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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s