Fear Has Big Eyes: Jan Švankmajer

(Last Updated On April 22, 2018)

What little I know about stop-motion animation is that it takes great patience and discipline. As a result, the results are usually quite imaginative; otherwise, why bother? In the course of reviewing Illustrating Alice (2013) by Artists’ Choice Editions, I found an interview of Czech animator Jan Švankmajer in which he shares how the works of Lewis Carroll have influenced him.

Švankmajer was born in Prague in 1934 and studied at the Institute of Industrial Arts and the Marionette Faculty of the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in the 1950s. He began experimenting with filmmaking after becoming involved with the mixed-media productions of Prague’s Lanterna Magika Theatre and produced his first short film in 1964. Always in the back of his mind was the idea of making a feature-length film based on Alice in Wonderland. He has persevered despite persistent efforts by Czech authorities to ban or undermine his work. He has been a member of the Prague Surrealist Group since 1969.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (1)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice is rooted firmly in my mental morphology. To me, she’s not someone who stands apart from me. And since I have worked throughout my entire life in the fashion of a dialogue conducted with my childhood, I have also been in dialogue with Lewis Carroll. -Jan Švankmajer, Illustrating Alice, 2011.

The animator’s first venture into Carroll’s material was in 1971 with the short film Žvahlav aneb šatičky slaměného Huberta based on Carroll’s poem, “Jabberwocky”. According to Švankmajer, this video collage was an expression of the history of his childhood up to the moment when he first rebelled against his father. After each scene, a black tomcat representing the animal subconscious, disrupts the carefully arranged setup and, in the end, is locked up in a “cage of domestication”. The the only spoken words are an introductory recitation, by a young girl, of Carroll’s poem which appeared in Alice Through the Looking-Glass. The voice in the Czech version was done by his own daughter, Veronika, who was nine at the time. In Czechoslovakia, the film was banned because the censors said it contained political allegories. He proceeded to make the English version which travelled the world as an American film through Weston Wood Studios. After 1989, the proprietor of that company generously transferred the rights to the film to Švankmajer and thus, after a delay of 16 years, it was finally shown in Prague.

Jan Švankmajer – ‘Jabberwocky’ (1971) (1)

Jan Švankmajer – ‘Jabberwocky’ (1971) (2)

His most autobiographical film was also inspired to a degree by Alice. Do pivnice (Down into the Cellar, 1983)¹ tells of a little girl (Monika Belo-Cabanová) sent to the cellar to fetch some potatoes and what befalls her down there. Like other filmmakers such as Carlos Saura, Švankmajer decided to portray himself in the feminine person perhaps giving the viewer a stronger sense of the child’s vulnerability. In its fantastical sense, it is much like Alice but, compared to the later film of that name, gives a relatively straightforward linear account of a child seized with terror in a giant grown-up world.

Jan Švankmajer – Do pivnice (1983) (1)

Jan Švankmajer – Do pivnice (1983) (2)

Jan Švankmajer – Do pivnice (1983) (3)

In Czech there’s a saying, “Strach má velké oči” (Fear has big eyes). The saying is meant to convey the idea that our fears tend to overwhelm our willingness to take risks. In reality, the dangers are often much less than we imagine and Švankmajer’s life exemplifies this point perfectly. It is a testament to his tenacity that he followed through with his projects. He says his excursions into the underworld played a major role in developing his imagination. Do pivnice also ran up against the censors and was locked away for a number of years. The film had to be produced in a studio in Slovakia and the studio there demanded changes that the artist was unwilling to make. The concern was that it might cast a negative light on Slovakian life when viewed by an international audience. They also objected to the fact that there was no clear distinction between scenes taken from reality and those taken from the child’s imagination. Only after those first two films did Švankmajer dare to attempt a “complete” Alice.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (2)

Alice thought to herself, “Now you will see a film made for children, perhaps—but I nearly forgot—you must close your eyes otherwise you won’t see anything!” -Jan Švankmajer, Alice, 1988.

This is a strange introduction for Něco z Alenky (1988), a film about to offer the viewer a visual spectacle. But once one understands the filmmaker’s intent, it is clear that he is setting the stage for a kind of lucid dream peppered with nonsense.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (3)

The filmmaker understood that he was embarking on well-trodden territory with countless film adaptations having come before.

… in my belief film-makers will never stop coming back to her [Alice], since the book’s oneiric imagination cannot fail to inspire and cries out for ever new interpretations. Yes, it is written as a dream-record and, just like the dreams of any of us, it is in code … with Carroll there are two forms of his Alice: one, the ‘manifest’ form that doesn’t change, and the other, the ‘latent’ form that mutates according to the age at which we happen to be reading it. -Jan Švankmajer, Illustrating Alice, 2011.

Most adaptations of Alice try to force it into the genre of a fairy-tale, but Švankmajer believes that doing so deprives it of the free flow of dream. There is no real moral message to a dream and it refuses to conform to socially acceptable criteria. In that respect, the animator has tried to stay true to the experience without presuming to interpret Carroll’s musings.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (4)

Dream may be regarded as the domain of the fantastic and yet it is grounded in mundane reality. Švankmajer takes those things with which Alice would be most intimately familiar—the things found in her own little room—then expands them into the vast landscapes of her imagination. In the film, we are taken into the world of imagination through a desk drawer. One of the amusing running gags of the film is that every time Alice pulls the handle, it comes off in her hand and she then has to pry her way in.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (5)

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (6)

The artist realized that one must constantly resist the urge to tell a chronologically ordered tale and, indeed, there is no feeling of continuity between discrete scenes.

All the objects, props, dolls, toys, costumes and Alice herself (Kristýna Kohoutová)—the only live actor—are practical elements and not specially crafted for the film. Švankmajer says this is important because, “After all, nothing in our dreams ever astonishes us, since anything that makes up our dreams seems utterly natural.”

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (7)

An interesting convention in the film was to use a doll as a stand-in for Alice whenever she was in her “small” form.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (8)

Another running gag is whenever a character is “injured”, there is a short pause in the action while sawdust is replaced and tears in the fabric sewn up. Because dreams are inherently autobiographical, the only voice heard throughout the film is Alice’s (Camilla Power), even when “doing” the voices of the other characters.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (9)

No Czech state studio showed any interest in the film and so all financing and resources came from out of the country. This was a major hindrance since after World War II, the film industry was nationalized and the Czechoslovakian government held a monopoly. The help of institutions such as Artcentrum were enlisted to give the project legitimacy and to avoid running afoul of the law. Another parallel with Saura was the use of restored, discarded cameras in the filming and editing process.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (10)

The point of my film had been apparently modest: to bring some attention back to dream, which modern civilisation had ceased to lay much store by, which society had tossed on the scrapheap of our psyche. After all, the last serious scholarly work on dreams, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, was almost a hundred years old! … Until we begin once more to tell fairy-tales and ghost-stories at bedtime; and to recount our dreams on waking up, there is now nothing to be hoped for from modern Atlantic civilisation. -Jan Švankmajer, Illustrating Alice, 2011.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (11)

In 2006, Švankmajer was asked by a Japanese publishing house to illustrate both of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. An excerpt from that Foreword elucidates the artist’s core philosophy:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice is one of the basic books of this civilisation, one of those we should take with us to a desert island, just in order to survive. It has taught dozens of generations of ‘atectonic’ children. I am no exception. And it’s not just a book for children. On the contrary, it is evidence that no specific ‘art for children’ actually exists, and that that notion is just commercial flimflam. We may only argue over whether this or that book (picture, film) is appropriate for children. Carroll’s Alice can be read at any age.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (12)

The artist concludes that Alice continues to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration (as does his own childhood). Those creations that did not come from these sources have never left him fully satisfied and he feels that he must sit down in peace and quiet, pick up a pencil and start once again.

And so whenever in the course of our lifetime we pick the book up, it is, each time, a different book, a book with different contents, and yet it remains the Alice of our childhood. This is a miracle to be observed with only a tiny fraction of all the books ever written. -Jan Švankmajer, Illustrating Alice, 2011.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (13)

In 1990, a BBC documentary was aired called The Animator of Prague. It describes some of Švankmajer’s influences—such as Bohemian ruler Rudolf II—and how Surrealist art is much more developed in Central Europe than in the West.

Jan Švankmajer – Alice (1988) (14)

*All quotes taken from Illustrating Alice were copyrighted and translated by David Short.

¹ In the interview, Švankmajer says the title of the film is Do sklepa which means roughly the same thing with a slightly different connotation. Interestingly, this error reflects his point that our perceptions of memories, stories and phrases change with time and we may find ourselves translating our ideas into our current context.

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