THE WORKS OF JAN SVANKMAJER
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
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,
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