10 Essential Jan Švankmajer Films Every Animation Fan Should See

6. Alice (1987)

In order to understand what makes this version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so radically different from all others (including the much-touted 2010 Tim Burton version), one should zero in on the distinction (which Švankmajer himself has made in interviews) between the fairy tale and the dream. Whereas fairy tales, made by grownups for children, generally carry some moralizing intent or in any case have a purpose in mind – and certainly employ all the resources of narrative art to that end– the dream is its own justification. Its playground is the unconscious, free from any and all moralizing; its rhythm is the capricious and unpredictable one of its own unfolding. It is, above all, not concerned with effects, with tactics of empathy or conviction; it simply presents itself as the ultimate reality.

The strangeness and intensity of this Alice begins with the very real, fully realized, physical poignancy of its puppets, like the straw the White Rabbit keeps losing every time it takes out its watch, or the March Hare’s eye dangling on a thread. Then there’s the matter of the different spaces: one feels how one is being led down corridors, through unopened doors, riding an elevator down levels and levels of a mad scientist’s jar collection; the fascinating open-ended geography which feels like the mapping of a mind.

Then there’s Alice herself – played by a “real” actress for the most part – curiously unperturbed; naturally, since in this dream she herself is the originator of her tale, speaking all the character’s voices, herself offering the narrator’s interjections (“said the White Rabbit”). Most fantasy films would want to make the invisible visible – convince you in the least that everything really exists, even while maintaining certain “dreamlike” qualities in the imagery if that’s what’s called for; this one relishes showing the visible in its most evident, half-created state, in order to leave intact its resonance and mystery. Like a puppet show that allows you to come up close and see where the strings lead, and then you look up and see: no one is there.

As the man who dreamt he was a butterfly, in Zhiangti’s proverb, so Švankmajer dreams his Alice. But then again, it may be Alice dreaming herself as an older man, an ingenious contriver of dreams – as the dreamer of the proverb awakes and asks himself: am I butterfly dreaming that I am a man?


7. Flora (1989)

Švankmajer’s shortest film – barely half a minute – is also one of his most intense. The rapid stop-motion decomposition of an Arcimboldo-like figure is a flash of searing pain and beauty. Francis Bacon is another painter who comes to mind, as an artist obsessed with the human form in extreme states and who championed “a concentration of reality” by way of “a shorthand of sensation”. Also, Švankmajer may be offering a corrective to our attitudes toward Great Art, taking pleasure in a decay that seems logical enough. But then you should not spend more time reading this than watching the film.


8. Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)

Švankmajer has always been obsessed with uncovering what goes on behind closed doors, the unspeakable rituals that simmer on beneath everyday reality. But what he reveals is somehow always both more and less than one would expect; it leaves more mysteries than it solves. This, his third feature-length film, one of his most audacious and blackly comic, concerns the very private yet seemingly interconnected fetishistic obsessions of a group of individuals in modern-day Prague.

Much role playing goes on, some bizarre costuming, elaborate interactions between man and machine (which makes one think of Max Ernst’s collages) and of course, some very creative use of objects. On the one hand these are victims, tragically noble loners, skulking around in a repressive society that generates their obsessions and then gives them no outlet. But they are also the supreme artists, tireless perfectionists who would risk anything in pursuit of their pleasures.

Once in a while their perversions will equal society’s perversions, as when one character’s machine-assisted masturbation session with a blonde newscaster’s television image continues in full force while images of war appear on the screen … But no matter, for this is no moral tract, but an authentically surrealist defense of the pleasure principle, one that would optimistically have us believe that – as Goethe never said to Eckermann – “only the perverse fantasy can still save us”.


9. Little Otik (2000)

The fourth of his features, Little Otik tells the story of an infertile couple desperate to have a child. When the husband finds a tree stump with humanoid features, the wife takes to it immediately as if it were her newborn infant: feeds it, changes diapers, gives it warmth … until the desire begins to turn into reality. Apart from Food, this is Švankmajer’s best film on the subject of eating. It restlessly documents what people continually put in their mouths, to appease a hunger that admits no appeasement.

Hunger for food, in ever-increasing proportions, in the case of the omnivorous tree stump; hunger for respectability, in the case of the couple; hunger for a baby, in the case of the mother; hunger for attention, in the case of the neighbors’ daughter; hunger for the young daughter, in the case of the old pederast (though the image that expresses this could well be the girl’s projection, part of the same desire for attention).

Hunger to be loved, which is why anyone would love in the first place: a father’s sacrifice, a mother’s love … hunger which proves to be everyone’s undoing. Švankmajer’s modern fable (based on a traditional Czech tale) on the perils of consumer society has an edgy, restless feel to it that well befits its theme. It is also one of his most linear, accessible, though no less challenging films.


10. Dimensions of Dialogue (1982)

Human communication, the dialogue between human beings, is usually doomed to failure in any Švankmajer. From the very first film, The Last Trick (1964), where two life-size puppets dismember each other, locked in a handshake; to the last, Surviving Life (2011), which is the search for the erotic element, elusive womanhood, in the refuge of dreams. Dimensions of Dialogue is where he takes a step back, takes a philosophical look at the subject, and in the process finds the maximum beauty in these destructive processes. In the second of the three “dialogues”, two lovers conceive between them the most perfect erotic union as a single mass of enfolding, undulating clay. Yet this very mass produces a surplus, an orphan lump that neither of them will admit to, and whose very existence wreaks havoc on all the illusion.

Love turns to hatred, the two lovers violently grasp and tear at each other, becoming the same restless single mass but now of perfect war. Švankmajer seems to be saying that any process that would not admit of differences between human beings is doomed to failure. He is after all a true individualist, always has been, in a world of increasing standardization and conglomeration; but also a staunch humanist. The first dialogue, portraying various Arcimboldo figures mutually eating each other, is a true virtuoso piece of animation. So is the last one, where two heads on a table engage in a very graphic ritual of flattery that reduces them to cracked lumps of breathless clay … sounds of a train yard in the background giving it all an urban feel.

Author Bio: Milton Cruz was cradled in music and educated in various film houses in NYC. He believes in art, life and the relativity of silence. He lives in Santo Domingo.