandovské nocturno aneb Jak film tancil a zpíval (Barrandov Nocturne, or How Films Dance and Sing) (Sís) (animator) (short)


Skalpel, prosím (Scalpel, Please) (Svoboda) (co-art d)



Hmat a imaginace, Prague, 1995.

Editor, Otevreená hra (surrealist anthology), Prague, n.d.

Opak zrcadla (surrealist anthology), Prague, n.d.

Transmutace smyslu [Transmutation of the Senses], Prague, n.d.

Dark Alchymie, London, n.d.

By ŠVANKMAJER: articles—

Film a Doba (Prague), no. 5, 1982.

Positif (Paris), November 1985.

Dryje, F., "Jan Švankmajer. Rozhovor. Tri filmy Jana Švankmajera," an article and interview by F. Dryje, Film a Doba (CZ), Spring 1991.

"A Faust Buck," an interview with Geoff Andrew, Time Out (UK), September 7, 1994.

Švankmajer, Jan, "Coming Attractions," in Time Out (UK), February 12, 1997.

On ŠVANKMAJER: articles—

Film a Doba (Prague), no. 10, 1966.

Poseová, Katereina, in Film a Doba (Prague), no. 7, 1968.

Film a Doba (Prague), no. 9, 1969.

Horeejseí, Jan, in Magazín Kina (Prague), 1969–70.

Effenberger, Vratislav, in Film a Doba (Prague), no. 3, 1972.

Banc-Titre (Paris), no. 1–2, 1978.

Sauvaget, Daniel, in Image et Son (Paris), June 1978.

Positif (Paris), November 1979.

Svab, Ludvik, in Film a Doba (Prague), no. 10, 1984.

Zvoníceek, Petr, in Film a Divadlo (Bratislava), no. 19, 1984.

O' Pray, Mike, "In the Capital of Magic," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1986 + filmo.

Special Švankmajer Section, in Afterimage, no. 13, Autumn 1987.

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 424, October 1989.

Donald, James, in Fantasy and the Cinema, London, 1989.

O'Pray, Michael, in Het Ludicatief Principe: Jan Švankmajer, Antwerpe Film Stichtung, n.d..

Film a doba (Prague), no. 3, 1994 + filmo.

Lidové noviny (Prague), 30 September 1994.

O'Pray, Michael, "Between Slapstick and Horror," in Sight and Sound (UK), September 1994.

* * *

Ever since Jan Švankmajer's 12-minute short, Mozenosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue), won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1982 which resulted in his "discovery" by the West, this director of enigmatic animated films has become one of the world's best known contemporary Czechoslovakian artists, rivaled in renown only by Milos Forman, Milan Kundera, and Václav Havel. As a whole, his work draws from a distinctive matrix of influences and qualities, precariously synthesized as if by a magical dialectic, balancing indigenous Czechoslovakian surrealism on the one hand, with international literary sources on the other (Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allan Poe in particular). His films play off highly personal imagery and concerns against veiled political and social critique, juxtaposing violence and tenderness, humour and pathos. He and his team of collaborators (including his wife, Eva Švankmajerova), are recognized as some of the most technically accomplished animators, especially of object animation, in the business. His belated fame, after 20 years of filmmaking in relative obscurity, has had a twofold influence: inspiring a generation of independent animators working both in the commercial market and the more rarefied field of the festival circuit, while also helping to build a greater audience for a medium seen, hitherto, primarily as one only suitable for children.

Ironically, while his films are often characterized by others as "adult" animation, Švankmajer himself insists that, "I'm interested, in the first instance, in a dialogue with my own childhood. Childhood is my alter ego. . . . Animation can bring the imagery of childhood back to life and give it back its credibility. The animation of objects upholds the truth of our childhood." (Italics his.) Thus, all of Švankmajer's works, even the most abstract, like Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasia G-Moll (1965) and Spiel mit Steinen (1965), function in part as an act of reparation for the lost or repressed animistic beliefs of childhood. Many of his films feature children—Do pivnice (1983), Alice (1988)—exploring a menacing landscape of animated objets trouvés, responding alternately with fear, bravery, and retributive aggression to an incomprehensible and threatening world. One of his finest early works, Jabberwocky (1971), evokes children all the more strongly by their virtual absence, as a nursery comes to life and performs a sinister cabaret, starring dolls born from the stuffing of a larger doll, a dancing penknife that kills itself, and a sailor suit which acts as host to their performances. The spanking which opens this film is characteristic of the sadism and cruelty which pervades his work, and is especially notable in his other adaptation of Lewis Carroll, Alice, his only feature film to date. There the heroine is tempted by jars of marmalade that contain hidden drawing pins and threatened by a scissors-wielding rabbit. Like Freud, whom he greatly admires, Švankmajer is interested in exploring the obscure sexuality of childhood, the polymorphous perversity which has not yet learned to separate the animate from the ianimate as a source of pleasure, which discovers sensual delight in the materiality of objects, no matter how decrepit and tawdry. His representation of the body as a plastic site of decay and transformation, pleasure and pain, often recalls Buñuel, Borowczyk, and Fellini as well as Breton, Duchamps, and the Surrealists and Dadaist movements.

Despite the international breadth of his influences, Švankmajer's "militant surrealism" and that of the Czech Surrealist Group of which he is a long-standing member, grew as much out of the history of Prague itself—once a centre for the study of Alchemy and the Cabala in the court of Rudolf II—and from the highly decorative and stylized Mannerist style of the 16th century whose best known artist, Arcimboldo, is "quoted" in the composite heads of Dimensions of Dialogue. Czech-language marionette and puppet theatres have a long and lively history in Prague, and it was at the Black Theatre and Magic Lantern of Prague that Švankmajer served his apprenticeship and was first introduced to filmmaking. However, Švankmajer does not merely use puppetry in several films, for example The Last Trick (1964), Punch and Judy (1966), and Don Juan (1970), as much as he defamiliarizes it, exploring and exploding its narratives and recurrent tropes of violence.

Švankmajer's Mannerist mannerisms have been aped by many aspirant animators and his figures duplicated for beer commercials and pop videos, but one of the most important aspects of his work, his oblique political commentary, has proved less transferable. Like many artists living under politically repressive states, Švankmajer has had to mask his critique in ambiguous symbols, such as the menacing and senseless regime of the flat in The Flat (1968), the tea party in Alice, or the intercut shots of daily life in Leonardo's Diary (1973). The latter film so angered the authorities, Švankmajer was forbidden from doing any filmmaking for eight years. The self-confessed "work of agit-prop," The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990), made after the fall of Communism, formed a kind of animated revenge on his past oppressors, and seemed to mark a departure for his work into a new transparency of meaning, disparaged by some critics. Yet, its final images, which fade to black before it is revealed what has been "born" from the erstwhile "free" Czechoslovak state, begs more questions than the film cares to answer, a strategy reminiscent of Švankmajer's quizzical oeuvre as a whole.

—Leslie Felperin Sharman