Jan Svankmajer, Czech Animation and ALICE
In the modern cinematic landscape, the lines between artifice and reality are becoming increasingly blurred. Since computer animation has become the norm, entire worlds and universes are rendered on a hard drive somewhere. Actors are not only dropped into completely fake locations that give the illusion of three dimensional space, they are now even altered or generated by the computers themselves. While there is undoubtedly just as much work that goes into rendering something on a computer, as a film viewer it is more than a little disheartening to witness the disappearance of handcrafted effects and animation on the big screen.
That’s part of what makes Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s work so refreshing even today. Svankmajer comes from a long tradition of Czech animators. His forebears include Jiří Trnka, whose final film, 1965’s The Hand is commonly rated as one of the best animated films in the world. It neatly encapsulates many of the standard traits of Czech animation from this period: use of stop motion (in this case puppets) and a darkly surrealist vision. The story follows a cheerful man who attempts to build clay pots for his plants while a large, disembodied hand attempts to force him to instead make sculptures in the image of the hand. The hand’s efforts get increasingly violent and surreal as the short goes on. The conflict between the man and the oppressive hand can be read as an allegory for artists who are restricted or censored by totalitarian governments, a conflict shared by many of Trnka and Svankmajer’s contemporaries whose work was funded by the state but often censored. The film is readily available on the internet and well worth a watch before coming to see Alice at Bijou.
Trnka’s death in 1969, was viewed by many as the end of the first wave of Czech animation, which is where Svankmajer comes into play. As a major member of the second wave of Czech animation, Svankmajer similarly explores the possibilities of stop animated surrealism. But where earlier films would utilize a plot, Svankmajer largely does away with narratives in favor of free form, stream of consciousness absurdity. His work makes extensive use of everyday objects, usually destroying or deconstructing them for surreal effect. His famous 1983 short, Dimensions of Dialogue exemplifies this in the first segment, which features faces made out of everything from food to household appliances to books, opening their mouths and attacking each other.
Svankmajer doesn’t limit himself in any way in his animation. He uses everything from puppets, dolls, claymation and live-action pixilation in his shorts, coalescing it all into a morbidly fantastical style that’s all his own. In 1988’s Alice, his first feature length film, most of these styles are on display. He incorporates elements of live action in his retelling of Lewis Carrol’s famous novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A landmark surrealist text, it's no wonder Svankmejer chose the story, with its episodic structure and nonsensical logic, as a starting point for his feature length film career. We open on live action footage of Kristýna Kohoutová as Alice in her room. The camera pans to show us the objects she’s surrounded by: pebbles, apple cores, sewing materials, jars of food. Those familiar with Svankmejer’s work know it's only a matter of time before one of these objects comes to life. Eventually, one of them does. A taxidermied rabbit with bugged out eyes breaks free from its cage and runs away. Alice follows him into Svankmejer’s Wonderland, which throughout the movie, resembles a cluttered, dank basement and a large dollhouse depending on the scene.
The movie is a loose reworking of the Lewis Carroll novel. Svankmejer lifts certain characters and scenes but drastically reworks many of them to suit his fancies. The white rabbit, as I mentioned, begins life as a taxidermied animal that breaks free. But it doesn’t stop there. Throughout the movie, he carries a pair of scissors, constantly cutting himself open to pull out a watch. Sawdust covers the watch and pours out of him. It’s these details that fascinate Svankmajer more than delivering a straight-ahead retelling of the book. He takes what was already a surreal and at times dark story, and amplifies these elements, turning it into a horrific dark fantasy film.
The sound design in the film is as unforgettable as the imagery. It’s a movie full of creaks, and rapid scissor cutting, glass shattering. There’s a clock ticking distantly in the background of the Wonderland scenes. Every step that Alice takes is accompanied by a creak from the wooden floor, the shifting of sawdust. The detailed sounds go that extra step in bringing the images to life and rooting them in reality to some extent compared to the exaggerated cartoon sounds of the stop motion animation that most western audiences are familiar with.
Alice wasn’t the first or last time that Svankmejer “adapted” a popular literary work for the screen. In 1971, he made Jabberwocky, a short based on the poem by Lewis Carroll, and in 1994 he blended live action and stop motion animation again for his feature-length retelling of the Faust legend. In both cases, the adaptations are similarly loose.
Words really cannot do justice to any of Jan Svankmejer’s work, including Alice. Aside from being a frenetic, gritty retelling of the classic tale, it also serves as a good entry point to Svankmejer’s output for those who may be curious.
Pick up a copy of the Bijou Calendar, including this piece, now in print! Available at both FilmScene locations (404 E College St + 118 E College St)!