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Fish suck feet and other bizarre moments in the wild films of Jan Svankmajer

During a question and answer session following a screening of his film, Faust, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, Jan Svankmajer was asked how he would define himself as a filmmaker. Svankmajer looked completely non-plussed and then said, “What? I’m a surrealist, of course.” The surrealism of Svankmajer’s films, and how quickly it intrudes into reality, became quickly evident on his trip back from Cannes. He and a friend were driving back to Prague. When they stopped someplace in Antibes, on the French Riviera, both were robbed of all their cash.

Svankmajer burst onto the world scene when he was already in his 50s. Though known and admired by many animators, his “breakthrough” came from the American animators Brothers Quay – a talented team whose homages to Svankmajer gave him a broader pubic in the United Kingdom and then the United States. A retrospective of Svankmajer films opens this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center. 

In addition to being an animator, Svankmajer is also a visual artist. He makes elaborate collages, and this collage-creating process is often the dynamics of his films, as in the 1989 short Darkness, Light, Darkness: 

Often a gentle fable or myth-like bit of surrealism quickly turns to subversion, as in this film when, at the end, the creation of a man ends up with his being boxed inside a prison of the room in which the creation took place.

The potent allegories in Svnakmajer’s films often underscore the dark sides of human nature. Animated puppets – one of Svankmajer’s principal animation techniques – often eat everything in sight, including each other. Although animators and the creators of short films were better shielded against censorship in communist Czechoslovakia, Svankmajer often ran into problems with censors. Referring to graffiti on human bones in his short film Ossuary in 1970, Svankmajer was told by the censors that graffiti did not exist in Czechoslovakia – this was something only Western delinquents did.

In the films of Svankmajer, dreams and nightmares are given equal weight with the every day. All exist simultaneously, on the same plane of reality. The dark – sometimes even sado-masochistic moments – are contrasted with moments of sheer brilliance, inventiveness and humor, as in a wonderful scene in The Conspirators of Pleasure. As the camera pans down the figure of a woman television anchor sitting at her desk reporting, it reveals her feet sitting inside an aquarium underneath the desk, where fish are pleasurably sucking on her submerged legs and feet.

The world he creates is unique, and Svankmajer remains a major, vital artist.

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