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.

1. Aaron Philippe Toll, Externism (London: Betascript Publishing, 2011)

2. Stephane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Massachusettes: Harvard University Press, 1999)

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