Jan Švankmajer: Interview

Czech Surrealist director, Jan Švankmajer. Photo: Athanor

“Freedom is becoming the only theme”: An Interview with Jan Švankmajer


Jan Švankmajer is an award-winning Czech filmmaker and Surrealist, known for his disquieting use of stop-motion animation, which he often juxtaposes with live actors and traditional Czech puppetry. He is also a prolific studio artist, poet, and theoretical writer in the Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group. A director of 26 short and 6 feature-length films, he is perhaps best known for Alice (or Something from Alice), his Alice in Wonderland adaptation, and for his Golden Bear-winning short film Dimensions of Dialogue. His most recent film, Surviving Life won the 2011 Czech Lion award. In 2009, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival awarded him Special Prize for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema.

Švankmajer’s cinematic worlds are startling. Clay humanoids melt and transform. Household objects, vegetables, raw meat, and animal parts spring to life. Live actors become stop-motion puppets and life-size marionettes. Whether a poetic short or a plot-driven feature, his films are simultaneously playful and grim, hopeful and cynical. But Švankmajer’s unique sense of black humor has political underpinnings.

In the earlier years of his film career, he was actively censored by Communist Party authorities, and from 1972 to 1979 he was blacklisted from making any films. But even in the post-Communist era, Švankmajer’s work has maintained a critical stance toward modern civilization, formed not least by his ideological commitment to the Surrealist movement.

In this interview, conducted via written correspondence, Jan Švankmajer discusses censorship, the history of the Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group, his most recent work, and his ideas on freedom and revolution.

Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), Photo: Jan Švankmajer, Athanor

Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), Photo: Jan Švankmajer, Athanor

Can you talk about the censorship you experienced during the Communist era of Czechoslovakia?

I started making films in the middle of 1960s, during a period when the political situation following the Stalinism of the 1950s began to ease. This easing of tension affected not only the political arena, but the cultural arena as well, as the “Czech New Wave” was starting to gain ground in the film industry. In this period, we can essentially speak about creative freedom, where even viewpoints directed at the regime were financed by the state, because the state had the film production monopoly. During that time, the censorship of my film work was minimal. Basically, when we talk about that time we are speaking about “the Golden Sixties.”

A different situation began after the suffocation of the “1968 Political Spring” and the resulting Soviet occupation. The Communist Party installed its members in the administration and factual censorship went back into effect. Some of my films from the late 1960s (The Garden, The Flat) were locked inside a safe, and new films were variously trimmed (Leonardo’s Diary, The Ossuary, Jabberwocky). When I refused to respect censors’ remarks on the Castle of Otranto, I was banned from making films for seven years.

However, it was not much better during the 1980s. My film Dimensions of Dialogue even ended up in the Ideological Commission of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee, as a deterrent example. A number of my ideas and scripts from that period ended up in a drawer. I returned to some of them after November ’89 and brought them to life (Conspirators of Pleasure, Food).

You were already involved in the Surrealist Group in Czechoslovakia by this time. What were the group’s activities during the period of political repression?

My wife Eva and and I joined the Surrealist Group in 1970. By then the group was, after a brief breath of air in the late 1960s, underground again, reduced to studio isolation. It is important to mention here that the Surrealist movement in former Czechoslovakia has existed without interruption since the group’s foundation in 1934. There’s even a group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists that remains active to this day.

I must add, however, that until the Velvet Revolution in November 1989, the Czech and Slovak Surrealists were deprived of exhibition and publication opportunities most of the time. They spent the German occupation, 1950s Stalinism, and the twenty years after the Soviet occupation known as normalization, underground, limited to samizdat and studio exhibitions.

“When I refused to respect censors’ remarks on the Castle of Otranto, I was banned from making films for seven years.” –Jan Švankmajer

In the 1970s and 1980s, the group focused on the phenomenology of Surrealist imagination. We collaborated on themes of interest to us: Creative activity, eroticism, dreams, fear, mental morphology, and transformations of humor. For each theme, we organized surveys, collective plays, and individual contributions. Each theme had its own editor who developed some kind of model conclusion that led to a discussion.

We put the material for the individual themes into a book. Along with that, we published two anthologies of our work, The Open Play and The Opposite of Mirror. They were illegally printed books, shielded by a copyright from the Swiss Group Le-la. Apart from that, we continued publishing a typewritten translation in an edition of 12 issues (more carbon papers would not fit inside the typewriter), and published our work in the journals of our Surrealist friends from France, Switzerland, and Sweden. We also organized several exhibitions in our studios. When we tried to open our exhibition “Sphere of Dream” to the public, the police eliminated it.

Many mainstream histories of Surrealism treat it as an art movement that ended some time between World War II and André Breton’s death. Obviously, contemporary Surrealists would beg to differ. How do you define Surrealism?

Naturally, I had thought of myself as a Surrealist even before I entered the magnetic field around Vratislav Effenberger [the Surrealist Group’s leader at the time], but meeting him became the magical decisive meeting. I consider Effenberger to be my guru. He was the cursed poet of our times. He was a kind of Super-ego of the group during the 1970s and 1980s. He was also the bearer of continuity of the Surrealist vision, the bond between generations. I consider myself to be a third-generation Surrealist.

Surrealism formed an ideological bridge from anarchism over Marxism back to anarchism. To me, Surrealism is a certain rebellious stance on life and the world. Its contemporary stance is critically aimed at the current state of civilization. Surrealism has taught me many things: It developed my perception of imagination, instilled in my mind that there is only one poetry, no matter which means we use to express it, and last but not least, it freed me from fear of collectivity. Surrealism is in fact a great collective adventure. The opinions of contemporary art historians are irrelevant to me.

“Currently, it is not really the ideology that corrupts artists, but the art market itself that acts anti-ideologically.” –Jan Švankmajer

Your short film The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia and your essay “To Renounce the Leading Role” both appeared shortly after the fall of Communism. Both pieces also express skepticism about the gains of the Velvet Revolution (the essay refers to the latter as an “unsubstantial albeit amusing freak of history”). Are these works connected?

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia ends with Stalin, painted in national colors, giving birth. Similarly, “To Renounce the Leading Role” conveys my skepticism that the revolution would be able to change man’s psyche and the paradigm of civilization. A change in the ownership of the means of production and a fairer division of material wealth are important prerequisites for the change of civilization, but they are not sufficient by themselves. Hence the attempts to bring Marx and Freud closer together that started in the 1930s and continued in the Frankfurt School.

It is also necessary to shake up the illusion of anthropocentrism. I think that the current civilization is approaching the great shock, just as I write about in “To Renounce the Leading Role.” Surrealists will surely not stand on the sidelines. I think that the time is ripe for the formation of a new societal model, like it was done, for example, at the turn of the 19th century by Charles Fourier, or during the 19th century by Marx, or by Lenin in his treatise “The State and Revolution” at the beginning of the 20th century. We just have to approach the implementation of new ideas with skepticism and revolt in our hearts—armed with Freud and wise with the knowledge that people are flawed, and therefore unable to implement even the noblest ideas completely.

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990), Photo: Jan Švankmajer, Athanor

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990), Photo: Jan Švankmajer, Athanor

The final birth scene in The Death of Stalinism seems similar to the dark ending of Lunacy. Both depict a cycle of revolt followed by renewed oppression. This theme seems applicable to the revolutions and pro-democracy movements of the past year.

The film Lunacy, but also The Garden and Conspirators of Pleasure, is mainly about freedom. It seems to me that the way civilization is evolving, the theme of freedom is becoming the only theme for which it still makes sense to sit down and create art. Though, I prefer the word “freeing” to the word “freedom” because it is a never-ending process.

We have to bear in mind that man is not only determined by genes, stars, childhood, relations, and instilled morals, but also by his indolence and anger and, of course, by the political and cultural state of civilization. Thus, it is impossible to decide: From now on I am free. It requires intensive work. It is a difficult process. It is a journey (like everything that is worth something), at the end of which Absolute Freedom shines like a morning star. But you know that you will never reach the end, neither must you, because it would mean a lack of freedom for others. Despite that, you must not abandon your goal. There is a conflict in it, but dialectic one. Hence the Marquis de Sade in Lunacy.

Lunacy (2005), Photo Credit: Jan Švankmajer, Athanor

The Marquis de Sade in Lunacy (2005), Photo: Jan Švankmajer, Athanor

Moving on to your recent work, your newest film Surviving Life has been screening at festivals. It sounds like a more personal film compared to your last few feature-lengths.

Even though the story I am telling in Surviving Life is not my story, it is derived from one of my dreams and is fueled by the dreams from my childhood. Therefore, it cannot be separated from my life entirely. In addition, it is the first film I have made since the death of my wife Eva, who is still visiting me in my dreams. In this film, I am trying to rehabilitate the meaning of our dreams with our lives. Dream and real life are communicating vessels (A. Breton). Dream is the second life (Novalis).

The animation in this film seems reminiscent of collages by the Surrealists Max Ernst and Jindřich Štyrský.

The collage technique I used in the film was essentially necessitated by economic problems. I thought that by using animated photos of actors, we could save money, both on the actors’ fees and the transportation and set rental fees, because the entire process of filming could be moved into the studio. When the producer found the necessary funds for a normal actors’ film, I was already fully captivated by this original makeshift solution because I realized that using the photos in a collage introduced yet another creative, fantastical, symbolical level to the film.

“The contemporary art scene has created a tempting vision for artists: How to be ‘avant-garde’ and simultaneously wealthy, and on top of that, also social celebrities.” –Jan Švankmajer

As I understand, this film was meant to be your last, but I have heard that you are now beginning a new project. Could you give us some details?

I took out of a drawer a story for a film called Insects, which I wrote in 1970, but could not be brought to life back then. Therefore it ended up in the drawer, along with a number of other projects rejected by the censorship. I have turned some of them into films already: Food, Conspirators of Pleasure, Lunacy, and now we will try to do the same with Insects.

Theme: Amateur actors in a small town are rehearsing Pictures from the Insect’s Life, a play by the brothers Čapek [Karel and Josef]. As they do so, their life stories blend with the stories of the play’s characters. It will be a very misanthropic film.

You have discussed how working in a capitalist, profit-driven system has its own limitations on authentic art. Do you see a more subtle form of censorship or pressure to self-censor in the neoliberal era?

Currently, it is not really the ideology that corrupts artists, but the art market itself that, on the contrary, acts anti-ideologically. Naturally, it is just a pretense that is meant to lure morally unstable persons into its trap.

The contemporary art scene, at the beginning of which are disingenuous prophets like Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí, has created a tempting vision for artists: How to be “avant-garde” and simultaneously wealthy, and on top of that, also social celebrities. It is this until-recently inconceivable mixture of fire and water that is seemingly offered to artists by an art market that has concentrated powerful means for such corruption (“prestige galleries,” deluxe catalogs and monographs, publicity, servile art historians). Big money is at stake. Hence the massive dash of contemporary artists under the art market’s wings. The decline of this economically-pragmatic era is reflected in the morals behind creative work. And that is how “great artists” of the contemporary art market are born. Their authenticity and freedom are equal to their morals.

True, the ideological censorship in totalitarian systems does not mince words and does not pretend that it is not repressive, though it wraps this repression in ideological clichés about a hostile, harmful propaganda that it deems must be crushed. Therefore it forces authors to self-censor. After some time, the “official” censorship does not have much work because its filthy duty is accomplished by the author’s state of being scared shitless beforehand.

There is no institution performing censorship in neoliberalism. Its function is performed securely by the market. You simply cannot get money for some themes because they do not meet the commercial criteria. The only function that the modern consumer society assigns to art is to fill man’s free time and entertain him, so he can spend his time before rejoining the production process pleasantly and problem-free. Under these circumstances “art,” as it has been and is conceived by natural nations or Surrealism, is condemned to be cast out to the edge of society and occulted—or, in the worst case, used as “food” by various sects.

It is impossible not to recall Breton’s “second Ark” here. This Ark, even more relevant today than forty years ago, should carry the remains of “art” over this “market deluge” to the threshold of the new post-civilization cycle.

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