Šílení (Lunacy, 2005) is Jan Švankmajer’s fifth feature, and stands as the director’s finest and most penetrating foray yet into the forest of contradictions and cruelties that constitutes Western society today. Set in France but with language in Czech, and opening in the present day only to slip into the late 18th century and back, here even the most basic of narrative conventions appear disconcertingly decentred – despite the fact that Šílení may be the closest Švankmajer has ever come to making a traditional arthouse film. After more than 40 years of filmmaking as a ‘militant surrealist’ and over 30 incendiary, distinctly ‘authored’ films, Švankmajer has not resigned his devotion to dreams, irrationality and black humour. But perhaps inevitably (for an enthusiast at least) it is what is new and different in this latest entry that first catches the eye. There is the obscene, life-lusting character of the Marquis (Jan Tříska), when all previous human Švankmajer protagonists have seemed so emptied and puppet-like. There is the limpid, quietly beautiful photography, contrasting the more ruddy and awkward lighting and camera movement favoured in features like Něco z Alenky (Alice or Something from Alice, 1987), Lekce Faust (Faust or The Lesson of Faust, 1994) and Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000). And there is the trademark stop-motion animation, no longer readable as the product of a human character’s dreaming mind, but instead separate from (but parallel to) the narrative, almost as if dreamt up purely by the viewer.
Like many of Švankmajer’s film works, Šílení has a long and irregular production history. First scripted in the 1970s but unrealised due to state censorship policies, the film survived in its written form through seismic changes in Czechoslovakian history, as well as changes in its author’s means and reputation. The 1970s was a particularly difficult decade for Švankmajer as a filmmaker. Following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, film and all other culture was forced to submit to the neo-Stalinist system of ‘normalisation’ that silenced ‘dissident’ intellectual and artistic voices. Švankmajer, who had been making films since 1964, managed to keep working under the state radar for some years owing to the animated nature of the films – an art for children in the eyes of the censors, and thus unworthy of their attentions. But gradually the watchdogs caught up with the subversive ambitions of animation: in 1972, Švankmajer’s Leonardův deník (Leonardo’s Diary) – a satirical collage of animated drawings by the Italian master, intercut with contemporary news items – was targeted by the censors for its implied criticism of day-to-day Czech life. When Švankmajer showed signs of non-compliance, he was banned from filmmaking until 1979, and much of his back catalogue was sealed away in institutional vaults. Undeterred, Švankmajer restarted his film work at the first opportunity. The 1980s gave rise to a series of significant short films, including the magnificent claymation piece Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982), regarded by many critics as the director’s definitive short-form masterwork. Regulatory vigilance remained a thorn in the side of many filmmakers, however, and it was not until after the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution’ and the re-democratization of Czechoslovakia that Švankmajer began to enjoy a measure of ‘official’ freedom in his filmmaking activities.
Haunted by the past
Against such a background of extreme suppression and censorship, it is perhaps surprising that off-mainstream filmmakers managed to realise any films at all. The expensive and collaborative nature of filmmaking is especially ill suited to clandestine production, and while Czech literary circles managed to sustain a reasonable circulation of samizdat texts, cinema production was hit hard on every level. Peter Hames estimates that more than 100 films from the 1960s were banned. (1) Many radical feature directors, including Vĕra Chytilová (Sedmikrásky/Daises, 1966) and Jiří Menzel (Rozmarné léto/Capricious Summer, 1967), struggled to keep a place in the studios, and found their careers in the 1970s and 1980s to be increasingly dependent on convention and compromise. Juraj Herz made his masterpiece, Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator), in 1968, but failed to create anything of the same dark magic in the post-invasion years – a fact that no doubt contributed to his sad exclusion from Czechoslovak New Wave history (for a discussion of Herz and Spalovač mrtvol, see Senses of Cinema issue no. 43). Miraculously, Švankmajer’s own career suffered very little from the ‘enforced silence’ of the 1970s period. Indeed, his later work seemed to assume a new force and urgency. At the core of this auteurist consistency, in the face of massive practical obstructions, is a distinctly surrealist capitulation to obsession: the compulsive return to certain significant events and fantasies. Švankmajer has described his work as a sort of “auto-therapy” (2), and certainly there is a strong element of psychologised autobiography in the films’ treatment of politics, sex and art. Of course, of all of his films to date, Šílení deals most directly with the idea of therapy – and intriguingly even this process is here revealed to hinge on self-delusion and exploitation.
From the first scenes, it is clear that the figure of the return will haunt film and protagonists alike. The very arrival of Šílení, 30 years after it was initially scripted and censored, is suggestive of an unearthing of past traumas. As the film opens, Švankmajer himself appears to provide an introduction, where he speaks directly to camera about the film’s artistic debt to Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade. Both authors have figured in earlier Švankmajer works: the short films Zánik domu Usherů (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1981) and Kyvadlo, jáma a naděje (The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope, 1983) are fevered reworkings of Poe stories; and the autoerotic fetishism of Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996) pays homage to de Sade. Here it is Poe’s “The Premature Burial” and “The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether” that provide much of the narrative content, as recently bereaved protagonist Jean Berlot (Pavel Liška) stumbles into a previously unimagined world of sadomasochistic orgies, therapeutic burials and an alarmingly unconventional sanatorium. Like Alice and her White Rabbit, Jean enters this alternate reality via a mysterious guide: the libertine Marquis, who promises to cure Jean of his fear of asylums. In fact, both Jean and the Marquis are traumatised by the death of a mother and both return compulsively to the suffering associated with that death (Jean has nightmares about being straightjacketed, which presumably stem from his guilt at the incarceration and death of his mother at an asylum; meanwhile, the Marquis engineers self-burials as “purgative therapy”, reconfronting the past trauma of mistakenly burying his mother alive).
The other central return of Šílení is one Švankmajer has made many times, via allegory and parable. As we might expect, the political traumas of the Soviet era are never far beneath the surface of any Švankmajer film, although they rarely emerge to become explicitly historical (the exception is the ‘at-last-we-can-get-away-with-this outburst’ of Konec stalinismu v Čechách/The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, 1990 (3)). The crux of Šílení is a look at two extreme institutional regimes, separated by a revolution. In one, the sanatorium patients are ruled by authoritarian discipline and violence; any mental abnormality is suppressed through physical punishment. In the other, patients are allowed absolute freedom to indulge their desires. Clearly, the sanatorium is offered to us as a kind of microcosm of society, and it is hard not to read its administrations as representing the two types of unfreedom experienced by Švankmajer’s native Czechoslovakia and, later, the Czech Republic. In 1989, institutional tyranny gave way to ‘Western’-style democracy, but in fact both involved a kind of submissiveness and discontent. Czech intellectual Jan Čulík has spoken of the way a general fear of communism persisted well into the 1990s, compromising democratic ideals (“it prevents free, critical debate from taking place. (‘If you criticise our nice government, you are a communist!’)” (4)) and leaving society politically passive, cautious – and ideally primed for the new suppressions of consumerism.
Švankmajer has dissected the realities of both totalitarianism and consumerism before in his features (witness the absurd autocracy of the Wonderland courts in Něco z Alenky, and the hypnotic, zombifying television adverts in Otesánek), but never with such seductive playfulness and such deadly revelation. The sucker punch of Šílení is a small, extra-diegetic sequence of a supermarket shelf, stocked with cut meat; in close-up, we see one piece breathing slowly through its shrink-wrap packaging. This is a crushing conclusion to a film that seemed so alive with ghoulish horror, weird game-playing and visceral energy. In particular, the animated segments – where slabs of meat, brains, eyeballs and tongues scuttle through mud and overrun various props present in the main narrative – suggested an anarchic lifeforce immune to the usual confines and contradictions of human existence. That the meat ends up as product, sedated and sacrificed to consumerist demand, is a cruel overturning of circumstances. The freedom of the market, Švankmajer suggests, has brought not real freedom but rather a numbed commercialisation of imagination and desire.
Character and performance
Something of the feeling of crushed possibility in Šílení has to do with the acting and the construction of character psychology. Previously, Švankmajer has drawn heavily on the avant-garde traditions that first inspired him to become an artist – the experimental theatre, folk puppetry, Russian avant-garde cinema, Czech surrealism. Common to all these movements and most of Švankmajer’s work is a general suspicion of characterisation, and a privileging of image and effect. In Lecke Faust, for example, Švankmajer turns his Faust (Petr Čepek) into a kind of human puppet, stripped of his individuality and doomed to play out a pre-existing fiction that we know will end in tragedy. The dialogue-free Spiklenci slasti assaults the senses with a series of spectacular and highly tactile fetish ‘performances’. Šílení, too, makes potent use of enigmatic imagery and rapid-fire montage – the opening credit sequence, featuring a sequence of macabre tarot-cards designed by Švankmajer’s late wife and production designer Eva Švankmajerová, is an especially memorable example – but there is a new and striking experimentation, as I suggested earlier, with the workings of character and performance. While Jan Tříska’s Marquis is emphatically the most charismatic of Švankmajer’s human protagonists, we might also be surprised by Jean, who elicits sympathy in a way that was absent from the bewildered interlopers of previous films (Faust, Alice, the victim in Zahrada/The Garden, 1968). Pavel Liška invests Jean with a naïve romanticism, his wide eyes and slight stutter conveying both nervous disbelief and desire (he falls for the illusive Charlota, whom he believes to be a captive at the sanatorium). But Jean is also granted a moral purpose: he voices quite understandable concerns about the exploitation of women and of the mentally ill. The Marquis, on the other hand, holds our attention for precisely the opposite reason. His is the voice not of reason but of anti-reason; he viscously condemns customs of morality, quoting de Sade verbatim and determinedly indulging blasphemous and sexual fantasies. Tříska’s is a tour de force performance, his face often shot in close-up, centred in the frame and gazing directly into the camera as he delivers a speech or a trademark gagging laugh. Part of the appeal of the character comes from his gleeful desire to cut through the cant of convention (religion, modesty), but part comes from his pure conviction, his excessive confidence in himself. It is a quality reminiscent of various Luis Buñuel characters, and in particular those played by Michel Piccoli, who so often seemed ‘enviably at home in the skin of the bad guy’ (5) as Michael Wood puts it (Piccoli also played the Marquis de Sade in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée/The Milky Way, 1969).
Both these characters suggest something of the vitality and optimism we are accustomed to looking for in human nature. But Švankmajer has allowed little hope that humanity can find fulfilment in the past, and Šílení will offer no respite. In searching for a cure for his guilt and anxieties, and attempting to ‘rescue’ the object of his affections, Charlota, Jean only deepens his suffering – his final humiliation (Charlota betrays him with a sanatorium doctor) results in a complete breakdown. The Marquis’ special brand of therapy – absolute freedom and the unchecked pursuit of desire – leads to widespread oppression, resentment and finally punishment: at the end of the film, the sanatorium is repossessed by its authoritarian founders, who waste no time in installing a system of extreme physical punishments. Both Jean and the Marquis end the narrative in abjection, overwhelmed by their worst nightmares. Šílení recognises a society riddled by traumas, haunted by the past, but suggests that there are no real cures – or, rather, the cures we invent are meaningless, since we are trapped today as we have been in the past, in a prison of our own making. Ultimately, the only course of action left is madness – or perhaps to make a film.
- Peter Hames, Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer (Wiltshire: Flick Books, 1995), p. 4.
- Jan Švankmajer, “Lunacy as Auto-Therapy” (an interview with Simon Field), GreenCine, 20 February 2007.
- Kim Newman, “The Twilight Zone” (a review of Jan Švankmajer – The Complete Short Films DVD), Sight & Sound, Vol. 17, No. 7, 2007, p. 84.
- Jan Čulík, “Czech Intellectuals and Society: Jan Culik” (an interview with Joerund Buen), Morgenbladet, August 1996.
- Michael Wood, Belle de Jour (London: BFI Publishing, 2000), p. 21.