Games have been a constituent element of many Czech films, from the improvisation and word play of Voskovec and Werich in the 1930s to the unpredictable inventions of V?ra Chytilová (Daisies) in the 1960s. When Jan Švankmajer made Alice, his first feature film, in 1987, he was already part of a culture in which the game was central. Indeed, one of his early films, in which he ‘plays’ with stones, forming them into different combinations and Arcimboldo-like faces, was called Game with Stones (1965).
The Czech Surrealist Group, which had remained ‘underground’ during the years of Stalinism after the Second World War, reconstituted itself in 1968 and Švankmajer became a member in 1970. When they were again forced underground after the Soviet invasion of the country in 1968, they began a whole series of group explorations and games, investigating such areas as touch, fear, eroticism, analogy, interpretation, creativity and, of course, dream, humour, and game itself. Collective games and interpretative experiment form the essential context of Švankmajer’s work.
Cruelty - indeed, one might say sado-masochism - was an element of many of his short films, from the competing magicians of The Last Trick (1964) to the self-devouring and destructive heads of Dimensions of Dialogue in 1982. His three films dealing with childhood - Jabberwocky (1971), Down to the Cellar (1982), and Alice (1987) continue to explore this vein. Švankmajer argues that childhood is a time with which he maintains a continuing dialogue but that he remembers it as a ‘time of cruelty’. His Jabberwocky (1971), with its references to Carroll’s nonsense poem and to the pre-war leader of the Czech surrealists, Vít?zslav Nezval, focused very precisely on the world of children’s play. As the then leader of the Surrealist Group, the poet Vratislav Effenberger, put it, the film was a variety show from a child’s imagination with its individual ‘turns’ divided by a wall of bricks repeatedly knocked down by a black cat.
This, together with Down to the Cellar (1982), which grew out of the Surrealist Group’s exploration into the subject of Fear, were obvious precursors of his work on Alice. Although based on his own experiences of being sent ‘down to the cellar’ to fetch potatoes, his heroine is a young girl. In this sense, the film recalls both Alice and Little Red Riding Hood, as the girl confronts the unknown. In the cellar, she meets a man who makes a bed out of coal and offers her a place beside him, an old woman who bakes cakes from coal dust, an enormous cat that stalks her, shoes that fight for a piece of bread she is eating, and potatoes that follow a life of their own and escape from her basket.
Alice, technically a Swiss-British-German co-production although, in all creative respects, entirely Czech, was filmed in Prague with Švankmajer’s regular team. Significantly, the Czech title translates as ‘Something from Alice’, indicating that it should in no way be considered a straightforward adaptation of Carroll. Having said that, one could argue that the similarities are greater than one would have expected. However, where Carroll attributes the origins of Alice’s dreams to the reassuring sounds of the countryside, Švankmajer anticipates the images of her fantasy ‘in the brooding preliminary shots of her room, with its shelves of relics and mysteries from other, previous lives - the furniture she has not yet earned the right to use. Alice’s quest is a hunt for her own context.’ (Philip Strick)
While Alice is played by a real little girl, the world of her imagination or dream world is represented by puppets and animated figures. Her transformations in size are represented by changing from human to doll and, in this sense, Švankmajer seems to suggest an instability in identity. On the other hand, the intermittent close-ups of Alice’s lips speaking short lines of narrative suggest that she ultimately has control of these imaginings. At the end of the film, when she has been condemned to death and the White Rabbit, armed with a pair of scissors, appears as an actual executioner, she announces: ‘Perhaps I’ll cut his head off.’
Like Faust, in Švankmajer’s later ‘variety collage’ of the Faust stories, Alice moves from scene to scene and from world to world and, in this sense, the film also provides a parallel to the earlier Jabberwocky. But, unlike Carroll’s original, the characters have become much more explicitly threatening. The principal puppet figures that she meets all have the appearance of old toys - to echo André Breton on the ‘magically old’ - ‘old-fashioned, broken, useless…’ The March Hare constantly has to be wound up and have his eye pulled back into place, the Mad Hatter is made of carved and beaten wood and, despite his hollow innards, constantly drinks cups of tea. The White Rabbit continually has to replace his stuffing - a constant resurrection revealing, suggests Brigid Cherry (in Kinoeye), the influence of Gothic horror, and representing the Undead. Undoubtedly, the rabbit is far from reassuring, arrogant, domineering and, armed with his pair of scissors, a ‘castrating’ figure.
Švankmajer’s most nightmarish creations are his ‘animals’, who pursue her at the White Rabbit’s behest after she has escaped from his house. These skeletal monsters - imaginary beasts made largely from bones - first made their appearance independently as part of Švankmajer’s sequence of constructions entitled Natural Science Cabinet in the early 1970s. They include a coach pulled by chickens with skull heads, a fish-like skeleton with legs, a skull dragging a bone body, and a skull head that snaps out of a jam pot. This array of visions is far from the antiseptic world of Disney or the reassuring middle-class images of Sir John Tenniel. But, as one Czech critic put it, Alice’s confrontations with fear and humiliation are more than compensated by her ‘outstanding character and extreme intelligence’.
When the film was shown on British television one Christmas, episodes were shown during the day and the whole film late at night. The experiment of day-time screenings was never repeated. Swiss parents apparently removed their children from cinema screenings. But is this world of imagination really more harmful than the readily available synthetic violence of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? As Švankmajer once said: ‘Unless we again begin to tell fairy tales 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 article was first published in the autumn 08 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.