Jan Švankmajer – A Series of Short Essays looking at the use of the animate and inanimate bodies in Jan Švankmajer’s work and its effect upon the audience

Švankmajer’s work is inextricably linked to the audience’s own conscious experience of both the animate and inanimate realm. The viewer is presented with movement that does not belong in the same dimensional space that we as victims of time inhabit. In this way, stop motion animation creates a rift in our perception of what it means to “move”, causing a momentary dislocation of spatial reality. When we as an audience witness the animation of an object whose movement we know to be impossible, the attributes of said object that account for its forced “movement” suspend our ideas of what is deemed to be “living”, and thus an animation is produced. This interplay between the actual reality of a movement and the perceived reality of an animated object, presents the audience with a dilemma as to which reality they should commit to. Švankmajer plays with this dilemma, introducing elements of both animate and inanimate forms, as well as bodies whose movement comprises a combination of the two (see the large scale puppet films). Animation itself is a form of created “life”, which Švankmajer explores through both the human body as a paradigm of inertia, and inanimate forms as an access point to fluid, “living” movement.

The situations in which Švankmajer’s characters find themselves are somewhat Sisyphean. As their own microcosmic universe begins to collapse in on itself, they are unable to separate themselves from their own doomed situation. The progression of action within the films spirals towards a climactic tension into which the characters cannot help but be swept up. In some cases, they become aware of their fate and must gradually, painfully accept it. Other characters become so entangled within their ultimately self destructive world that they fade into the oblivion of the background itself, no more a protagonist than a pawn on a chess board, and just as unaware of their futile existence. The marginality of the story arc and the acceptance of the futile doom that the character faces are consolidated by the dénouement of the piece. However, Švankmajer perverts classical catharsis and leaves the viewer emotionally unfulfilled through the often unexpected tragedy that holds no hope for the characters in the film.

The Švankmajerian world is markedly Deleuzian; the movements that his films rely on are themselves built upon the physical manipulation of naturally static forms. As in a live action film, “pure” movement is created through the deliberate increments of space and time that are already pre determined; just as an actor in a live action film is told what to say and where to stand, the movement created reflects the same manipulation by a directorial force. In this way, it could be said that what Švankmajer creates in presenting us with for example, live actors who are manipulated in the same way as the animated models in his films, is an entirely different form of movement altogether. The blurred boundaries between the animate and inanimate realm are fused together through Švankmajer’s own interpretation of pure movement. What the viewer is left with is, as paraphrased from the writings of Deleuze himself, ‘an indifferent trajectory in an indifferent space’, (1) instead of what could be classified as a “pure” movement. This is not to say that the animation that Švankmajer creates is any less pure than his work with live actors, simply that the effect created by transfusing the animate into an inanimate arena, provides the audience with an emotional response of dislocated reality. The animation itself is movement redefined, as opposed to being false or non-existent. An animated movement is perceived even though it is logically false, and is ergo redefined as a form of fluid movement by the perception of the audience.

Švankmajer’s use of both animate and inanimate bodies is relevant to the audiences understanding of the films in a variety of ways. The theatrical approach with which Švankmajer accesses the combined use of live action and puppetry perverts how the audience sees the action within the film and often denies us access to any sentimentality for the characters. The way in which we as a viewer witness the animation of objects that would not naturally move, or the static way in which a man’s life becomes inanimate within the confined space of the flat for example, creates in us the uncomfortable feeling of dislocated reality. Cinematic techniques used by Švankmajer access Brechtian idealism, distorting the audience’s “placement” in the film and providing key elements of Brechtian techniques such as Gestus and the breakdown of the “fourth wall”. As Švankmajer has explained about his work:

‘I prefer objects which to my way of thinking have their own interior life. Along with the esoteric sciences I believe in the “conservation” of certain contents in objects that have been touched by beings in a state of heightened sensibility (…) It’s a game of internal truth, in other words – The Great Game.’ (1)


1.  John Grant, Masters of Animation (London: B.T. Batsford, 2001), 186

Jan Švankmajer – Puppets and People

In his first film, The Last Trick (1964) Jan Švankmajer’s fascination with the corporeality of an animated being is clearly being developed around a strong sense of traditional Czech theatrics. His work was largely being influenced by his own background in the puppet theatres of Prague and his educated experiments within the Theatre of Masks, the famous Black Theatre and later, the Laterna Magika Puppet Theatre. In the piece, two magicians perform an elaborate, theatrical competition to see who can deliver the best magic trick. The film begins in a unique way in that the viewer is shown the truth of what we are not meant to see. The live actors are briefly exposed, ‘as if in furtive apology’ (2) to the audience, who will not see the faces of the actors again, and must become aware of the animation as a form of heightened realism, that of surreal animation within the mental framework of live action. The audience knows that what they are seeing is an actor in a mask, but Švankmajer does not allow us to evaluate these thoughts, instead perverting the image he provides us with at the start of the film so that we are never sure what will be underneath the mask, whether it be cogs or violins .

This revelation of the inner workings of Švankmajer’s films is enhanced by the inclusion of various parts of scenery and props that will be used in the film, glimpsed briefly during the same opening sequence; a skilful preservation of the magic of the animated piece within the revealed truth of the tricks of animation he uses. The techniques of animation are here revealed to the viewer before the animation itself, in this case the “trick” is one of subverted theatrical animation; live actors in the guise of wooden stage puppets. The viewer is tricked by this blend of animation and inanimate bodies, confusing the senses as to what we know to be “real”. However, Švankmajer provides the audience with the extraordinary shot of one of the men before putting his “head” on, which is remarkably subtle in its delivery. This is not a largely important shot, in fact, quite the opposite. The man is being used as a mere visual channel through which the opening credits are revealed (one on his shoe and one behind his head). The inclusion of this shot is an exquisitely delicate yet undoubtedly bold directorial statement, and one that should be considered alongside his later works in the same style. It is not until his feature film, Faust in 1994 that we as viewers are allowed to witness the same type of access to the real becoming imaginary and vice versa in terms of the reality behind the show.

Another film similar in style to the large scale puppet work discussed is Švankmajer’s Don Juan (1969). In the film, the viewer is presented with a number of startling elements that enter the realm of distorted life, as previously discussed. The film itself starts with some cinéma vérité style camera work that leads us rather dizzily into a theatre, one that appears to run without human intervention. Candles light themselves, pulley systems are activated by moving stones, and the marionettes are freed from a control beyond themselves. The automated stage is Švankmajer’s first clue as to what we should expect to experience from the film. By offering up the idea of a self serving stage, he tells us that the story too will run its own course, and that the film should be treated as a mere performance piece in itself. This is largely what makes this film a particularly difficult one to decode. Not only are we presented with a variety of vastly differing dimensions within the space of the piece, but we are also made to believe that we are watching both a marionette show and at the same time, a live action piece.

The puppets are first shown to the viewer as inanimate and powerless, as the camera pans across the backstage area where the characters are neatly hung on a wall, and yet the marionettes in the film are not inanimate at all; they exist because it is necessary for them to. In this way, the characters are only bought to life when the narrative dictates it, and despite what it may seem, they are powerless to the fate that befalls them. Interestingly, the character of Don Juan is the only marionette that can choose freely between the worlds he travels in, and so to some extent dictate his own fate (though he is still ultimately doomed). He moves freely between the theatrical, stage world of the front of house set and just as easily amongst the other inanimate puppets backstage. Don Juan is similarly not affected by the constraints placed upon him by being a part of the theatre. We first see him standing in the auditorium, where the viewer should logically be, which also plays with the attention of the viewer in a Brechtian way. Not only is the space that belongs to the audience literally taken from us by the character of Don Juan, but the viewer is then placed in a meta-theatrical situation when the jester comes toward the camera with a ladder. The only place we could possibly be is where Don Juan is standing, putting us on the side of the protagonist and quite literally, in his shoes.


The temporal and environmental factors which the other characters are so afflicted by are not shown to affect Don Juan at all. In a particularly haunting scene, the character of Don Felipe waits for the clock to strike nine, the time when he has arranged to meet Doña Maria in the garden. The marionette leaves the stage to sit with an unnatural stillness, his eyes glued to the clock face in front of him. When Don Juan later travels backstage to find his father, Don Felipe is eerily still sat in the same motionless position, completely unaware of the events going on around him. He even fails to register the death of his father as Don Juan brutally murders him close by.

This “stillness” is one that heightens the marionette as an inanimate object, but, what is most puzzling about the action in the film is that there is no external force driving the characters into animation. The strings atop the heads of the characters imply a human interaction, but the animate life of the marionettes are purely their own. This is puzzling to us as a viewer, and Švankmajer allows the characters to act upon their own freedom, releasing them from the external control one would normally expect with a puppet. However the marionettes are still constrained by the “act” they play out. They are shown to the viewer to be clearly not human, made up of materials instead of flesh, highlighted with the close ups of the chipped wood that so closely mimics traditional eighteenth century puppets. As well as this, Švankmajer’s classic tactility comes into play with the wooden hand of Don Juan being literally burned by the ghost of the dead father, showing how these are merely objects that we are not allowed, in a sense, to feel any emotion for. The sentimentality of what we should, in theory, feel for these characters is blocked by the placidity in which they face what happens to them. They cannot react to situations which they would be able to if the film was a live action piece. It is, as Michael O’Pray notes, as if ‘their almost magical potential for life paradoxically conjures the sensation prior to their theatrical lives which will end in death’ (3). An example of this is with the tragic death of Don Felipe, where the strings are cut from his hands, falling lifelessly to his side. After this castration of Don Felipe’s own freedom to move, he falls to his knees and is stabbed without mercy by Don Juan. As the blood pours out of his wounds (another paradoxical statement by Švankmajer about the verisimilitude of animation) he remains passive to his own death, being instead physically rendered as nothing more than forgotten writing on crumpled paper that illustrates his last words.

Just before this scene, during the epic swordfight between the two brothers, Don Juan knocks down one of the pieces of scenery that are juxtaposed with the real world. The inadvertent destruction of the flimsy “pillar” could be read as representing an attempted rejection of the artificial situation which the characters are in. However, the direct engagement that Don Juan has with the background set seals his own fate as a character in the play, as opposed to an agent of free will. He is forced to accept his own pre-determined placement within the narrative, culminating in his meeting with the ghost of Doña Maria’s father. This is one of the only films Švankmajer made with such an apologetic ending in terms of cathartic closure. The jester, who provides the comic relief throughout the film as in Švankmajer’s later, feature length piece, Faust, concludes the film with a comical remark about his master’s debt to him, highlighting the indifference of the viewer toward these “inanimate” puppets, and drawing together the theatrical nature of the film. The apologetically comical last words are perhaps reminiscent of Puck’s final monologue in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear
And in this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream’. (V.i. 2274-2280) (4)


In another of his puppet films, Punch and Judy (1966), Švankmajer plays with the idea of primitive violence using the same motifs seen in The Last Trick of “man” versus “automata”. What is interesting here, especially when compared to the beetle in The Last Trick, is the inclusion of an animal. In the film, the characters of Punch and Joey fight over a live guinea pig that is blissfully unaware of its own significance. The guinea pig serves as a stark reminder of the inanimate states of the hand puppets and their existence in the pre-conscious world of anthropomorphic animation. The indifference the guinea pig shows towards the characters sets it aside from any moral responsibility in the film, in the sense that its only concern is for the grain it eats. It does not care what is happening around it, only so long as it is fed (an illustration of government of the time perhaps). This holds a few significant political messages, as most of Švankmajer’s work tends to do, demonstrating the reliance of the state (guinea pig) upon the “good worker” (the puppets), the difference in classes (Joey’s house) and the need to conform to what we are told to desire (the guinea pig). The creature acts out:

‘both untrammeled desire, unmediated by conscience, morality or convention and almost paradoxically, its opposite, order and innocence, which can never partake in the aggression of the “constructed creatures” (marionette-humans) whose world they cannot share’ (5).

In The Last Trick, the beetle glimpsed throughout the film is ‘essentially the catalyst by which the interface between man and machine fails’ (6). As a ‘Kafkaesque harbinger of supernatural change’, (7) the beetle is shown in the final shot of the film, dead. This shows the ‘inappropriacy of a (man-made) mechanism to accommodate the limits of human expression’ (8). By including the image of the now inanimate insect at the end of the film, Švankmajer makes the audience aware of the failure of trying to join man to machine (automata). This ultimately expresses the consequences of conflict as a resistance to social conformity, revealing an inevitable collapse likened to the socio-political conflicts within Švankmajer’s own government. The violent destruction and disembodiment of the two magicians is perhaps an illustration of what Švankmajer wishes his audience to feel; a dislocation from the events on screen and therefore a substantial reconfiguration of our own place as an audience within the film.

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Jan Švankmajer – The Psychological Švankmajer

Looking at the aspects of the animate and inanimate in a different light, we might consider Švankmajer’s work to have some psychological relevance. One of Švankmajer’s strongest films in this sense is The Flat, a hauntingly claustrophobic film that offers no “way out” for either the protagonist or the viewer. The flat in question is more of a mental space than a physical one, conspiring against the protagonist who has become trapped there at the start of the film. The paranoia and subsequent horror that the character expresses gives the viewer the unsettling feeling that they too are a part of this confinement, enhanced by the lack of dialogue and colour. The film plays upon the interaction of both animate and inanimate bodies through the animation of the flat itself. The man is reduced to an inanimate body through his subjugated state in the film; he becomes the “object” with which the flat, a supposedly inanimate facet, toys with. It is almost as though Švankmajer has drawn upon the philosophical idea of Externism proposed by the fictitious Czech genius Jára Cimrman (1). The theory states that, opposing Solipsism, the external world exists and the philosopher’s individual self does not. Thus, the character of Cimrman proceeds to illustrate his theory by comparing the world around us to a piece of paper with a small hole in the middle, representing the individual (Cimrman). If we consider this alongside Švankmajer’s film, and the predicament in which the man finds himself, it could be said that the flat exists in the material world and the man himself is a fictitious development of the world in which the flat inhabits. This does not mean that the man is imperceptible, merely that he cannot rationally exist in the same space as the flat, and hence why he cannot also escape his fate.

During the film, the man notices a picture on the wall that is tilted at an angle. When he goes to move the picture, the picture hung above it (a naked woman) moves along with it so that it too is now tilted. The man proceeds to reach for the top picture, but cannot grasp it, with his chair collapsing from under him just as he is about to touch the picture. All the while this is happening the actor himself is animated by Švankmajer’s wonderful use of live action/stop motion movement where the actor is deliberately made to move as though he is inanimate himself. This scene accesses another of the psychological conundrums within the film; the pseudo-sexual conflict of the protagonist and his environment.

In many ways, the man could be considered to be represented as both psychologically and physically impotent. The pictures that cannot be moved, the woman in the first picture tauntingly out of reach, the water which extinguishes the lit match with which the man hopes heat the flat. All of these are examples of the man’s physical impotence in the microcosmic world of the flat. He has no control over his destructive desire that leads to feelings of mute impotence and sexual failure, enhanced throughout the film with lucid Freudian imagery such as the egg (fertility) that cannot be broken without the flat’s intervention and the cockerel who must be killed in order for the man to realise and accept his impotence in the flat. This itself is relevant to the audience not only because of the powerful imagery of a “free moving” outsider who breaks the claustrophobic puzzle of the room, but also because of the obvious reference to René Clair’s 1924 Dadaist film, Entr’acte. The second man who enters the flat (the outsider) crosses the threshold into the room in the same manner as the figures running after the hearse in Clair’s film. The man presents the prisoner with an axe, holding the cockerel in front of him in an invitation for the prisoner to rid himself of the proverbial, animate flesh and blood problem; his own mocking impotence in a sexually static situation.

The flat here could be considered an animate manifestation of the man’s own mental condition and the sexual blocks he faces, realised visually with the “fist on a spring” that punches the man back into his own psycho-domestic reality. The domestic sphere is ultimately broken by the man’s insignificance; he is a man of static value within an animate dimension, and he must paradoxically come to terms with his own loss of a free life in order to truly “live”. He eventually does this, with the film closing on a poignant scene where the man adds his name to a list of many others on the wall. After a typically Švankmajerian emotional outburst, expressed through brief flashes of emotional turmoil (contorted features/expressions), the man surrenders to the room with a pained resignation and accepts his stasis as a psychological prisoner in the room. It is only then that he is able to do what he could not at the start of the film, when confronted with the Escherian geometry of the mirror; he can finally, truly, see himself.

The last scene in the film, where the man finally breaks through the wall which the visitor entered the flat by, is a lot deeper than it first appears to us. The hidden meanings behind the writing on the wall are set to the viewer as a challenge to decode. The writing on the wall seems at first glance to be a list of names of those who have also been imprisoned by the flat, but upon closer inspection, the truth is far more complex. The names are all relevant to the film and indeed, the Surrealist movement itself; with Švankmajer’s coy signature visible in a scribbled love heart containing his own initials, plus that of both his wife Eva and his first daughter, Veronika. As well as this, several key initials, surnames and dates are visible as the camera pans across the space. A few names such as ‘Mojžίš’ (Moses) and ‘Kolumbus’ are clearly visible on the wall, but looking more closely reveals key Surrealist thinkers and political figures that can be said to directly engage with the film and the character of the prisoner. A few examples of these are: ‘S. Dali’, ‘André Breton’ (the founder of the Surrealist movement), ‘Karel’ (presumably meant to be Karel Čapek, the Czech writer who influenced Švankmajer’s work and whose story, Pictures From The Insects’ Life, Švankmajer is currently basing a film around), Parisian Surrealist Benjamin Peret (‘B.Peret’ on the wall) and perhaps most importantly, ‘Evžen’. This last name is shown to the audience only very briefly, underneath where the man writes his own name, as the screen fades to black. The name in question belongs to reform communist Evžen Plocek, which Švankmajer tells us through the use of the Roman numeral IV (4), the day and month in which he committed suicide through self-immolation as a political protest. It is then rather significant that the prisoner chooses to write his name between the numeral and the name itself, as Švankmajer expresses to the audience that here to is a man who has become as physically inanimate within the flat as Plocek was politically outside of it. Both men attempt to escape from a system that is beyond their control, and must both resign themselves to inevitable fate. Yet another level of comparison can be found with the last words of Plocek, found on a scrap of paper dropped right before his act of suicide, which read: ‘I am for a human face – I can’t stand those without any feelings. Evžen’ (2). When considered alongside the emotional flickering upon the man’s face, just before writing down his name, it could be said that Švankmajer comments on this idea that all that is necessary for personal freedom is emotional expression.

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