By Jennifer Elizabeth Rose (Social/Cultural Writer and Music/Arts Historian)
Jan Svankmajer, better known as the “alchemist of film” and an architect of the surreal structure, has been making films which have made their way into the consciousness of the surreal genre since the 1960’s.
He was born the year the Czech Surrealist group became a reality and was a student of puppetry as a young artist. Also a visual artist and sculptor, his unique combination of stop-motion animation, puppets and sometimes live-action, the plots he chooses are spooky and bizarre yet amusing. Anyone or anything can play the leads in his films including humans, machines, puppets, socks and shoes, clay figures, dolls, stuffed animals or other inanimate objects. His sets are what might be considered macabre, grotesque or “steampunk.”
A lot of decay figures strongly into many of his works. His homeland, then Czechoslovakia, has often been the backdrop with its elaborate yet often decaying buildings and landscapes, with echoes of the industrial revolution and communism about, rusted objects and rotting wood and furniture. Svankmajer was always cognizant of the five senses in his films, often exaggerating not only visuals, but sounds as well. He loved to point out sensory perception and speculate its effects on the viewer to bring them to another level. Perhaps that is the goal of surrealism.
Svankmajer has much admiration within the independent film community, but mainstream recognition has been sparse. However, in 1983 he won the Grand Prize for his film Dimensions of Dialogue at the 1983 Annecy Animation Festival. In 1997, The San Francisco International Film Festival bestowed Svankmajer with The Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, which is an award to recognize filmmakers who are revolutionary by working outside of traditional filmmaking.
Today Švankmajer is one of the most celebrated among animators. His most known works are his feature films Alice (1988), a dark but whimsical retelling of Alice in Wonderland; Faust (1994), a film in which he comedically borrows from the legend of Faustus; Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), a black comedy adventure of the day in the life of a Czech man; Little Otik (2000), a frightening retelling of a traditional folk tale and Lunacy (2005) based on the works of Poe and the archetype of the Marquis de Sade.
While these cherished films are some of his most popular, his short films and animations are highly recommended as a start for those new to his work. He creates shorts from an often thought provoking yet to-the-point concept that usually make the viewer want more or inspire others to create shorts themselves.
Among those who have been influenced by him include the Brothers Quay, (who made film The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer), Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame and arguably, Tim Burton.
In addition to his influence upon filmmakers and animators his direction and screenwriting have been praised and often compared to Kafka in its emotional range. Interestingly enough, his upcoming work includes another feature film for release in 2015 entitled Insects.
It should be fantastical yet oddly scientific.
Jan Svankmajer’s Filmography:
The Last Trick (1964)
A Game With Stones (1965)
J.S. Bach: Fantasy in G-Minor (1965)
Punch and Judy (1966)
Et Cetera (1966)
Historia Naturae, Suita (1967)
The Garden (1968)
Picnic with Weissman (1968)
The Flat (1968)
A Quiet Week in the House (1969)
Don Juan (1970)
Leonardo’s Diary (1972)
From 1973 to 1980 Jan was forced to “rest” by the Communist Party.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1981)
Dimensions of Dialogue (1982)
Pendulum, Pit and Hope (1983)
Down to the Cellar (1983)
Manly Games (a/k/a Virile Games) (1988)
Darkness, Light, Darkness (1989)
Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990)
The Animator of Prague (BBC Documentary about Jan, year unknown)
Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)
Little Otik (2000)
The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (2005)
The Premature Burial (2005)
Surviving Life (2010)
Insects (Upcoming, 2015)