The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer

by | Feb 4, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer

The Kimstim Collection/Kino on Video KS2025 (2 DVDs)
Video: 4:3, color & B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, Czech & English
Subtitles: English
Extras: BBC Documentary: “Animator of Prague,” Selected artwork, Svankmajer bio/filmography/poems, Printed essay: “Filmmaker as Alchemist”
Rating: **** (assuming you like surrealism)

Films = The Fall of the House of Usher (5 min.), A Game with Stones (9 min.), Et cetera (7 min.) Punch and Judy (10 min.), The Flat (13 min.), Picnic with Weissmann (13 min.), A Quiet Week in the House (19 min.), Dimensions of Dialogue (12 min.), Down to the Cellar (15 min.), The Pendulum the Pit and the Hope (16 min.), Meat Love (1 min.), Flora (21 sec.), The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (15 min.), Food (17 min.)

Svankmajer has created since 1964 some of the most unique shorts ever made, and has influenced such modern filmmakers as The Brothers Quay (with a new feature just out), Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.  Svankmajer, based in Prague, is an animator, poet, sculptor, and designer who proclaims himself a “militant Surrealist.”  His films combine puppets, humans, various objects, cut-ups, stop-motion animation, live action, sculpture, clay, what have you. He can create a whole strange world of dreamlike, even nightmarish occurrences catering to the darkest areas of our consciousness.  Many of Svankmajer’s themes seem to be tied in with the particular Eastern European mindset of absurdities dictated by the authorities in charge (as in Kafka, for example). Although the Stalin statues in The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia represent a cynical pseudo-history of life under the Soviet yoke, I found the film Lunch (omitted from the list on the box and one of the best ones!) to be the best surrealist imagining of what life under dictatorship puts one thru.

Two of the shorts are based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, and convey a more horrific feeling than any of the Hammer Films features based on the same author. Their objective viewpoint is part of the effectiveness, though in Usher we don’t even see any human figures at all.  Very dark stuff.  One of Svankmajer’s two features was his version of Alice in Wonderland, and Down to the Cellar stars a little girl who could be that same Alice. Her trip to the cellar to get some potatoes becomes a nightmare of childhood fears, including a threatening black cat, skittering shoes with teeth, and potatoes that refuse to stay in a basket. Svankmajer takes the head-battering of Punch and Judy much further than the usual puppet show, staying true to his macabre bent. He can also get extremely visceral; one film shows the butchering of a pig so that he can obtain the innards needed for his “birthing” animations in the Stalinism short. And you may want to skip the final part of the last film, Food, if you possess a sensitive stomach. (Rather similar to the conclusion of that Peter Greenaway film with Helen Mirren if you get my visceral reference…)

The transfers seem to be good, although its not clear whether the often murky images and poor lighting were intended by the director or are just the result of his rather primitive filming equipment.  The disc navigation was extremely frustrating.  It was not possible to see a list of all the films on one disc to select one; you were forced to select Play All and then navigate from one to another using the Next button. Many of these failed to advance individually using the chapter button on any of my players.

 – John Sunier

Related Reviews
Logo Pure Pleasure
Logo Apollo's Fire
Logo Crystal Records Sidebar 300 ms
Logo Jazz Detective Deep Digs Animated 01