The Dark Wonders of Jan Svankmajer
- The Dark Wonders of Jan Svankmajer
From August 4 through 25, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents “The Dark Wonders of Jan Svankmajer,” a retrospective of the Czech animator renowned for blending a broad menu of techniques ranging from stop-motion animation, claymation, puppet animation, and live action into extraordinary tales that are both dark-humorous and bizarre in the extreme. The Chicago premiere of his latest feature SURVIVING LIFE (THEORY AND PRACTICE) is a highlight of the series, which includes the complete complement of his five other features, all in 35mm prints, plus a provocative selection of shorts.
Born in 1935 in Prague, Svankmajer’s path in life was seemingly set early by the childhood Christmas gift of a puppet theater. He went on to study puppetry at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, and, after directing his first short film in 1964, he soon became allied with the Czech surrealist movement. Through his unique use of stop-motion animation, anything from a doll to a sock becomes a puppet in his hands, and these creatures are known to do his bidding with what appears to be malevolent glee. The material of his art can encompass antiques, toys, hardware, animal pelts, skeletons, and meat and other malleable foodstuffs.
Svankmajer takes his inspiration from a wide range of literary sources, including Lewis Carroll (ALICE), Goethe (LESSON FAUST), Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade (LUNACY), Czech folk tales (LITTLE OTIK), and Freud and Jung (SURVIVING LIFE). He imbues each of his films with a sense of humor that is tinged with an edge of horror. His imagination takes his viewers to dark places, even as the delight in his extraordinary creations grows.
The Jan Svankmajer touring retrospective was organized by Irena Kovarova with additional support from the Czech Center New York.
- LESSON FAUST
- (LEFCE FAUST)
- 1994, Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic/France/UK, 97 min.
- With Petr Cepek, Jan Kraus
“Full of dark pessimism and black humor…strange in the best sense of the word.”
—Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle
“Intoxicating, beautiful, and wonderfully affecting.”
—Keith Allen, MovieRapture.com
A nameless clerk on his way home from work receives a handbill on the street and follows it to the mysterious house where a cloak, false beard, and a copy of Goethe’s “Faust” have been prepared seemingly for him alone. Claymation, stop-action animation, live action, and oversized marionettes are all part of the magic mix as the little man is plunged into a Faustian world of diabolical temptation and all the surreal horrors in Svankmajer’s arsenal as the forces of good and evil battle it out for his soul. In Czech with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)
- (NECO Z ALENKY)
- 1988, Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic/Switzerland/UK, 85 min.
- With Kristyna Kohoutova
“Strips Alice to its proto-surrealist core…magical.”
—Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper
“Has an irresistible potency and allure.”
—Hal Hinson, Washington Post
Curiosity, terror, vengeance, and surrealism infuse this haunted adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic. Svankmajer strips away the cuteness that has marked other adaptations, to create a twisted fantasy of obsession, a delicious, convoluted, goose-bump-raising nightmare. A shabby animal pelt comes to eerie life as the cunning, bright-eyed White Rabbit, portrayed as an adversary and mastermind rather than a mere guide. Alice is not a victim but a pragmatic little adventurer who can gamely come to terms with an aggressive rat in a blue velvet suit or kick the stuffing out of an offending toy. In Czech with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)
- Svankmajer Shorts
- 1968-1992, Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic, 78 min.
Sample the range of Svankmajer’s wild and fertile imagination over a quarter-century of artistic lunacy through this delightful group of shorts films, which includes the absurdist live-action THE GARDEN, never previously screened theatrically in the U.S. The program also includes: THE FLAT (BYT), 1968, 13 min.; THE GARDEN (ZAHRADA), 1968, 19 min.; JABBERWOCKY (ZVAHLAV), 1971, 12 min.; DIMENSIONS OF DIALOGUE (MOZNOSTI DIALOGU), 1983, 11 min.; ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE, 1988, 4 min.; FLORA, 1989, 20 seconds; MEAT IN LOVE, 1989, 1 min.; and THE FOOD (JIDLO), 1992, 17 min. In Czech with English subtitles. 35mm and digital video. (BS)
- SURVIVING LIFE (THEORY AND PRACTICE)
- ((PREZIT SVUJ ZIVOT (TEORIE A PRAXE))
- 2010, Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic/Slovakia/Japan, 109 min.
- With Vaclav Helsus, Klara Issova
“Accessible, entertaining…an amiably goofy yarn.”
—Leslie Felperin, Variety
“Svankmajer’s most poignant and fully-formed feature to date…just dreamy.”
—David Jenkins, Time Out London
Dreams are at the core of this Czech master’s latest work, a film one critic labeled an “ingenious psychoanalytical comedy.” Evzen, a middle-aged office worker, dreams of the same exotic young woman dressed in red every night, a secret he keeps from his wife. Whimsy competes with Svankmajer’s droll trademark grotesquerie as the love-smitten suitor alternates assignations with his dream lover with appointments on the analyst’s couch, where he agonizes under animated portraits of Freud and Jung. In Czech with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)
- CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE
- (SPIKLENCI SLASTI)
- 1996, Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic/Switzerland/UK, 75 min.
- With Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmova
“Seriously funny and cheekily subversive.”
—Stephen Holden, The New York Times
“So over the top as to be beatific…a must see.”
—Jessica Hayes, FilmThreat.com
A kinky clutch of self-gratifiers is linked through their singular obsessions in this tale of autoerotic rituals featuring love aids as unorthodox as a papier-mache chicken head, goldfish, a candle-lit crypt, nails, bristles, and skeletons. In Svankmajer’s hands fetishism scales the heights of bizarre imagination as two neighbors enact elaborate murder fantasies of each other, functioning as unknowing enablers in a chain of co-fetishists that encompasses the mail carrier, a newspaper vendor, a TV news anchor, and the police commissioner. CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE has no dialogue. 35mm. (BS)
- 2005, Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic/Slovakia/Japan, 123 min.
- With Pavel Liska, Jan Triska
“Dark, scary…a comic metaphor for human existence itself.”
—J. Hoberman, Village Voice
“Joyously profane…a bleakly ribald farce.”
—Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper
If the world is a madhouse as LUNACY suggests, then Jan Svankmajer is its foremost hallucinating visionary. In the film’s prologue, the director declares his bizarre and capricious work a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade. Visceral horror and sadism come to bear equally in this story of Jean, a traveler whose nightmare of being committed to an institution launches a series of terrifying adventures involving a demented count, orgiastic rituals, and a revolt in an insane asylum. In Czech with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)
- LITTLE OTIK
- (aka GREEDY GUTS)
- 2000, Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic, 127 min.
- With Veronika Zilkova, Jan Hartl
“A handmade dream…more imagination than most of us can muster in our most fevered states.”
—Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times
“The year’s creepiest representation of maternal love.”
—J. Hoberman, Village Voice
There couldn’t be a more aptly creepy parable for the age of designer babies and human genome research than LITTLE OTIK. A couple frustrated by their lack of progeny impulsively fashion a craggy little humanoid from an old tree stump dug up in the garden. True to the formula of a Czech folk tale, the “baby” comes to life and demonstrates a horrifyingly voracious appetite for vittles, starting with the family cat. Svankmajer blends archetypal live action characters with bizarre and compelling animation as the monster dominates his parents and finds a friend willing to protect him in the precocious little neighbor girl. In Czech with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)