SURREALISM’S NOT DEAD: Master Filmmaker Jan Švankmajer

“The world is divided into two unequal camps: those who have never heard of Jan Švankmajer… and those who happen upon his work and know that they have come face to face with genius,” Anthony Lane observed in The New Yorker. Grimy and surreal, Švankmajer’s singular, absurdist stop-motion films have influenced three generations of art filmmakers, as well as Hollywood directors Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro, bridging the temporal surrealist gap between André Breton and Alexander McQueen.

From the making of Alice, Švankmajer's first feature film.

From the making of Alice, Svankmajer’s first feature film.

The 81-year-old has made over thirty films, over a 50 year career, including adaptations of literary classics like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and Goethe’s Faust. Having grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia, his work relates Freudian dream analysis to political ideology, and the fantastic to the monstrous. 

The fear of the films this does not negate the sensuality of his movies: incorporating real life actors as well as stop-motion animation, their sets are unsettlingly tangible.

He calls himself a misanthrope, and fittingly, his latest production, Insects, is based on the Čapek brothers’ novel Pictures from the Insects’ Life, intertwined with motifs from fellow Czech adventurer Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In his movie, humans turn into insects, while insects are humanized, alluding to his belief of the human species as a plague. Insects is being crowdfunded at the moment, and its Indiegogo campaign runs until this coming Tuesday, July 6.

032c spoke to him about the tactility of his movies and the overlap between repulsion and eroticism.

In its “messiness,” stop-motion animation is hyper-realistic. In your movies, the protagonists are actors as well as puppets, blending reality with the fictions of our culture. Can they ever even be separated?

Jan Švankmajer: While creating an imaginative film, you must make sure that the viewers perceive all you place in front of them as a reality. Breton wrote that “What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no longer anything fantastic: there is only the real.” The deeper you delve into the irrational, the absurd, the surreal, the more realistic your delivery needs to be in the details. You must make the viewers doubt their everyday reality, and only this way can your work fulfil its subversive function. To differentiate between reality and illusion in an imaginative film, that would be a crucial mistake to make – quite similar to distinguishing between reality and dream in surrealistic texts. 

This confusion of object and subject hood among the characters and stories has an erotic aspect as well. These non-human forms are inherently alienating, there is something vile to them. Do you see a link between disgust and sexuality?

The most inner source of our creation are the various obsessions that we have – those are mainly relics we carry from childhood. And according to Freud, all children have what he calls polymorphous perversity. If we want to retain as much authenticity in our work as possible, we cannot avoid being perverse, with all the disgust and repulsion that comes with it. It has nothing to do with mere exhibitionism, which is always sort of narcissistically elegant.


Jan Švankmajer at the entomological auction in Prague, 2016.

In our experience of the world, the political has a sensual element to it, too. It literally as well as figuratively touches, and enters us. How does that inform your work?

I don’t think that my work is political. I have always been more interested in what’s behind it all, the essence of events. My only political film is The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, I even called it “agitprop” of sorts. This film came to life during a very special time – the Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia – and it was a kind of a catharsis. But it is true that when the communist regime was in power, many people saw my work as political, and so did the censors as a matter of fact. I’ve always rebelled to this label because I felt that the entire civilization is sick, otherwise atrocious ideologies like fascism or Stalinism could have never come to fruition. Apart from that, politics is fuelled by the same kind of aggression as sexuality. Freedom and manipulation are the main topics I’m interested in. That’s more philosophy than politics. 

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa dies out of neglect, essentially caused by precisely disgust, and alienation. What sparked your interest to incorporate Metamorphosis into Insects?

For Insects, I’ve borrowed just a theme from Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa – Mr. Forrest in my film – changes into an insect. But in here, the metamorphosis is not so much about the sense of alienation, it’s more like the Stanislavski System taken to the extreme. It’s about how Mr. Forrest leaves the human society for good to join the world of insects. But we could go on with all the possible interpretations: Mr. Forrest steals the ball of dung from the dung beetle (its only possession), so is the metamorphosis really just an outcome of his profit-seeking actions? That’s the undisputed advantage of imaginative film – it offers so many interpretations… I would also like to point out that there is no “approved” way how to interpret these films – all views are correct. Even I try to figure out what my films are about only after they’ve been finished.

Head here to support Insects‘s crowdfunding campaign.


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