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Czech Great: An Appreciation Of Jan Švankmajer
Anthony Nield , June 13th, 2012 06:17

Anthony Nield profiles the Prague-based master of puppets, subject of three DVD releases this month. Still from Surviving Life

"Švankmajer is 76 and I'm 72. We are still filmmakers, and we passionately need to shoot new films. It's like a breath of fresh air."

Despite his advancing age, Czech animator Jan Švankmajer refuses to slow down. The quote above is from his regular producer Jaromír Kallista, made last year as he announced their latest project together. Pictures From The Insects' Life, an adaptation of Karel Čapek's allegorical 1920s play, is due for release in 2015 - by which point Švankmajer will be 80. This new venture will be his 31st as director, an impressive achievement for any filmmaker - all the more so for one who was banned from the medium for almost a decade.

Švankmajer's entry into the industry came in 1958. A recent graduate of Prague's drama school, his skills as a puppeteer were called upon for a traditional marionette adaptation of the Faust legend. Over the next few years he worked almost exclusively in the theatres of Prague, returning to the big screen to make his directorial debut in 1964. A tale of duelling magicians, The Last Trick went some way to establishing the Švankmajer style. Mixing live action with puppetry and more conventional animation techniques, this was cinema you could almost reach out and touch, such was the attention to its more tactile qualities. Švankmajer favours the rusted and the shop-worn. He likes dirt and dust and objects which are ages-old. Stones, nails, sawdust, bones, a child's toy that has seen far better days - these are his films' abiding images.

Many of these early efforts would unfold without recourse to dialogue or an easily discernible plot. They played out like routines, set to their own clockwork rhythms, governed by their own logic, falling somewhere between a child's puzzle and older, more primal rituals. A Game With Stones, made in 1965, was exactly as titled: five sequences of growing complexity which could be read as allegories for the human existence. The following year's Punch and Judy provoked similar conclusions. Two puppets engage in ever-increasing violence for the ownership of a real-life guinea pig; neither of them wins. Inevitably it was only a matter of time before human players would begin to enter these games, subjected to their own nightmare scenarios.

1968 brought The Garden. This was a film, quite literally, about a living fence. Instead of wood and nails it consisted of tradesmen and women - a butcher, an engineer, and so on. Human allegory had become political allegory and soon enough Švankmajer would find himself in trouble with the authorities. The Prague Spring of early '68 was halted by the arrival of invading Soviet forces in August. So came greater scrutiny of Švankmajer's potentially subversive little films. His first confrontation occurred in 1970, thanks to a documentary about Sedlec Ossuary - famously constructed from thousands of bones of victims of the Black Death. Its soundtrack was removed, in the process neutering any possible readings that went against the party line.

Two years later and the impact was far greater. An approved and seemingly inoffensive animation based around the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci was altered by Švankmajer during the editing stage. Scenes of everyday life in contemporary Czechoslovakia were introduced, entirely against the wishes of the authorities. Leonardo's Diary was banned and so too was its director, placed on a period of "forced rest" (as Švankmajer himself put it) for the remainder of the decade. Unable to make his own pictures he worked on others in various capacities, creating their special effects or designing the titles. He also indulged in his own non-cinematic projects, whether it be ceramics and sculpture or compiling his very own encyclopaedia, Svank-meyers Bilderlexikon, in which he gathered together all manner of strange and surreal imagery.

Upon returning to filmmaker, Švankmajer initially played things safe with adaptations of two classics of Gothic literature, Horace Walpole's The Castle Of Otranto and Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall Of The House Of Usher. But once again, controversy would come calling. 1983's Dimensions Of Dialogue, perhaps the best-known and most widely seen of Švankmajer's shorts, earned itself a ban, although the Czech authorities couldn't state exactly what they objected to. Nevertheless this particular title became an example of what not to make and it was shown to prospective filmmakers as a warning. At the same time, however, the film was also making waves on the international festival circuit, opening fresh eyes to Švankmajer's highly distinctive approach and kickstarting a revival of his career. Before the decade was out he had been the subject of an hour-long profile on Channel 4, received commissions from MTV, helmed a music video for former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell, and finally - more than twenty years after first sitting in the director's chair - made the transition into features.

The initial forays into full-length cinema were both adaptations but no less characteristic. Švankmajer took Alice In Wonderland and Faust (via Goethe and Marlowe) and made them his own: fresh nightmares behind every door; objects and situations imbued with symbolic weight; mixing up live action and animation as though there were no distinction to be made. With feature number three, however, he opted for a wholly original offering and, to this day, maintains that it's his best. Conspirators Of Pleasure, released in 1996, harked back to some of Švankmajer's earliest films, albeit with a twist...

Returning to those wordless rituals and routines governed by their own complex logic, Conspirators Of Pleasure eschewed the nightmarish in favour of the fetishist. Put simply this was six characters in search of a wank, and satisfying their urges through the most elaborate of means. One likes to ingest rolled-up balls of bread through rubber tubing. Another prefers to dress up as a bat-winged chicken chimera. In such company the female newsreader with a predilection for having her toes sucked by fishes during broadcast seems positively normal. Yet Švankmajer judges none of them - in fact, he seems to enjoy them all immensely. Conspirators Of Pleasure was a comedy, not some wilfully bizarre porno. Although the British Board of Film Classification have still deemed its onscreen behaviour sufficiently sexualised to ensure an 18 rating.

Thanks to their intricacy and, oftentimes, their violence, Švankmajer's short films would always feel incredibly intense. Every second was made to count in these minutes-long miniatures, heightened by editing rhythms straight out of silent Soviet cinema and framings that always placed the viewer that little bit too close. Upon making the move to features he refused to soften his methods and the results would always maintain this heightened effect. To spend an hour or two in the company of a Švankmajer feature is really quite something. Unsurprisingly, when it came to television, Channel 4 opted to screen Alice in daily episodes rather than as a whole.

With this in mind, a full two hours in a Švankmajer-created asylum - moreover one headed up by the Marquis de Sade - was hardly going to be the most light-hearted of experiences. This was the concept behind 2005's Lunacy, a loose adaptation of Poe's The System Of Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether with a dash of The Premature Burial thrown in for good measure. Švankmajer himself popped up at the very start to offer a quick introduction, informing his audience that this was an "infantile tribute" to the author and a "horror film, with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre." By infantile he means childlike, not childish, and it's an important distinction to make: Švankmajer taps into the innocent, the untarnished, the untouched.

In the context of Sadeian excess that makes for a potent mixture. Violence, blasphemy, the bizarre and the orgiastic - Lunacy contains all these things, set to a piss-and-vinegar palette and intercut with Švankmajer's trademark animations. Disembodied tongues crawl through mud and rain. Unidentified meat acts as living, breathing cement to an old stone wall. Potent horror images each and every one of them, but never solely for their own means. Švankmajer is showing us "the madhouse we live in today," rampant consumerism having replaced the Stalinist enemy of old. The final shot takes place in a supermarket, the meat now firmly under wraps but still showing signs of life within its cellophane prison.

Surviving Life (2010), the most recent of Švankmajer's features, also opens with an introduction from its director. "You won't find much to laugh at," he warns. He also apologises for the lowly budget. The end result is a "poor, imperfect substitute" for the one he intended, we are told, utilising animated photographs of actors rather than the actors themselves. In this respect you could say that Surviving Life was Švankmajer's Sin City, constructed entirely in the studio and rendering live action two-dimensional. Needless to say, the two films are very different beasts, but in terms of entertainment value there's little to choose between them. Contrary to that tongue-in-cheek intro, there was plenty to laugh at.

This was the tale of a middle-aged office clerk who escapes his humdrum everyday existence by retreating into dreams. Here he meets a mysterious woman in red who is far more tempting than his real world wife. Soon he's abandoning both his work and his spouse for her, though dream life - this being a Švankmajer film - rarely runs smoothly. Cue symbolic eggs, melons and teddy bears with giant erections, plus a sardonic voice-over to explain what it all means. Interestingly, politics don't really come into it; Surviving Life was more concerned with the personal. Consequently it also felt like Švankmajer's lightest work in a long time, perhaps the lightest of them all. Sexually charged, very funny and endlessly playful - not bad for a filmmaker in his late seventies. Who knows what his eighties will bring?

Surviving Life is out this week through New Wave Films, with Lunacy and Conspirators Of Pleasure due for release on Monday June 25.