Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 1 
7 Jan
2002

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Jan Svankmajer's Otesanek (Little Otik, 2000)STRACH: CZECH HORROR
Bringing
up baby

Jan Švankmajer interviewed about Otesánek
(Little Otík, 2000)

Švankmajer's latest feature film is, perhaps, his most conventional work to date. But as the director tells Peter Hames, Otesánek is another angle on a theme that has obsessed him for a long time.[*]


Otesánek (Little Otík, 2000), the new film from Czech animator and Surrealist Jan Švankmajer, seems likely to reach a broader audience than his previous features. It's based on a Czech fairytale about a childless couple who acquire a baby from an unusual source. Mr Horák digs up a tree root that vaguely resembles a child, trims it and presents it to his wife. Mrs Horáková is only too willing to treat it as real and is soon powdering its bottom, changing its nappies and cutting its nails. The neighbours are misled by an extended fake pregnancy, and Otík comes alive and begins to develop a voracious appetite. The family cat, the postman and a visiting social worker mysteriously disappear.

In the neighbouring apartment live the Štádlers and their daughter Alžbětka. The precocious and defiant 11-year-old studies a textbook—Sexual Dysfunction and Sterility —hidden under the dust jacket of K J Erben's fairy stories. But she's soon paying equal attention to the fairy stories as she notices
Jan Svankmajer's Otesanek (Little Otik, 2000)
Alžbětka: In the know all along
parallels between the events occurring next door and the classic tale of Otesánek. Her readings from the book begin to anticipate episodes in the film, and she sets out to protect Otík from the consequences of his actions.

Švankmajer has been making films since the 60s (or 1958 if you include his assistance on Emil Radok's short animation Johannes doctor Faust). While stop motion animation is rarely absent, the techniques employed range from puppet animation to two-dimensional animation, object animation and live action. In many films, as in Otesánek, he combines these strategies—here the central character is presented through three-dimensional animation while Alžbětka's reading of Erben's story is conveyed through two-dimensional animation. The bulk of the story is presented as live action.

The metaphor of eating

Švankmajer's previous features all pay tribute to the world of puppetry. In Něco z Alenky (Alice / Something from Alice, 1988), inspired by Lewis Carroll, Alice inhabits a world of puppets and frequently becomes one herself. In Lekce Faust (Faust / The Lesson of Faust, 1994) the hero undergoes a similar transformation. In Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996) a number of the characters create puppet effigies of each other. But, in Otesánek the human characters maintain stable physical identities—Švankmajer told Veronika Žilková, who plays Horáková, to portray madness through her eyes alone.

Czech poster for Jan Svankmajer's Otesanek (Little Otik, 2000)
Czech poster for Otesánek

Previous English titles for the film include Devouring Monster and Greedy Guts—names that play on the theme of gluttony and the original story's apparent warning to children whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs. The traditional folk themes of the ogre and cannibalism are very much in evidence, but whereas it's usually the ogre or step-parent who threatens the child, here the child devours its own parents. Food and cannibalism as metaphors for human relations appeared in such earlier Švankmajer films as Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982) and, most obviously, Jídlo (Food, 1992).

Do pivnice (Down to the Cellar, 1983), in which the girl protagonist's fear of going to the cellar to fetch potatoes represents Švankmajer's own childhood terror elaborated through a form of Red Riding Hood story, began life as a collective Surrealist study of fear. There are obvious parallels with the story of Něco z Alenky , but by the time of the latter film the heroine has become much more determined, explicitly defying the Queen of Hearts and the White Rabbit in its final scenes. In Otesánek, Alžbětka is streetwise from the beginning. When the increasingly monstrous Otík is confined to a locked chest in the cellar she has no fear, and she totally dominates the ageing paedophile on the stairs ( a character who appears in more sinister form in Do pivnice), naming him as such.

A Surrealist's home

A member of the Czech Surrealists since 1970, Švankmajer's links to the movement have always been direct. In Otesánek, an early shot makes explicit reference to Luis Buñuel's and Salvador Dali's Un Chien andalou (1928). Mr Horák looks down into the street where a man is catching babies in a net and wrapping them in newspaper like carp for a Christmas meal, echoing the scene in the earlier film where the hero watches the androgen prod a severed hand in the street.

Meeting Švankmajer in his country house in southern Bohemia, it's apparent how much he inhabits the world of his imagination. Purchased as a derelict mansion at the time he was searching for ruins for Zánik domu Usherů (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1981), his house has become a living reflection of his work and that of his wife, painter and ceramic artist Eva Švankmajerová. The larger than lifesize puppets from Lekce Faust inhabit their own theatre in a disused chapel. Ceramic heads sit on the outside steps, while the interior is crowded with a lifetime's work—paintings, prints, ceramic sculpture, collections of masks and fetishes.

As Švankmajer has said, Surrealism is not an artistic style but a means of investigating and exploring reality, "a journey into the depths of the soul." This may explain his lack of interest in the idea of art (a word he rejects in favour of "creation"), his attempts to rid his work of decorative or mannerist tendencies and his replacement of music with other sounds. His films explore the world of the imagination and assert its force against the pre-digested categories of the commercial world.

Jan Svankmajer's Otesanek (Little Otik, 2000)
Ordinary lives in a Surrealist tale

Like all Surrealists, his search is for the realities disguised by the utilitarian and the conventional. The heroes of Lekce Faust and of Spiklenci slasti are ordinary people you might meet on the street. In Otesánek, it's no accident that Mr Horák has a nine-to-five job and a small family car, that his wife shops at the local supermarket or that Mr Štádler has a close relationship with the adverts that leap from the television set.

Švankmajer has had no problems finding subjects for his films since the fall of communism. As he once remarked, if contemporary civilisation were not sick, the "ulcer of Stalinism" could never have emerged.


Otesánek is based on a folk tale best known from the version by K J Erben. What attracted you to the subject?

In the early 70s, Eva was looking for a "drastic" fairy tale she could make into an animated short film. Otesánek was her final choice; she had illustrated the story earlier for a children's book. She asked me to help her with the script, and suddenly I realised what a great subject I was handling. That it was, in effect, a topical version of the Faust myth: a rebellion against nature and the tragic dimension of that rebellion. In short, I "stole" the story from Eva (and subsequently integrated her original idea into the final shape of my script).

You say that the name Otesánek is untranslateable but there's a lot of play in the dialogue about the baby's real name (Otík) and the character in the folk tale (Otesánek). What is the significance of this?

The word otesánek is a blend consisting of the word "to hew" (otesávat) and the diminutive noun-ending ánek, used mostly with words characterising children. Figuratively, the word otesánek is used in Czech to characterise a person who devours and digests everything, not only food.

Most of your features combine puppets with live actors, and the central characters exist as both puppets and as real people. But in Otesánek none of the characters change their status. Is this a new departure?

Otesánek differs from my previous films mainly by being a version of a traditionally constructed story with normal dialogue. That is not the case with Něco z Alenky or Lekce Faust, and certainly not with Spiklenci slasti. In this sense, Otesánek is the most conventional of my films. In its subject matter, though, it is quite close to Lekce Faust and, in showing the omnipotence of desire, to Spiklenci slasti. This is only another angle on the subjects that obsess me, not a new departure in my work.

In many folk tales, a child is threatened by an ogre or a wild beast. In Otesánek, by contrast, the child has become an ogre. What was the intention behind this reversal?

I do not work with intentions. Pursuing intentions leads to making films as theses. That has nothing to do with freedom of the imagination. It's common knowledge the subconscious components of our mind are just as meaningful as the conscious. So my preference is certainly for post facto interpretation rather than intention. In Otesánek, the child devours its "parents." Otík is the product of their desire, their rebellion against nature. This is not a child in the real sense of the word, but the materialisation of desire, of rebellion. That's the tragic dimension of the human destiny—it's impossible to live without rebelling against the human lot. That is the essence of freedom.

The Marquis de Sade invoked nature in his early texts, but in later works he condemned it, calling it a whore and a murderess, rebelling against it. But between de Sade and the present, there's a history of shocking experiences in human civilisation. Without that terrible ambivalence we are unable to face anything, certainly not nature. That's why we end our rebellions on our knees.

Otesánek is much longer than your other features and its narrative progression is more orthodox. Was this a matter of being faithful to the original story?

Storytelling, whatever the story, has its own laws. It differs from recounting a dream (as in Něco z Alenky). Similarly, when you start using conventional dialogue, you've got to realise that the film will be longer. A film told through dialogue (without a narrator) always works in a roundabout way, which requires time; figurative speech—the language of pictures and symbols—is more direct and consequently shorter. Otesánek is long because I made a wrong estimate of the roundabout way. In other words, it involved a rather different way of working than I have used so far.

The telling of Erben's original tale takes the form of two-dimensional animation. What is its function within the film?

Jan Svankmajer's Otesanek (Little Otik, 2000)
Eva Švankmajerová's animated
"film within a film"

Erben's tale read by Alžbětka is an independent animated short that has an important role in the film, in that it gives the spectator a clear picture of the original myth, unadulterated by the deformations of present-day society. It is this that provides the source of Alžbětka's "knowledge" and her "counteractivity." Thus animated, the Erben tale could stand on its own (with minor alterations), as an independent short film. It's a film within a film.

The Surrealist group you belong to has participated in various exhibitions in Prague since the fall of communism. Does this newfound recognition pose a threat?

The fact that since November 1989 the group has arranged a number of public events, including the issuing of the review Analogon, and has tried to acquaint the broader public with its activities doesn't mean it has become integrated into Czech culture. Surrealism has always been a minority affair, even in the 30s. In so far as it was perceived at all, it was considered to be an abscess on the body of Czech culture. Today, the rabid attacks of the fascist establishment and Stalinist lackeys have been replaced by indifference and ignorance. For art historians, Surrealism has long been dead, which is why they are only interested in historical Surrealism and ignore the present movement. I do not think we are in any danger of "recognition."

You once described Walt Disney as one of the leading destroyers of European culture. What is being destroyed and how can this be resisted?

Disney is among the greatest makers of "art for children." I have always held that no special art for children simply exists, and what passes for it embodies either the birch (discipline) or lucre (profit). "Art for children" is dangerous in that it shares either in the taming of the child's soul or the bringing up of consumers of mass culture. I am afraid a child reared on current Disney produce will find it difficult to get used to more sophisticated kinds of art, and will assume his/her place in the ranks of viewers of idiotic television serials. That doesn't mean that works with imaginative value may not occasionally crop up in consumer culture—for instance, King Kong. But I fear their number is dwindling.

Peter Hames

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Also of interest
About the author

Peter HamesPeter Hames is author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and editor of Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer. He is an honorary research associate at Staffordshire University, programme director of Stoke Film Theatre and programme adviser to the London Film Festival.

Also by the author

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Footnotes

* This article and interview originally appeared in Volume 11, Issue 10 (October 2001), pp 26-28, of Sight & Sound, published by the British Film Institute. Kinoeye would like to express their thanks to the journal for permission to republish these pieces.return to text

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