Having made dozens of films and having received dozens of awards, Jan Svankmajer (1934-) may be the most renowned living Czech film- maker. Still, he seems to be more popular abroad than in Czech Republic. Despite great critical acclaim and notoriety among Czech artists, his work never really gripped the Czech public.
The difficulty with him is that he makes films that are often both hard to stomach and hard to understand. His bizarre blend of nightmarish images, comedy and allegory in form of live- action and animation sequences is somehow beyond traditional schemes of reception. His films are unpredictable, often switching moods, ironic, devoid of pathos. There is little true emotion on screen, his characters seem to be bound by their desires and perversions, they’re not likeable. If there is an atmospheric sequence it gets mocked by a grotesque turn. And it’s usually all an allegory, understandable in a similar way as a Dalí painting can be.
Svankmajer was considerably well- known in the 1960s, when he made some acclaimed shorts. Impressing the Cannes festival jury in 1965 and considered a leading Czech surrealist artist since 1969, he made most of his substantial films after the 1968 invasion. Around the middle of 1970s he was banned from filmmaking, but after several years the decision was revised. At the beginning of the next decade, he won international acclaim for his E. A. Poe- inspired shorts and many other, for example Moznosti dialogu (Possibilities of dialogue, 1982).
His later shorts include Food (1992), a darkly comic allegory of consumerism, which doesn’t stop at eating what most of us would view as ��?food’. Why should you stop after finishing a conventional dish, when you can throw in the waiter, or even a bit of yourself?
His films were not explicitly political. The themes Svankmajer tends to address are mostly universal. He is fascinated by desires and bodily needs, mainly need for sex and food, which he tends to portray in animalistic, slightly revolting manner. His heroes resemble animals more than humans, they more often eat than talk.
Feature films of Jan Svakmajer include two adaptations of literary classics. In 1988 he made possibly his most popular film, Neco z Alenky (distributed abroad as Alice, 1988), an adult, surrealist fairy tale- nightmare- fantasy re- thinking of Alice in Wonderland. Not only that the film is incredibly imaginative, it is also actually very faithful to the source novel, once that is read an attempt to capture dream logic. Lekce Faust (Faust, 1994) turns the tragedy into an almost speechless meditation, repeatedly interrupted by glimpses of the original play, re- imagined as a farce for man- sized puppets.
Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996) concentrates on several characters controlled by their fetishes. Virtually speechless, shot as a bizarre comedy of twisted manners, it’s probably most controversial of his films. Not least for the feeling that what he expresses here is a bit of the auteur repeating himself, merely in a nastier way.
Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000) is a fantasy inspired by an old Czech fairy tale. His latest film, Sílení (Lunacy, 2005) is based on the stories by E. A. Poe and Marquis de Sade.