Interview with Jan Švankmajer
As part of Watch Me Move – On the Big Screen, a special animation season that runs throughout July and August and complements Watch Me Move – The Animation Show in Barbican Art Gallery, the Barbican explores the work of some of the most influential filmmakers in animation, starting with Jan Švankmajer from Thursday 16 to Saturday 25 June. The screening of Alice, a wonderfully sinister interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s story, on Thursday 16 will be followed by a Q&A with Jan Švankmajer and Peter Hames. The director’s latest film, Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) (2010), a comic, surreal take on psychoanalysis, screens on Sunday 19.
Mark Stafford and Virginie Sélavy interviewed Jan Švankmajer by email.
Q; You have said you were ‘steeped’ in Prague and yet the city rarely features in your films. In what way has Prague, and being Czech, influenced your work?
Being Czech definitely didn’t have any influence on my work. What did influence it was that I spent my childhood in Czechoslovakia, particularly in Prague. A personality is formed by its mental morphology. For artistic work this is absolutely fundamental. Prague appears in my films quite often. You will find it in Alice and in Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), but this is not the Prague of the tourist guide books, but the Prague of my childhood. You won’t find ‘the sights’ but chipped walls, the dirty staircases of blocks of flats, mysterious cellars, hidden courtyards, the suburbs.
Q: Is it true that you had a little puppet theatre at home as a child and that this was common in all Czech families? How important has this been for your work?
Yes, it was quite a common toy. For an introverted child it was an amazing gift. I could use puppets to play out all life’s injustices, correcting them, taking revenge. Puppets have accompanied me throughout my life. It may be that everything I do is just a puppet play.
Q: Alice was your first feature film, why did you choose to start with Lewis Carroll? How important is he as an influence on your work in general?
Alice belongs to my mental morphology. Before I made up my mind to do a feature-length film I was circling around the subject. I made Jabberwocky and Down to the Cellar and only then dared to shoot the whole of Alice. Personally I think that Lewis Carroll’s Alice is one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilisation.
Q: Although it is not an adaptation, your Alice feels very close to the book, and in particular brings out the sense of menace and aggression that is present in it but is often overlooked in insipid versions such as Disney’s. Was that an important aspect of Carroll’s work for you?
So far all adaptations of Alice (including the latest by Tim Burton) present it as a fairy tale, but Carroll wrote it as a dream. And between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realised dream.
Q: Around the time of Alice, you said you were interested in a dialogue with your childhood. Do you still feel this way?
Yes. Of course I wouldn’t cut myself off from the most important source of my work.
Q: Do you feel animation can best represent the world of childhood, dream and imagination?
Animation is, so far, the only way of breathing life into inanimate things. Children’s games work with the same magic. This kind of magic is the point where childhood and animation intersect with each other.
Q: You have a clear interest in the materiality of the objects, in textures, shapes and surfaces and it is always wonderful to see how you bring to life very ordinary and often old, broken or discarded objects, which can become unfamiliar, menacing or amusing. Why are you particularly interested in that type of objects?
I like things that have passed through human hands. Things that have been touched. Such things are charged with emotions that are capable of revealing themselves under certain, extremely sensitive circumstances. I collect such objects, surround myself with them and in the end I cast such ‘fetishes’ in my films. That’s also the reason why I don’t like computer animation. Virtual reality doesn’t have a tactile dimension. Objects and figures created on a computer have no past.
Q: Did you feel there was a political aspect to Alice because of her rebellion against authority?
An absurd court hearing with Alice (‘off with her head,’ shouted the Queen) obviously recalls the political trials of the 50s. Of course Alice, compared with the accused from that time, doesn’t respect the official script. It was just a minor analogy, I didn’t shoot the film because of that. But each imaginative work has got within itself, from its very essence, a subversive charge, because it knocks down the notion of lived-through reality as the only one possible.
Q: In your latest film, Surviving Life, you tackle Freud, who has been a big influence on your work. The film makes a lot of play about the battle between Freud and Jung, and is not particularly respectful of either. How do you see Freud now and what is attitude to psychotherapy?
I read a quote somewhere that a person can only really make fun of things he truly loves. It is the same with my psychoanalytical comedy Surviving Life. Psychoanalysis is for me in particular an amazing system of interpretation. I am not that much interested in practical therapy.
Q: How much of the film’s imagery came from your own dreams?
The whole film in fact originated on the basis of my dream. The beginning of the film (the first dream) is my authentic dream and then the dream about soldiers is a dream from my childhood.
Q: How much of the film’s mischievous opening section (where you confess that Surviving Life is only an animation because you couldn’t afford live action) is true?
It is true, although it didn’t turn out that way. My producer claims that we didn’t save anything; on the contrary, by using animation the shooting period became longer. But animation brought a new symbolic level into the film and thus enriched it imaginatively.
Q: You have said that Surviving Life would be your last film but we have read that you are currently working on a project called Insects, is that true?
I have pulled out of the drawer the film story of Insects, which I wrote in 1970, and which couldn’t have been made at that time – that’s why it finished in the drawer together with many other projects rejected by the censors. Some of which I have since completed: Food, Conspirators of Pleasures, Lunacy. Now we are going to try to do Insects. The story: amateur actors in a small town are rehearsing the play by the Capek brothers The Life of Insects and their destinies mingle with characters from the play.
Q: You created work over 45 years under an oppressive regime. How does working under a capitalist system compare with working under a politically repressive system?
That stupid censorship had, after all, one advantage: at least now I have a supply of stories and screenplays, although even nowadays it is not easy to make them. This utilitarian, profit-chasing civilisation, doesn’t need authentic work. The new iconographic art is now advertising and mass culture, because if advertising were to fail, civilisation would collapse, and mass culture is supposed to entertain the masses in their free time so that they don’t think about their poor lot and take to the streets. I don’t intend to do either.
Q: There is a quote from you that we love: ‘Unless we again begin to tell fairy stories and ghost stories at night before going to sleep and recounting our dreams upon waking, nothing more is to be expected of our Western civilisation.’ This was written in 1987, what is your view on this now?
I don’t have anything to change on this. Only the possibility that it might happen seems to me even more distant.
Interview by Mark Stafford and Virginie Sélavy