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The work of Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer has inspired some of today’s most innovative contemporary filmmakers.  Henry Selick, director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, Tim Burton of “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Sissorhands” fame and Terry Gilliam, creator of such modern-day fables as “The Fisher King” and “Brazil” all acknowledge him as a major influence.


Jan Svankmajer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1939.  His initial venture into the world of fantasy was provided by the puppetry theater which was given to him on his eighth birthday.  His fascination with marionettes led to his attendance of the College of Applied Arts Department of Puppetry.  Here Svankmajer first encountered Surrealism, which remains a major element in his work.  Svankmajer entered the world of live theater and film in 1957.  After founding the Theater of Masks in 1960 and joining the Czech Surrealist group in 1970, Jan went on to direct and produce several films with political undertones that went against the grain of the dominant political machine.  Svankmajer 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.  These experiments in sound, color, texture and language were incorporated into his later works.  He returned to filmmaking under the governmental stipulation that he work exclusively with the literary classics.  During the 1980’s Svankmajer created many works that were banned in the Czech Republic due to his return to political satire.  Feeling the need to create a more libertine environment, Svankmajer collaborated with his wife, Eva, to establish a haven for surrealists in an old chateau in Horni Stankov, near the German border. In this haven were created some of his best-known works, including “Dimensions of Dialog” and “Alice”, a dark and brooding adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”


Lewis Carroll, with whom he considers himself to be “mentally on the same side of the river.”1 ,is one of Svankmajer’s major influences.   He also pays homage to Charles Bowers (an early innovator in the combination of live and animated footage), Salvador Dali, Sergi Eisenstein, Frederico Fellini, Sigmund Freud, and Walt Disney. Although the range of media that Svankmajer employs include live and animated film, poetry and 3-dimensional works, he is primarily known for the animated sequences in his films. He objects to being classified as an animator as he is “not interested in animation techniques or creating a complete illusion, but bringing life to everyday objects.”2


Svankmajer embraces many production techniques and styles ranging from total stop-motion animation, as in “Dimensions of Dialog”, to live footage, as in “The Ossuary.”  There are, however, many elements that all of his films have in common. The use of marionettes runs through most of his works, creating an air of the surreal.  Svankmajer’s films have a rich feel to them.  Textures and contrasts are extreme- you can feel the peeling paint on the doorway from which Alice emerges when she encounters the Caterpillar.  Ambient sounds are heightened to the point of absurdity- Alice’s footsteps on the garden path sound more like grinding bones than the light step of a child. Time has no continuity, space does not remain consistent.  The viewer is constantly kept off balance by heightened senses and absurd, grisly images. The majority of his films contain a minimum of dialog- Svankmajer prefers to let the images speak for themselves.


The most consistent element of Jan Svankmajer’s films is a dark, cynical outlook.  In “Dimensions of Dialogue” you see evidence that there is no creation without destruction.  “The Ossuary” contrasts footage of a temple made from the bones of the victims of the Black Plague with jazz music and poetry.  “Virile Games” parodies the violence found in European football. “My weapons are sarcasm, objective humor and black humor.”3   The influence of this absurdist’s view of the world can be seen in The Brothers Quay’s “Jan Svankmajer’s Cabinet” and the Selick/Burton collaborative “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”  All make use of walking and talking bones, gleeful death figures and tragic, childlike heroes that successfully defend themselves in a cruel, surrealistic world.




1.  Peter Kral, “An Interview with Jan Svankmajer”,  Positif , no. 297, November 1985

2.  Wendy Wilson, “The Surrealist Conspirator, An Interview with Jan Svankmajer”, Animation

           World Magazine, Issue 2.3, June 1997

3.  Peter Kral, “An Interview with Jan Svankmajer”, Positif , no. 297, November 1985







Zeitgeist Films Website   


The Heaven & Hell of 3D




Richard Taylor (1996)  The Encyclopedia of Animation Techniques  London, Quatro Publishing plc


Published in Exempli Gratia: Exemplary Writing, Fall 1998 (Volume 10, Number 1), pp. 64-65

© Pam Rogers 2002 All Rights Reserved