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The Surrealist Conspirator: An Interview With Jan Svankmajer

Wendy Jackson talks with the renowned Czech surrealist filmmaker upon the release of his new film and receipt of a lifetime achievement award.

Jan Svankmajer at his Prague studio in 1994. On the left is one of his ceramic

Jan Svankmajer at his Prague studio in 1994. On the left is one of his ceramic "composite head" sculptures. Photo courtesy of Wendy Jackson.

Jan Svankmajer has been called one of the most distinctive and influential contemporary Czech filmmakers. Since the mid-1960s, his films have shocked, mesmerized, repulsed and delighted audiences, amassing international cult-like followings and inspiring countless other artists and even imitators. His countryman and contemporary, director Milos Forman has described Svankmajer famously with the equation: "Disney plus Buñuel equals Svankmajer." Upon elaboration, Forman's recipe would be expanded to include the influence of Breton, Eisenstein, Fellini, Freud and a handful of Surrealists, probably the very least amount of which would be Disney.

Svankmajer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1934, coincidentally the very same year that the Czech Surrealist Group was formed, an organization with which he is very involved. In his 63 years in what is now the capitalist Czech Republic, he has seen the come and go of six different political regimes and their corresponding, often conflicting ideologies. While his work is noticeably political in content, Svankmajer is quick to point out that he maintains an inherent commentary and perspective which is not tied to any particular school of thought. There is a universality to his films which speaks to people from all cultures and beliefs.

Svankmajer and his crew filming a scene in Conspirators of Pleasure.

Svankmajer and his crew filming a scene in Conspirators of Pleasure.

Stylistically, Svankmajer's films are unforgettable in their richness and diversity of technique. Live-action, puppets, collage, drawn animation, montage, clay and object stop-motion animation mingle together in harmony and contrast throughout his body of work, which includes nearly 30 films, ranging in length from 20 seconds to 95 minutes. While a majority of these films have been animated, Svankmajer refuses to be classified as an animated filmmaker, or for that matter, as any particular type of artist. "Animators tend to construct a closed world for themselves, like pigeon fanciers or rabbit breeders." Svankmajer stated in an interview, "I never call myself an animated filmmaker because I am interested not in animation techniques or creating a complete illusion, but in bringing life to everyday objects."

And bring life to everyday objects is exactly what Svankmajer does. One could almost make a dictionary of objects as symbols in Svankmajer's films, something akin to Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. From fish to rolling pins, to keys, stones and wardrobe closets, objects usually trapped in the banality of life take on new meanings as metaphors for emotions and ideas.

Persistence of Vision

While Svankmajer has been subject of much discussion and admiration within the independent film community, public recognition of his accomplishments have been limited. A retrospective of his work and subsequent winning of the Grand Prize for his film Dimensions of Dialogue at the 1983 Annecy Animation Festival is often attributed to the beginning of an international interest in his films.

Fourteen years and twelve films later, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), in its 40th year, decided to honor Svankmajer with The Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, a new award to recognize lifetime achievement of filmmakers who are "working outside the bounds of traditional filmmaking."

Peter Scarlet, the festival's creative director, presented the award to Svankmajer on May 6, 1997 at the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco. He told the audience that the most hate mail the festival had ever received was concerning the screening of a Svankmajer film a few years ago. While this is not the most likely precedent to the presentation of an award, the packed house in the Kabuki theater indicated a strong local appetite for Svankmajer's films. Director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) also spoke at the presentation, citing the influence Svankmajer has had on his work.

Fantasy-realization scene from Conspirators of Pleasure, featuring a life-size puppet.

Fantasy-realization scene from Conspirators of Pleasure, featuring a life-size puppet.

SFIFF sponsored Svankmajer's visit to San Francisco for the occasion, which was accompanied by sold-out screenings of his short films and the North American premiere of his new feature film, Conspirators of Pleasure. Not exactly known for being a "social butterfly", Svankmajer said at the awards presentation that he had been asked so many questions since his arrival in San Francisco, that he felt like he had been tossed into a washing machine on the spin cycle. I was fortunate enough to be one of those people asking questions, and honored to have an opportunity speak with Svankmajer at length and in his own language. Though I had met Svankmajer before, I had only been able to attempt communication through my limited understanding of the Czech language. This time around, however, I was able to conduct an in-depth interview with the assistance of an interpreter.

I asked Svankmajer for his reaction to receiving this Persistence of Vision award, to which he replied that he liked the name of the award, and added "I am happy to accept this, because it is not a government award. I will not accept government awards. The Communists wanted to give me a laureate award, but I declined!"

Conspirators of Pleasure

Svankmajer's latest film is a masterpiece of black humor and observation of the human condition. Described as a "sexual feast" of a film, Conspirators presents six characters and their bizarre sexual fetish-fantasies. At once kinky, grotesque and hilarious, the film brings us into the secret, very personal lives of ordinary people: apartment-dwellers, a newscaster, a magazine vendor, and a postal delivery person. If you enjoy rituals such as stuffing bread balls in your nose or having your toes sucked by fish, you're not alone!

One of the magic geniuses of Svankmajer is his ability to turn film, a strictly audio-visual medium, into a sensual, nearly synesthetic experience. With all of his films, Conspirators in particular, one can practically taste, smell and feel the settings. His use of exaggerated, hyper-real sound effects and quick, Eisenstein-esque editing accentuate visuals which are already uncanny.


Two "conspirators of pleasure" sense eachother's bizarre sexual fetishes. " head" sculptures. Photo courtesy of Wendy Jackson.

The physicality of Conspirators bears an overall resemblance to the work he created during a seven-year recess from filmmaking, imposed on him after references to politics were found in "unauthorised" changes he made to his 1972 film, Leonardo's Diary. From 1972-79, he focused on sculpture, ceramics, poetry and other static art forms, resulting in a body of work he refers to as his "tactile experiments," wherein something as simple as a rolling pin covered in nails and animal fur explores contrasts that awaken the senses. The following is a love poem of sorts, titled "Economical Suicide," written by Svankmajer in 1979 and dedicated to his wife Eva (a painter and sculptor herself).

Spread your fingers as far apart as possible Place between them the grain of a pea Endure Knees kneeling down on a grater Endure Slip a sucking sweet in your mouth Suck Your back pressed against the smooth concrete of a laundry Endure One's heels placed into the outflow by the bath just as the plug has been pulled Endure Calves painted with egg yolk let it dry and endure Run water in the basin Shoes off Dip your face Endure

Wendy Jackson (WJ): I was struck by the similarities Conspirators of Pleasure had with the tactile experiments you produced in the 1970s. Was the film developed at that time?

Jan Svankmajer (JS): "This script for this movie was conceived in 1970, under a different title. I started with my tactile experimentation and explorations just a little bit later, in 1974 or so. So in actuality, the tactile experiments entered into this film only when I was actually working on it, in 1996."

WJ: Would it bold to say that Conspirators of Pleasure is your most Surrealist film to date?

JS: "You are absolutely correct about that. That's what I say about this film, that it definitely has the strongest element of Surrealism in it."

WJ: Why?

JS: "Conspirators is actually a film about liberation, and about gaining a freedom. It is not art, but a film. Just as, for example, André Breton would not say "Surrealistic painting", he would say "Surrealism in painting". In the same way, I speak of Surrealism in film. Surrealism is psychology, it is philosophy, it is a spiritual way, but it is not an aesthetic. Surrealism is not interested in actually creating any kind of aesthetic. It was drawn as an element from various different artists, but it does not exist."

WJ: How can something so prevalent in your work be non-existent?

JS: "Surrealism does exist, but it is not an art form. To characterize Surrealism, you can say it is the Romantic movement of the 20th century. Each romantic period expresses three elements: love, freedom and poetry. Each generation is seeking their own artistic expressions according to the environment and the time period they live in. The Romanticism of the 21st century will ask the same question. It doesn't matter whether that Romanticism will be Culturalism, or something else."

WJ: In this film, you reserved the technique of animation for the actualization of the characters' fantasies. What is the role that animation plays in this limited capacity?

JS: "The animation is mostly used in the sequences where the character creates an artificial [sexual] partner. The point of view of the activity of these people is taken from a distance, or as to be viewed by a third person. But the relationship of the two people who actually fabricate their partners (each other), is done from the point of view of a living human being, of one's partner. I was hesitating for a long time as to whether I should do it this way or to do it as the other parts of the film are done, meaning, so that it would be viewed as more than just the relationship between the two of them. Then I realized that the individuals did not really seek a living creature, but an effigy, an artificial partner. To make these things alive, I could do it only by animation. Therefore, I stepped out of the third person point of view, and put it into the context of the characters' own point of view."

WJ: Do you think that this made those fantasies more real? Is this the"real animation" that you have referred to?

JS: "You can see in that the figures have been sewn together by hand, that they are objects. I also work with many other objects in my film. In this particular instance, it's a little different because the individual who works with the figurine can actually do things to it, all kinds of violent actions, and you can see the effects. For instance, the character wearing the rooster head and umbrella wings is transformed by the costume. He is gaining totally different powers, to fly and perform magic, etc. . . As soon as he hits the branch and the mask comes off, he is immediately just this little human being, devoid of his powers."

WJ: In your view, do you think that any of the characters in the film are aware of their fascination with each other?

JS: "It was my intention that there would be certain elements in their behavior that would create recognition among them. They were not supposed to be known to each other, but something would happen that would trigger the recognition that they are part of the same group of people. For example, when a gay person can recognize another gay person because of certain elements, there is something [intangible], a communication which can trigger that recognition. Times of self pleasuring or "auto-sex" do not require communication. The two main characters are communicating secretly, not directly. They are in fact isolated, but at the same time, they are conspirators."

From a collaborative tactile poem created by Jan Svankmajer and his wife, Eva.

From a collaborative tactile poem created by Jan Svankmajer and his wife, Eva.

WJ: In Faust and now in Conspirators, you have increased the size of your marionettes. While you cite Czech tradition in your use of marionettes, large scale puppets are something of your own unique creation. What does the life-size marionette represent?

JS: "I wouldn't want to overstate the importance or significance of this. The intention was that I wanted to get the marionettes into reality, and therefore I had to increase their size, so that they could function in a correct ratio to the actors, to interact with them. The marionettes exist also in small size in a miniature theater. That way I manage to make the viewer very insecure about the size. One moment you can see them very small, when they are led by a human hand, and in another you see them in life size. So, we are actually approaching a different dimension of reality."

WJ: You have said that Charles Bowers is "your immediate predecessor in relation to reality and real animation." When did you first see his films?

JS: "The first time I saw Bowers films was in the Seventies, even after I had completed my film The Flat. There are two Bowers films in the Czech Film Archive. After the director of this archive saw my films, he contacted me and said "I have something here that you might be interested in." So I went down and saw the films, and I realized that he was my predecessor in what I was doing, because he was mixing animation and live-action 50 years before I started filmmaking. But we are talking in the terms of technique, not content. The content of our respective work is very different."

WJ: Do you think that once you'd seen Bowers' work, that it influenced you at all?

JS: "No, not necessarily. I never declared myself to be the inventor of this combination of live acting and animation. I was just very pleased that there was someone a long time before me that had the same idea, and it worked for him too."

WJ: Up until Alice and then Faust, you were working almost entirely with animation. How does it feel for you to work with live actors? You have much less control over them, I would think, than you have of inanimate objects.

JS: "I have to admit that I work with actors exactly as I work with inanimate objects. I don't select my actors as to whether they are famous, or "good actors", rather I select actors who fit in the vision that I have for that particular picture. Then I work with them and I use the camera to photograph them as inanimate objects. Sometimes I even animate the actors, as I did in Faust."

WJ: You are very versatile in your filmmaking and other art, with the use many different techniques. Can you tell me something about your process for determining which medium should be employed to communicate or express a particular idea?

JS: "I always say that I basically make my work "to order", by which I mean to my "inner order". It is really inside me, what's going to come out. The way I see it, each individual accumulates in his or her lifetime. That which accumulates inside him or her needs to find a way out. Basically, everybody can do that, but most people do not find a way of releasing it, they have certain blockage. There is no such thing as talent."

WJ: No such thing as talent? That is a bold statement.

JS: "It's very simple. The artist is able to reach their resources, and overcome the block. But a clerk who sits in the office, obviously, has his blockage and cannot. This so-called "professionalism", is much more a matter of technique, or skill than creativity. You can see that in naive art, or folk art, if an individual wants to express him or herself, they find a way to do it if they really want to."

WJ: You grew up in a time of such oppression of creativity and self-expression. How is it that you are so "lucky" as to not have this block, that you are able to realize your potential to express yourself through art?

JS: "It's a difficult question to answer. I believe there is a lot to it, including family influences. Certain children are just very difficult to handle. I was one of these children (laughs). For example, all children can draw. Some of them retain this ability until adult age, while in other children the ability is subsequently killed."

WJ: It's been about seven years since you made your cathartic film, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, following the demise of Communist rule in your country. Now you have your freedom. How has this changed your content, your message? Who or what is your antagonist now? JS: "I would like to say that I consider all of my films to be very politcally engaged. But I never narrowed it down to a totalitarian system, the way, for example, the artist dissident would. Because I realize that civilization does allow for the creation or existence of something as sick as Fascism or Stalinism, then the entire civilization itself is very ill, something is wrong. I always wanted to penetrate the core of this problem. Not to just concentrate on the very surface of political activity. Therefore, my films are universal, they can communicate with audiences outside of the Czech Republic. So, just because the political situation changed in Czechoslovakia, doesn't mean that the universe or the civilization changed at the same time. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason to change my enemy. It will always be the same."

Jan Svankmajer at the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 1997. Photo by Wendy Jackson.

Jan Svankmajer at the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 1997. Photo by Wendy Jackson.

WJ: What is next for you?

JS: "My next project is a feature film called Otesánek, which is a word that cannot be translated. It's a very old Czech fairy tale. Although it is a story little known outside of Czech culture, it will be accessible to people who have never heard it before, because the original fairy tale will be taught in the film. There will be a dialogue in the film, unlike Conspirators, which is without language.

"It will be a live-action film, set in the present day, [edited] in parallel with an animated film depicting the story of the original Czech fairy tale on which the entire film is based. The animation will be something like paper figurines that come to life and tell the original story. The screenplay is completed, and I'd like to start pre-production sometime in the fall. We are looking for financing, and hopefully next spring we can start filming. It will be filmed in Prague; it all takes place in one house.

"Otesánek is a story about a couple who can't have children, so the father goes in the backyard he carves a little baby boy out of a tree stump. The story is that the boy grows and grows, and eats and eats, and he cannot fit in the house anymore. He is always hungry; he eats everything in sight, the postman, and ultimately he eats his parents. There is a little girl who lives in the house with this character. They become friends, and she actually helps him to get the people that he can eat. She's the only one who actually manages to establish communication with him; she understands what is going on because of this little fairy tale that she's got in her book. She can, in fact, foretell the future, because she knows from the parallel story in her book what's going to happen.

"The story ends very tragically, because the main character is killed. The little girl knows from the fairy tale that this is going to happen, and she does everything in her power to prevent it, because he is her friend. The movie ends in the same way the story ends, a tragic ending in which the grandmother goes into the cellar with an ax to kill the character. The scene at the end of the film shows the little girl crying, and begging her not to kill him.

"This civilization is based on rationality, totalitarianism that is, and anything that is outside of this particular point or reference of reality, is difficult to comprehend and is therefore pushed away."

WJ: Has this some inspiration from the traditional Eastern European story of "The Golem"?

JS: "Yes, it is similar in that it is a horror fairy tale that will scare little children. But in this instance, I am giving it a more philosophical dimension, because you can substitute this main character as a metaphor for all kinds of things. It will be a combination of black humor, imagination, and fairy tale. It will be told as a black humor, with elements of reality."

WJ: When you describe that, I envision you literally mixing black humor, imagination and fairy tale in some kind of cauldron. Rightly, you are often referred to as the "alchemist" of film.

JS: "Yes, alchemy is about trying to connect things that you cannot connect, that are "un-connectable". Poetry is a parallel for alchemy, and alchemy is a parallel for poetry."

Some of Svankmajer's work is currently on exhibit at the National Gallery in Prague, as part of an installation about alchemy, organized with four people in the Czech Surrealist Group. Conspirators of Pleasure is being distributed worldwide by Paris-based Celluloid Dreams, and in the U.S. by Zeitgeist Films, who plan a video release after a theatrical run at art house theaters across the country, beginning with an August 20 opening at Film Forum in New York.

Interview translator: Zuzana Goldstein.

Wendy Jackson is Associate Editor of Animation World Magazine.

See Also:

To purchase a Jan Svankmajer video, visit the AWN Store.

The Animation of Heaven and Hell in 3-D web site in AWN's Animation Village features extensive information, a filmography and film clips.

The Czech Surrealist Group web site offers Svankmajer's videotapes and related books for sale, through the online extension of the Gambra Surrealistic Gallery in Prague.

Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Svankmajer, edited by Peter Hames. Greenwood Press (U.S.), Flicks Books (U.K.), 1995. 202 pages, illustrated.