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.

1. Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1, ed. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Athelone Press, 1992)

2. Philip Strick, “The Last Trick”, Monthly Film Bulletin no.630 (1986)

3. Michael O’Pray, “Don Juan”, Monthly Film Bulletin no.658 (1988)

4. William Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (London: Spring Books, 1967) 158

5.  Michael O’Pray, “Punch and Judy”, Monthly Film Bulletin no.658 (1988)

6. Jayne Pilling (ed.), A Reader in Animation Studies (London: John Libbey Cinema and Animation, 1999), 187

7. Jayne Pilling (ed.), A Reader in Animation Studies (London: John Libbey Cinema and Animation, 1999), 187

8.  Jayne Pilling (ed.), A Reader in Animation Studies (London: John Libbey Cinema and Animation, 1999), 187

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