Cast: Mari Törõcsik, György Cserhalmi, József Madaras
Miklós Jancsó’s richly inventive 1974 adaptation of the Greek myth sends an oblique political message.
Electra, My Love mesmerises from the very beginning: the beat of the music, the dance of the actors, and the sweep of the camera in extended takes all combine to draw you into the film’s rhythm. So too do the portentous words of Electra, sole voice of justice in the village, where a tyrant king has taken over after the death of her father, Agamemnon. Electra is convinced that her brother, Orestes, will return from exile and help her to liberate the people.
It’s hard not to see the film, made in 1974, as a comment on Hungary’s situation at the time, and a message of encouragement to the director’s fellow citizens. While Hungarians were living under a restrictive Communist regime, Electra, My Love used native folk music and dances as a backdrop to speeches about the need to speak the truth at all costs, and engage in a continuous struggle against oppression: to be reborn every day, like the phoenix.
As the film was made with public funding and under Communist scrutiny, any message of resistance had to be oblique. In his excellent liner notes to this new DVD release by Second Run, Peter Hames explains that Miklós Jancsó’s films are considered ‘difficult’ precisely because the audience is left uncertain as to whether they’ve understood them. The director believed that such ambiguity was important, as it made the viewer engage actively with his films, trying to figure them out, whereas traditional storylines encouraged passivity and escapism.
Just because a film is difficult to understand, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to watch. Electra, My Love treats the viewer to a rich and thoroughly enjoyable spectacle, not wasting a second of its 71-minute runtime. It includes a peacock, dogs, traditional costumes, whip and swordplay, nude dancers, impossibly large adobe huts, a giant ball and even a helicopter, all filmed in rich colour photography.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that this entire highly choreographed film contains just 12 shots. In a 28-minute interview included as extra material on the DVD, Jancsó’s cinematographer János Kende shares insights about the process of filming such long takes. He talks about Jancsó’s preference for improvisation, how camera technology allowed him to progress from 5-minute to 12-minute shots, and the challenges faced by actors in Electra, My Love, who needed to deliver poetic lines while Jancsó yelled stage directions through a megaphone.
Kende also shares fascinating anecdotes about the production process: how Jancsó was inspired to introduce the giant ‘football’, which features neither in the original myth of Electra, nor the play by László Gyurkó on which Electra, My Love was based. He also confides that they neglected to install a lightning conductor on the prairie where they filmed, and lightning did indeed strike, destroying part of the set, luckily while no one was there and after 90 of the filming was complete.
Writers: Věra Chytilová, Eva Kacírková, Michal Laznovsky
Cast: Zuzana Stivínová, Miroslav Donutíl, Tomás Hanák
Original title:Pasti, pasti, pastičky
Czech Republic 1998
Věra Chytilová was one of the Czech New Wave’s most innovative directors, best known for Daisies (1966), where the antics of two mischievous teenage girls are matched by the director’s own cheeky stylistic experimentation. Traps (1988) comes much later in Chytilová’s career, and is among her more conventional films. Where her earlier work tended to elude traditional cause-and-effect narrative in favour of a liberated, episodic structure, Traps pursues its dark satire in an inexorable succession of attacks and counter-attacks.
In her essay to accompany this new Second Run DVD release of Traps, Carmen Gray situates the film among a ‘new proliferation of mass-appeal comedies’, which Traps is clearly ‘parodying’. Certainly, with its graphic opening images of pig castration, searing attack on contemporary trends and attitudes, and broad spectrum of female characters, Traps sets itself apart from mainstream comedy’s tendency to stereotype.
The story revolves around Lenka, a country vet, who is raped by ad executive Petr and environment minister Donhal after they offer her roadside assistance. Knowing that their crime will go unpunished by the judicial system, Lenka uses her professional skills to make sure the two men don’t go on to attack other women.
Although the rape itself is more or less elided through whip-pans across the treetops of the forest where it takes place, Chytilová deftly shifts the focus by dwelling on the long struggle that precedes the attack and the debilitating nightmares and flashbacks Lenka suffers from afterwards. The large number of films that graphically depict rape wade into a dubious territory of sly titillation or sadistic humiliation. Chytilová conveys sexual assault’s true impact on women by taking a broader perspective.
Petr and Donhal’s light-hearted attitude towards rape, enjoying the struggle of one woman against two men, turns the episode into an example of why women may live their lives feeling constantly under threat. Chytilová also offers a succinct glimpse into the consequences of rape, which extend far beyond the terrifying and violent event itself, affecting Lenka’s professional and personal life. She can no longer stand the sight of breeding animals on the farms where she works, and her relationship with her boyfriend is destroyed, as she is initially afraid to tell him, then disgusted when he finds out and ‘forgives’ her for being raped.
Lenka’s cheerful professional competence prior to the attack is reminiscent of Anna’s in Chytilová’s earlier The Apple Game: the midwife, though comically clumsy at times, shines with confidence whether delivering a baby at the hospital or a calf at the farm. Although it is this competence that allows Lenka to punish her attackers, the action does not empower her. When her boyfriend learns what she has done, he says ‘I’ve never seen you like this’. ‘Maybe it’s not me anymore,’ she replies. Rather than suggesting, in the simplistic way of Hollywood, that taking the law into your own hands brings catharsis, Chytilová demonstrates that happy endings can’t truly exist in an unjust and hypocritical society.
An odd, upsetting 71 minutes from Latvia, in which an unnamed man, dressed in the utilitarian high-visibility vest of the title, separates from the crowds of similarly attired workers, leaves a plant and makes his way to the house of the industrialist who has just put him and 211 others out of work. There, he uses his toolkit to exact bloody revenge, and maybe steal a little of the luxury lifestyle he feels he is owed. However, something isn’t right; the mansion makes strange noises, the cupboards are bare. Rich food, when he eats it, doesn’t agree with him, cigars make him choke. He’s plagued by nightmares, just-glimpsed figures and the feeling that he’s being stalked. Possibly by a man in an orange jacket…
Partly a twist on home-invasion horror, part old-fashioned ghost story, part politically conscious fable, The Man in the Orange Jacket is complex and unsettling. Bringing to mind The Shining and Jan Švankmajer in some places, The Woman in Black in others, it is not averse to getting properly nasty now and then. Divided into four acts, and largely dialogue free, it eludes simple explanation. Has the act of murder and greed in act one turned the man into his own enemy in the class war? Is he simply a horrible psychopath being tortured by the unquiet shades of his victims? How much of any of this is only happening within his head? Undoubtedly there is an emphasis on the emptiness of bourgeois desire, and on the corruptions of capital, especially in scenes where he treats two (apparently twin) prostitutes he has hired as a ‘rich man’ appallingly, showing his own capacity for exploitation.
Frankly, I’d be lying if I said I had a handle on exactly what was going on at every given moment. What I can say without much fear of contradiction is that the sound design is brilliant and that writer-director Aik Karapetian is a dab hand at evoking nameless menace and delivering brutal shocks. Approach with caution.
Writers: Pavel Jurácek, Radovan Krátký, Karel Zeman
Cast: Petr Kostka, Emília Vášáryová, Miroslav Holub
Original title:Bláznova kronika
A Jester’s Tale (1964) is a delightful and entertaining period piece that combines live action and animated engravings in an original and ingenious way. A farmer named Petr is happily ploughing his field when a group of soldiers press gang him into joining the king’s army. Petr’s independent and ironic attitude makes him completely unsuited to army life. As the army marches into battle in the Thirty Years’ War, Petr stumbles over rocks and is distracted by forget-me-nots.
In a characteristically humorous turn of events, our hero manages to break his rifle stand, and is forced to shoot from ground level, which serendipitously saves him and an ageing fellow soldier from the firing line. Things begin to look up as the pair find themselves the only survivors of the battle, gaily make off with a carriage full of loot, and even pick up a pretty peasant along the way. But when the three friends are surrounded by enemy soldiers once more, they decide to impersonate the king, his steward and his jester…
Those who are already connoisseurs of the sly humour and sheer inventiveness of Czechoslovak New Wave cinema will not be disappointed with this 1964 instalment, directed by Karel Zeman. The political liberalisation that took place in 1960s Czechoslovakia meant that filmmakers were blessed with an enviable cross between relative artistic freedom and central planning’s guaranteed funding and facilities. Directors of the time were particularly keen to make films about everyday life, previously a tricky subject: Socialist Realism prescribed films that glorified a heroic past or looked forward to an ideal future when Communism’s contemporary difficulties would be ironed out.
Films by documentary-influenced directors like Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer turned their lens on a contemporary setting, but even historical films like A Jester’s Tale had something to say about everyday life. Petr is a perfect example of an individualist who does everything he can to avoid the honourable roles that society attempts to impose on him, because he sees the hollow reality behind the hype.
Zeman makes a mockery of war by representing it through animation. There is something innately irreverent about taking static book illustrations and bringing them to life, and all the more when animation allows unlikely events, like the rank and file soldiers getting their heads blown off in unison. It will remind many viewers of the Monty Python animations by Terry Gilliam, who cites Zeman as one of his influences, along with Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk. Zeman stands out for his ability to combine live action and animation in the same frame, to the magical point where it’s hard to tell where the drawings end and reality begins.
In his engaging liner notes, Ian Haydn Smith tantalises us with descriptions of Zeman’s early shorts, including a popular series of satirical puppet films and Inspiration, a lyrical animation of glass. At just 81 minutes’ running time, A Jester’s Tale leaves some spare space on a DVD, so any of these shorts would have been a welcome addition to this release.
The Second Run DVD is presented in a new anamorphic digital transfer and features a new essay on the film by writer and book editor Ian Haydn Smith.
Cast: Philippe Avron, Jirí Sýkora, Magda Vášáryová
Original title:Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni
It’s easy to see why director Juraj Jakubisko was known as the Slovak Fellini. Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969) instantly sweeps the audience along with a liberated camera that plunges joyfully into the film’s carnivalesque world. It has been called a surrealist film, and like other films that fall under this loose designation, Birds, Orphans and Fools focuses less on storyline, more on original images and unpredictable digressions. Unlike some so-called surrealist films which alienate the audience with a lack of structure, Jakubisko’s work has a developed sense of timing, keeping the audience engaged by regular changes of scene. Furthermore, these diverse scenes are given meaning and unity by the continued presence of a central trio: Yorick, his girlfriend Marta, and his best friend Andrej, a photographer. They live in a tumbledown barn, presided over by a maudlin old man, with a variety of little birds flying in and out at will. The title comes from the old Slovak saying that God looks after birds, orphans and fools, but the film seems to contradict the proverb with a tragic ending, announced by the director’s voice-over during the opening sequence.
The source of the tragedy is jealousy, already present early on when Yorick, Marta and Andrej live together in near-utopian bliss. They enjoy a playful existence, always clowning about, living up to their reputation as fools. But every so often, the men show signs of resentment towards Marta: Andrej sees her as an unwelcome newcomer who disrupts his friendship with Yorick, while Yorick suspects her of unfaithfulness. The men’s unkindness and injustice in these moments is emphasized by their regression into anti-Semitic insults. Later, when the characters adopt a more bourgeois lifestyle, feelings of ownership and exclusion become more pronounced, leading to the film’s shocking finale.
Completed in 1968 just after the Soviet invasion and banned the year after, Birds, Orphans and Fools is a key example of the lesser-known Slovak side of the Czechoslovak New Wave. With its stylistic experimentation and non-conformist characters, the film recalls Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), but is less manic and more pastoral. It also invites comparison with French New Wave masterpieces: its ménage à trois recalls Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), but its stylistic virtuosity and affinity for youth culture makes it closer in spirit to Godard’s Breathless (1960). Jakubisko has a talent all his own when it comes to integrating the contemporary hippie zeitgeist into the traditional Slovak countryside. He emphasizes an organic relationship between modern and traditional lifestyles, rather than taking the more obvious approach of ironic contrast.
In an excellent and wide-ranging essay in the DVD liner notes, Peter Hames traces the film’s lineage back to Slovak surrealism, with its characteristic attachment to folk culture. Equally, though, I would suggest that this film has roots in Poetism, a uniquely Czechoslovak version of dada, which emphasized a good-humoured, self-deprecating, playful attitude to life and a powerful attachment to nature.
Cast: Anne Marie Chertic, Constantin Chiriac, Paul Chiributa
Somewhere in Palilula anything can happen, and frequently it does. We are invited into a world turned upside down in Silviu Purcărete’s carnivalesque triumph. Serafim, a young paediatrician, arrives in this ghost town, and we learn about the place and its inhabitants through his eyes and the stories he tells. Hard spirits and cigarettes are the staple diet of a community of drunks, doctors, cleaners, prostitutes and a hermaphrodite. There are no children, the hospital patients are not sick, and soon Serafim starts to adapt and feel like he belongs there. Purcărete lifts us to emotional heights with a scintillating score (by composer Vasilé Şirli) and awe-inspiring theatrical tableaux (production designers are Helmut Stürmer and Dragoş Buhagiar), then lets us fall into depths of visceral mire, then up again and so on. The director immerses us in fantasy but his tale is hugely allegorical. Here, the legacy of Soviet rule and the onset of market economy in Romania are parodied and mythologised. By pushing surrealist and magic realist genres of cinema, Purcărete carves out a space for himself alongside Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini. This UK premiere at the EEFF comes highly recommended.
The East End Film Festival opens on 3 July and runs until 8 July 2012. Somewhere in Palilula screens on 7 July at the Rich Mix. For more information please visit the East End Film Festival website.
Cast: Zahary Baharov, Tanya Ilieva, Vladimir Penev
Moth (Zahary Baharov), a would-be boxer and full-time loser, emerges from prison in the 60s, having missed out on most of his youth and a communist coup in 1944, serving time for a murder he didn’t commit, having taken the fall to protect his lover Ada (Tanya Ilieva) and their unborn child. He is barely out of the prison doors when he is abducted by army thugs and taken to be tortured by Slug (Vladimir Penev), once a small-time con man, now a commissar in the new hierarchy, hell-bent on finding a diamond that went missing after that murder decades ago…
Bulgarian neo-noir, anybody? Javor Gardev’s Zift makes no bones about the fact that it’s running on familiar rails. Ada’s femme fatale status is flagged up immediately when she is given the teenage nickname Mantis, and reinforced for those who haven’t got it yet when she reappears under the stage name Gilda in a slinky black number singing a tune that Rita Hayworth would find familiar. Moth is, of course, fatally drawn to his old flame. He seems to be smart enough to deliver the dry, world-weary voice-over, but not smart enough to avoid trouble, getting into the wrong car, falling into Slug’s traps. He spends the second half of the film as a dead man walking (with obvious nods to 1950’s D.O.A.) and the rain-sodden graveyard finale seems so inevitable that it feels oddly flat when it actually happens.
So Gardev, heavily assisted by screenwriter Vladislav Todorov and D.P. Emil Hristov, is serving us a very familiar brew, plot-wise, but, as if to compensate, goes mad on the decoration and delivery. Zift is full of inventive camera work and artful monochrome compositions. Moth staggers around in a sharp leather jacket and white shirt combo when he’s not naked and tattooed, his shaven scalp looking decidedly anachronistic for the 1960s (though various flashbacks tell us this is saving us from a coiffure that looks like a cheap carpet). His story is continually interrupted with grainy cutaways that illustrate other tales and ideas. What would be tense sequences in other films are undercut here by deliberately OTT touches, so an escape from Slug’s torturers results in Moth sliding on his arse through a Turkish bath full of screaming naked women chasing a glass eyeball. Elsewhere, it’s self-consciously cool in a way that reminded me of Europa-era von Trier and other art-house darlings of 20 years back, seeming to take place in its own hermetically sealed nightmare world. Well, either that or Bulgaria is a lot freakier than I think we all imagined. The clock is striking 17, 18, 19, and there are dwarf women selling insects in jars at flea markets in the woods, fart-lighting grave-diggers and creepy grinning nurses; everybody at a hospital seems compelled to tell stories of horror or embarrassment, and most of the cast seem prone to the kind of gutter philosophising that comes naturally to drunks or men serving hard time.
Zift comes to life in prison flashbacks and fever dream hallucinations, in its grotesques and non-sequiturs, and disappoints when it clambers back to its story. It’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take all this: the off-the-peg plot and go-for-broke stylisation work against any kind of emotional tug. Are we meant to feel anything for these hard-boiled archetypes? Does it matter, when there’s all this neat stuff to look at? Ilieva is pretty damn sexy as Mantis. In a role that’s written as pure male fantasy, she manages to suggest that there’s more going on behind those eyes than Moth will ever comprehend. Baharov gives good lug as Moth, whose hangdog fatalism means that he never seems all that concerned by his own damnation. The whole thing is engaging and off-kilter and a little unsatisfying. It’s worth watching for those odd moments of Bulgarian business, but you can’t help wishing that all this invention and craft had been festooned around a story that needed telling.
Cast: Andrea Ajtony, András Ambrus, Lajos Balázsovits
Filled with catchy revolutionary tunes and lush colour imagery of attractive peasants in a fertile landscape, Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971) has an irresistible appeal, which is difficult to achieve with a largely non-narrative film with limited characterisation. Red Psalm centres on the Hungarian peasant uprisings of the late 1800s. The peasants engage in a series of confrontations with landowners, the Church and the military, each meeting an occasion for brief ideological exchanges. Crucially, unlike Eisenstein’s films, Red Psalm does not present stultifying certainties, but conflicting politico-economic ideas, which the audience can assess for themselves.
The film’s director, Miklós Jancsó, is a master of the long take: the entire film contains only 28 shots. With the large number of actors involved, and the fact that they are in perpetual motion (dancing as they sing, or pacing as they debate political ideas), it clearly took great skill to control the contents of each shot.
Jancsó’s style calls to mind two other directors, Béla Tarr and Aleksandr Sokurov. With the latter he shares highly choreographed long takes, and similarly uses visual interest to make up for limited narrative interest. Jancsó’s images are not as richly textured as Sokurov’s, yet their simple symbolism is equally pleasing. This is where there is something of Tarr in Jancsó: compensating for surface minimalism, there is a sense of equally important intangible elements at work. While not as otherworldly as Tarr’s films, Red Psalm, through symbolism and political debate, evokes ideas that ennoble the physical world, making it semantically richer.
The new Second Run DVD of Red Psalm contains one extra feature, also by Jancsó: Message of Stones (A kövek üzenete - Hegyalja, 1994), the third part in a documentary series, focused on the decimation of Hungary’s Jewish population. At the outset, the film is not promising: it feels more like a home video than a professional production, and revolves around taciturn old folk, rural roads and sleepy towns, without any voice-over to explain their significance. But Jancsó’s style soon asserts itself, and the relationship with the main feature becomes clearer. The documentary has a characteristically rousing soundtrack, and artistically composed shots come to balance more amateurish framings. Jancsó observes expatriate Jews returning to Hungary, where they visit ancestral monuments, abandoned synagogues and their parents’ and grandparents’ former houses and lands, long since appropriated by non-Jewish families. The film’s final scenes show a group of Jewish children learning folk dances, which they joyfully perform in a landscape where their ancestors were eradicated. When the children caper through ruined buildings, they seem like green shoots breaking through scorched earth. The sense of hope, renewal and determination these scenes evoke are of a piece with Red Psalm‘s spirit of unity and idealism.
The DVD’s liner notes feature an informative essay by Peter Hames, in which the scholar explains the significance of Red Psalm, defines Jancsó’s style, summarises the director’s career and contextualises his work.
Second Run have also released The Miklós Jancsó Collection Box Set on November 21, a 3-disc set comprising My Way Home (Így jöttem, 1964), The Round-Up (Szegénylegények,1965), and The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967).
Cast: Zoltán Latinovits, Eva Ruttkai, Eva Leelossy
Much of the merit of Zoltán Huszárik’s Szindbád (1971) is likely to be lost on those uninitiated in Hungarian cinema and literature. The film has little narrative to speak of: what story there is centres on the title character Szindbád, who sails, like his namesake, but in a metaphorical sense. Szindbád has spent his life navigating seas of women, without ever quite fathoming the depths of their emotions. Set mainly at the end of this Lothario’s life, at the turn of the 20th century, the film follows him as he visits ageing former lovers and recalls his previous conquests in flashbacks, some lasting a few seconds, others several minutes.
The most accessible charm of this film is its aesthetic. Szindbád begins with a series of intriguing extreme close-ups, mainly of objects from the natural world: smouldering wood, a lock of blonde hair, rain dripping from roof tiles, lilies unfurling, all to a haunting soundtrack of dissonant piano notes and a woman’s playful laughter. The entire film is punctuated by similarly surreal shots of everyday objects, filmed so close that they become strange. The film’s extreme long shots are equally appealing, and capture the lyrical quality of the Central European countryside in every season: mist-wrapped mountains; onion-domed churches watching over lush green meadows; leaf-littered graveyards; snowy tree-lined avenues. Szindbád also benefits from saturated colour photography that emphasises the beauty and variety of the landscape, objects and costumes.
In spite of its surface beauty, there is something rotten at the heart of Szindbád. Scenes from Szindbád‘s later years are permeated with a tiresome malaise that cannot be attributed to fin-de-sií¨cle decadence. Szindbád’s unease comes from the regret of never having formed a meaningful bond with any of the scores of women he encountered: at the end of his life, he is left only with memories of fleeting pleasures. For the women, it is the sickliness of unsatisfied desire, which knows no end: they continue to languish after the unworthy womaniser.
Thankfully, Second Run’s new DVD release comes with clear and concise liner notes in which Michael Brooke gives the necessary background information to Szindbád. He explains that it was a daring adaptation of the work of Hungarian modernist Gyula Krúdy, whose Szindbád stories were driven by observations rather than events. The film is also remarkable in terms of its reception: despite being set in a bourgeois turn-of-the century milieu, it was approved by the censors, and despite its artistic ambition, it became a popular success. Even now, it ranks high among the favourites of Hungarian film critics and public alike.
The DVD includes just one special feature, but one so good it is almost all that is necessary. Peter Strickland, director of the Hungary-set Katalin Varga (2009), engages in an ‘appreciation’ of Szindbád: a discussion of the film’s merits that is thoughtful and detailed, yet disarmingly personal and relaxed. If you finish watching Szindbád and aren’t convinced that it was worth your while, let Strickland try to change your mind.
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.
Extras include the first screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic, 1903’s Alice in Wonderland, the Brothers Quay’s Alice-inspired Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? and Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong without You as well as a 34-page booklet.
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.’
There will be a screening of Alice on June 16 at the Barbican (London), followed by a Q&A with Jan Švankmajer and Peter Hames.