Down to the Cellar

Format: DVD

Distributor: The BFI

Release date: 25 June 2007

Czech Republic 1964-1992

7 hours 44 minutes

Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer is probably best known in this country for Alice, his full-length animated version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; but for a fuller sense of his achievements it’s to his short films that we should look, as this magnificent triple DVD box set from the BFI makes clear. That one of these shorts and one of the three documentaries also included in the box were funded by, respectively, the BBC and Channel 4, should also alert us to the extent of the current degradation of British TV culture. Gone are those heady days when Channel 4 would host a season of short films, and neither channel gives airtime presently to anything more serious than the latest mewlings of the Kaiser Chiefs or Razorlight, BBC4 notwithstanding. Indeed, except for the pop song, the short form across all fields - cinema, theatre, fiction - is a forsaken species. Unsurprisingly, then, the weakest piece in the whole DVD set is a video made by Švankmajer for a song by ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell, an eminently forgettable piece of clichéd nonsense in which Švankmajer does little more than pay lip service to his own considerable body of work.

And this box set certainly reveals what a body of work it is. The discs cover over a quarter of a century of filmmaking between 1964 and 1992 and there are 26 films in total. In an interview on the third ‘extras’ disc, the Brothers Quay discuss how in 1983, having just been told about Švankmajer and never having seen any of his work, they felt compelled to go to Prague to make a documentary about him! They watched 15 films in a single afternoon - some shown by the Czech authorities and others, the banned ones, by Švankmajer himself at his home - before making their own film. Though something of a marathon effort, this is no bad way to expose oneself to the work as it allows for the tracing at a single sitting of Švankmajer’s particular thematic and technical continuities and developments.

The first disc opens with The Last Trick, in which two magicians attempt to outdo each other in their acts. In the opening credits we see the two actors donning oversized head masks and this combination of human and mannequin establishes a productive tension between live action and animation, which plays out so effectively in much of Švankmajer’s work, often to startling effect. The fact that we see the actors putting on the masks is a Brechtian ‘trick’, or non-trick, as the transformation from human to actor is made manifest rather than remaining hidden or assumed. Thus, throughout the film, we are always aware of the human presence beneath the fiction in spite of the ‘trickery’ that we are presented with, trickery that is as much about the camera as the magician’s magic. The fact that the action is played out in a theatre adds another tension between theatre and film, another recurrent motif in the Czech’s work whereby older and newer technologies are brought into fruitful interplay.

In later films, the human/mannequin tension is made much more explicit and is more disturbing as a result. In Don Juan (1969), actors again wear head masks but this time on top of each mask there’s a contraption with attached strings, which lead in turn to the hands. The actors are in effect auto-motivating puppets. It’s a powerful fusion of human and non-human made more disturbing by the fact that each actor moves with a puppet’s faltering gait. In the last film, Food (1992), Švankmajer again uses actors but employs stop-motion photography to make them look like animated figures, thus blurring the boundary between live action and animation. The effect is distinctly uncanny in the true Freudian sense.

In Les Chimères des Švankmajer, another of the set’s documentaries, the director is asked whether he has ever considered using computer-aided animation, to which he replies firmly that he has not. His preference for stop-motion photography, he reveals, is nothing to do with nostalgia for an older technology (though the early cinema of Meliès is a constant touchstone) but an aesthetic decision to do with the feel of the animated object. In fact, there is in his work an implicit critique of both technological progress and indeed human evolution. In ‘Factual Dialogue,’ the first section of what is probably his best-known short film, Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), two Archimboldo-esque heads, made from food and cutlery respectively, confront each other only to have the former consume the latter. After a process of pulverisation, painstakingly animated, the consumer head vomits out the consumed head and the process begins again - the consumed, pulverised head confronts another head, this time made up of office stationery, which it in turn consumes, pulverises and vomits out… Et cetera (itself the title of another of Švankmajer’s shorts in the box). The process is repeated and the pieces of each successive head become smaller and smaller until they are eventually transformed into undifferentiated human heads. This scenario, which dramatises the confrontation of violently opposing forces, could stand for the entirety of Švankmajer’s output. It’s certainly a part of his surrealism, which is explored in some detail in the interviews on the third disc. These interviews emphasise the difference between the French and (less well-known) Czech versions of surrealism, the latter much darker in its impulses.

However, what also makes the first section of Dimensions of Dialogue so compelling is the way in which the scene consists of two impulses moving in opposite directions. As the heads evolve into more recognisably human forms, in other words towards a state of implied ‘perfection’ where the animated object resembles more closely what it is ‘supposed’ to depict, the animation, the film’s processual meat and drink if you like, becomes less and less interesting - as the pulverisation becomes more complete, the number of ways of showing the confrontation is depleted. One of the ‘appeals’ of Dimensions of Dialogue is precisely to see how Švankmajer makes each head pulverise the contents of the other, and in often improbable ways. It’s one thing when scissors belonging to the first head slice up an apple belonging to the second, but it’s another to see keys destroying a lettuce! It’s like an extended, involved version of ‘Stone, Paper, Scissors’, a game alluded to in The Garden (1968). I’ve often wondered in what world paper could ever be said to ‘defeat’ stone simply by wrapping it up, but in Dimensions of Dialogue Švankmajer shows us as he has an envelope crushing an assortment of metal thimbles and a book destroying a plate!

It’s clear from all this that Švankmajer has an overwhelming interest in the materiality of objects (and in their particularities) and it’s this that is overridden by computer-generated animation. Shrek for example would be like the final head, undifferentiated matter devoid of particular texture. In all his shorts, Švankmajer favours the close-up, which reveals the hidden grain of everyday things and objects. Thus, in Punch and Judy, a puppet strokes a hamster but the camera is as interested in showing us the animal’s fur in almost microscopic detail. Similarly, walls are not simple flat surfaces but are photographed to show all their blemishes. The credits of The Last Trick are scratched like graffiti into a wall’s plaster, becoming a part of its very fabric. Other materials such as wood and stone are given the same treatment. One might go as far as to say that Švankmajer fetishises the materiality of the object, not as commodities to be exchanged, but as Marx himself does in Das Kapital, as things that are valorised for their use as opposed to their debased value in an exchange economy. And like Marx, Švankmajer has something of the occultist in him. In Les Chimères des Švankmajer he says the following:

In my films, people are often replaced by objects which have always seemed more permanent and more exciting through their latent content, their memory. In the films I have always tried to uncover the content, to listen to the objects and decipher their narration. Here’s the special appeal animation holds for me, which is to let objects speak for themselves.

And again:

Hermetic teaching shows that by touching an object in a certain emotional condition one leaves one’s imprints, not fingerprints, but emotional prints and a person who touches that object imbibes them. So I don’t actually animate objects, I coerce their inner life out of them.

Objects have a hidden or dormant life that can be reanimated by the human hand. There is something very East European about this as the interviewees in Les Chimères des Švankmajer again confirm. Think of the alchemical tradition or the tradition of the golem, in both of which the city of Prague plays a central role. In the latter a 16th-century rabbi is reported to have created a golem or clay figure (not unlike those used by Švankmajer) to defend the Prague ghetto. However, it soon grows out of control, killing Gentiles and Jews alike, and he is forced to destroy it. The act of creation in both the alchemical and golem traditions is transgressive and fraught with danger.

The objects that Švankmajer unleashes in his films are similarly double-edged. He often brings the most mundane, everyday objects to life - furniture, clothes, food - which become terrifying in their auto-existence but also fascinating as a result. Witness A Quiet Week in the House (1969). The male protagonist descends on a bare and dilapidated house that may or may not be his own and which resembles a prison (this is reinforced by the fact that each night he scribbles out the date on a calendar as if he is doing time). He effectively incarcerates himself so that he can wake each day only to drill what seem like glory holes in various doors and spy voyeuristically on ‘scenes’ of objects brought to life. The first scene he watches is of a dismembered tongue which breaks through the wall of a kitchen and proceeds to lick a drawer-full of unwashed pots, pans and plates before mincing itself in a hand-cranked mincer. Another has a wind-up toy bird attached to a piece of string, which prevents it from reaching a saucer of corn. Eventually it breaks free and reaches the corn to the apparent delight of a nearby kitchen dresser - its drawers move in and out in a kind of demented applause - only to find itself buried by a mountain of clay spewed out by the very same drawers. These scenes are not merely re-enacting the old cliché of life’s futility to which its ‘protagonists’ are resigned but show how the latter are punished for their actions, which are made to seem transgressive as a result.

There are multiple ways of reading A Quiet Week in the House. Politically, it probably references the ‘Prague Spring’ of the previous year (1968) when Czechs saw a brief window of political optimism snuffed out by the invasion of Soviet troops. Imprisonment, however, is a recurrent theme in Å vankmajer’s work. He is fascinated by enclosed spaces - the coffin in Punch and Judy and The Fall of the House of Usher (1980), the fence in The Garden (made entirely of men and women holding hands), the cellar in Down to the Cellar (1983) and the simple room in Darkness-Light-Darkness (1989) where a ‘human’ head finds itself growing into a body that’s far too big for its allotted space. The drilling in A Quiet Week in the House is a form of escape and after his ‘quiet’ week is up, the man uses the holes as cradles for sticks of dynamite with which to blow up the house. As he is about to press the detonator, however, he stops and runs back into the house because he has forgotten to scribble out his final day on the calendar. Having ‘freed’ himself he is in effect still in thrall to another set of controls.

I would argue, however, that the motif of breaking through solid matter is also a testing of the limitations of the physical world. Švankmajer returns again and again to walls, which he often films opening up of their own accord, their surfaces peeled back or decaying through the animation process. In the Hugh Cornwell video the protagonist, a forlorn male figure in a room, wails about the inaccessibility of his love, eventually drawing an outline of her on the wall, which brings her to life like another golem. Her face, breasts, arms and legs emerge one by one from the plaster and she ends up absorbing him into the wall itself. If it wasn’t compromised by its misogyny - female as monster defined by separate body parts - this might be seen as a defining gesture with the body defying the very laws of physics. The wall is no longer a physical hindrance or barrier and animation becomes a kind of utopian endeavour allowing the filmmaker magical access to the otherwise impenetrable. This kind of absorption would indeed be ‘the last trick’, and the very attempt to pull it off makes Å vankmajer a true heir of the alchemical tradition. For the time being the cinema, or in the case of this wonderful DVD box, the living room, must remain the theatre where we can witness it.

Jeff Hilson


  1. Jeff–thanks for the insightful review. Just finished Disc 2 and have been watching as many Svankmajer shorts as possible. His films are almost hypnotic, which I guess is appropriate considering how repetitively they’re structured. But just when you think a piece has nothing more to say, the repetitive cycle breaks and Svankmajer surprises you (like in “A Picnic with Weissman,” for instance).

    It’s very difficult to convey much of his imagery in words, and I commend you on doing so in the review. To those reading: You really have to watch these shorts for yourself. Strange and cryptic as they are sometimes, you’ll never see anything like it anywhere else….

  2. I recently wrote an essay on Jan Svankmajer (one of my favourite filmmakers) and found a nice little documentary about him on youtube. It was aired by the BBC back in 1990 as part of a “Tales From Prague” series and provides some pretty interesting commentary about the work, some even by the man himself.

    I won’t post the link here (I imagine there is a policy against posting links in comments) but if you are interested just search for “Jan Svankmajer documentary” and you should find it.

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