Czech film director, scriptwriter, stage designer, visual artist
Article by Tania Santou
“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..”
Jan Švankmajer born 4 September 1934) is a Czech filmmaker and artist whose work spans several media. He is a self-labeled surrealist known for his animations and features, which have greatly influenced other artists such as Terry Gilliam, the Brothers Quay, and many others.
Life and career
Jan Švankmajer is a Czech animator and filmmaker born in Prague. An early influence on his later artistic development was a puppet theatre he was given for Christmas as a child. He studied at the College of Applied Arts in Prague and later in the Department of Puppetry at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts. He contributed to Emil Radok’s film Doktor Faust in 1958 and then began working for Prague’s Semafor Theatre where he founded the Theatre of Masks.
He then moved on to the Laterna Magika multimedia theatre, where he renewed his association with Radok. This theatrical experience is reflected in Švankmajer’s first film The Last Trick, which was released in 1964. Under the influence of theoretician Vratislav Effenberger Švankmajer moved from the mannerism of his early work to classic surrealism, first manifested in his film The Garden (1968), and joined the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group.
He was married to Eva Švankmajerová, an internationally known surrealist painter, ceramicist, and writer until her death in October 2005. Švankmajerová collaborated on several of her husband’s movies, including Alice, Faust, and Otesánek. They had two children, Veronika (b. 1963) and Václav (b. 1975, an animator).
The Švankmajer Style
Švankmajer has gained a reputation over several decades for his distinctive use of stop-motion technique, and his ability to make surreal, nightmarish, and yet somehow funny pictures. He continues to make films in Prague. Švankmajer’s trademarks include very exaggerated sounds, often creating a very strange effect in all eating scenes. He often uses fast-motion sequences when people walk or interact. His movies often involve inanimate objects being brought to life through stop motion. Many of his films also include clay objects in stop motion, otherwise known as claymation. Food is a favourite subject and medium. Švankmajer also uses pixilation in many of his films, including Food (1992) and Conspirators of Pleasure (1996).
Stop-motion features in most of his work, though recently his feature films have included much more live action sequences than animation.
Many of his movies, like the short film Down to the Cellar, are made from a child’s perspective, while at the same time often having a truly disturbing and even aggressive nature. In 1972 the communist authorities banned him from making films, and many of his later films were suppressed. He was almost unknown in the West until the early 1980s. Writing in The New York Times, Andrew Johnston praised Svankmajer’s artistry, stating “while his films are rife with cultural and scientific allusions, his unusual imagery possesses an accessibility that feels anchored in the shared language of the subconscious, making his films equally rewarding to the culturally hyperliterate and to those who simply enjoy visual stimulation.”
Thoroughfare in Knovíz, Kladno District, Czech Republic. The former cinema building on the right: Jan Švankmajer’s studio
Today Švankmajer is one of the most celebrated animators in the world. Among his best known works are the feature films Alice (1988), Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Little Otik (2000) and Lunacy (2005), a surreal comic horror based on two works of Edgar Allan Poe and the life of Marquis de Sade. The two stories by Poe, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and “The Premature Burial”, provide Lunacy its thematic focus, whereas the life of Marquis de Sade provides the film’s blasphemy. Also famous (and much imitated) is the short Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), selected by Terry Gilliam
as one of the ten best animated films of all time. His films have been called “as emotionally haunting as Kafka’s stories.”His latest film is Surviving Life from 2010.
His next project is called Insects (Hmyz). It has a projected budget of 40 million CZK and a preliminary release set for 2017. The film will be based on the play Pictures from the Insects’ Life by Karel Čapek, which Švankmajer describes as following: “This Čapek´s play is a very misanthropic, and I always liked it — bugs behave as a human beings, and people behave as insects. Similar thematic content to Franz Kafka and his famous Metamorphosis.”
In 2000, Švankmajer received Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Festival of Animated Film – Animafest Zagreb.
On 27 July 2013 he received the Innovation & Creativity Prize by Circolino dei Films, an independent Italian cultural organization.
On 10 July 2014, he received the 2014 FIAF Award during a special ceremony of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
2017 Hmyz (pre-production)
2010 Prezít svuj zivot (teorie a praxe)
2003 The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer: The Early Years Vol. 1 (Video)
2003 The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer: The Later Years Vol. 2 (Video)
1996 Spiklenci slasti
1993 Jídlo (Short)
1991 Konec stalinismu v Cechách (Short)
1989 Flora (Short)
1989 Animated Self-Portraits (Short)
1989 Muzné hry (Short)
1989 Tma/Svetlo/Tma (Short)
1989 Zamilované maso (Short)
1988 Another Kind of Love (Short)
1987 Neco z Alenky
1984 Kyvadlo, jáma a nadeje (Short)
1983 Do pivnice (Short)
1983 Moznosti dialogu (Short)
1982 Zánik domu Usherú (Short)
1977 Otrantský zámek (Short)
1974 Leonarduv denik (Short)
1971 Zvahlav aneb Saticky Slameného Huberta (Short)
1971 Don Sajn (Short)
1971 Tichý týden v dome (Short)
1970 Kostnice (Documentary short)
1969 Picknick mit Weismann (Short)
1968 Byt (Short)
1968 Zahrada (Short)
1967 Historia Naturae, Suita (Short)
1967 Et Cetera (Short)
1967 Hra s kameny (Short)
1966 Rakvickarna (Short)
1965 Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasia G-moll (Short)
1964 Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (Short)
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