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STRACH: CZECH HORROR
An alchemist's nightmares
Extracts from Jan Švankmajer's diary
In the pre-production phase of Otesánek (Little Otík), Jan Švankmajer confides to his diary about his occasional doubts in himself and the film, LSD-induced flashbacks he used to experience and dreams that haunt him at night.
25 January 1999
Organised religions create Holiness, canonise it and institutionalise it in order that they can then use it as a truncheon with which they herd their little sheep into the slavery of dogma. Opposed to that, poetry and imagination create Fantasia, which open the gates to freedom.
26 January 1999
We set out into the woods at half past seven in the morning looking for Otesánek. I found some bits but Otesánek nowhere. Further, our saw was blunt. But on the path to Knovíz we had a bit of luck at last. We came across some old cherry trees by the wayside. We cut several "skeletons" of Otesánek (three sizes) from the branches, which after certain adjustments and additions could be the real "true" Otesáneks. I also tried various wooden knots and spare chips from which Otesánek’s face could be built up and in this way (by switch and change) reach a certain "wooden" and "thus natural" mimicry. (Of course, with the help of animation.)
|The root of the matter: Mr Horák in the film|
In any case, I feel a little calmer. And I am beginning to feel that maybe it will work. Otesánek doesn't hold just the title role of the film but is the key. Even if I try to show him as little as possible and, moreover, in detail rather than whole then, nonetheless, there are several shots in the script which are crucial to the credibility, "truthfulness" and also the emotive qualities of the film. For example, the first shot of the "live" Otesánek shows him sucking at his "mother's" (Horáková's) breast. Sometimes I have the impression that the success of the film hangs on this take (when I mention success I mean its content, idea, philosophy, imagination, documentary value and subversion, not commercial success).
Eva wanted to phone the gardener to prune our trees and by mistake dialled her cancer specialist (although she doesn't know his number and has never rung him before). Ignorance is a terrible thing.
27 January 1999
Have worked all day on the Otesánek script. In the evening, I had a call from Tomáš, together with Šimon and Josef, they have brought all the roots we found yesterday and cleaned them. Tomorrow we will undertake another expedition in search of Otesánek.
28 January 1999
We have cut out a number of huge Otesáneks. Next week, I'll start to construct his definite appearance from the discovered roots and branches. Unfortunately we were unable to find a particular root from which Otesánek could be cut without "false" supplements.
29 January 1999
In the morning, I visited the military hospital again. They released magnetic fields into me. I go there three times a week. It's supposedly good for rheumatism. It reminded me of spring 1972, in the same hospital, when we let them jab LSD into us. It was part of some military research or maybe some sort of initiative on the part of young doctors. I don't know.
Myself, Eva, Martin Stejskal and Jana let them do it. I think Vodak and his wife and some strangers were there too. For me it was a terrifying experience from which it took years to recover. To begin with, it was quite comfortable as we lay on the beds and waited for it to take effect. The drug began to gradually take over my senses. At first, I went through some regression, I felt like a defenceless nursling, and stroboscopic effects even appeared. For example, an arm movement was "phased" as if it was formed by static pictures gradually photographed by a trick camera. Moreover, every phase had a different colour. And I was still able to take in my surroundings.
Martin and Jana kept laughing continuously. Then they let us move around the room. By this stage, I began to lose the last remains of healthy reason. I was overcome by terror and uncontrolable paranoia. I began to attack the doctors who were present and fight with them; I started to accuse them of trying to destroy me, and that it was a trap which was supposed to help lose my sanity and stop me leaving the place. I began to race around the hospital attempting to flee. The staff kept catching me and struggling with me.
In the end, they had to give me some antitoxin to get me out of it. They left me there overnight in a padded room without a door-handle and told Eva to pick me up in the morning. By morning, I was much calmer—the acute state had passed. But for several years, on various occasions this horrifying state kept returning. For example, I was unable to take the tram at night. The penetration of reality beyond the tram windows and the reflection of the tram interior in the glass caused me physical queasiness and I had to alight and rather walk. This permeation of dual realities, one static (reflexion in the window) and the other dynamic (flashing environment within the tram) evoked that condition of disintegrating reality and deformation of perception as if under the influence of LSD.
A few days before this experiment, as part of these tests, I had to undertake breathing in of some "tomato gas" which also had toxic effects similar to the use of LSD or other drugs. Whereas others really underwent some transformation into a mystic state this drug again "rejected" me. Whilst breathing this gas I experienced a totally "realistic" emotion of drowning. In a faint, which I quickly found myself in, it seems I screamed in anxiety so loudly that the entire hospital ran to see what was happening.
I think that an important factor in a reaction to any kind of drug is the actual mental state of the user. At the time of the experiments, I was suffering from a serious depression. The relationship with Eva was falling apart. It seemed we would split up. I suffered awfully beacuse of this. I think that this situation had a major influence on my reaction to the drugs I was given. Maybe, the extreme reaction wouldn't have occurred if a degree of psychological well-being was in place.
1 February 1999
I think I've solved all contentious scenarios where tricks have to be used. I've convinced myself that everything I've thought up is feasible. In any case, my fear of completion has waned.
5 February 1999
I've put together the first Otesánek. He has bent little legs, slightly askew right shoulder, a distinctive gob and a wee willy. Lots of little fingers and toes.
6 February 1999
I puttied the links of the roots of our Otesánek. I tried minute shirts on him and chose a croched hat. The little shirt will have to be sewn a bit bigger.
8 February 1999
We were picking a small Alžbětka for Otesánek. Visited a school in Úvoz. We took photographs of a number of girls but, I think, not one can be considered. What has become clear is that it will have to be an eight-year-old rather than nine- or ten-year-old as I originally thought. Eva, with a photographer and a production assistant, visited more schools in central Prague. They discovered two hopeful Alžbětkas, it seems. We'll see when the photographer sends the pictures over.
13 February 1999
I had my first dream in a long time. But I cannot remember anything from it. Before noon I was puttying and re-touching one Otesánek. Eva was sulking and didn't eat. In the afternoon, I sketched ground-plans of the Horáks' and Štádlers' flats in order that they could be rebuilt in Knovíz in existing rooms with a minimum of alterations. In the evening, I got depressed thinking the film would be impossible to shoot.
14 February 1999
|The final choice: Otesánek as he turned out|
So, we have finished three Otesáneks—each one slightly different. Now, we just have to make the right decision. Which one? The first one has a useful size, nicely and usefully bent legs, so, he sits snuggly in the lap. Looks like an authentic root that's been touched up. But has a small head. The second one is a bit bigger. Legs apart—good for putting nappies on, has a child's weenie face, well-rounded body. But gives the impression of a forest goblin. Looks a little naturalistic. The third looks very much like a child but less like a wooden root. Eva likes the first one most of all. Instead of a face, he has a gob. I'll try to enlarge his head. Then he would probably be the best. The second one I would then adjust, so in certain shots he could act as a double. In Knovíz I have two more at the preparation stage but, I fear, neither will be in contention in the final selection.
16 February 1999
I spent the morning in hospital again. The specialist in internal diseases is pushing me for more tests. Kidneys and blood again. Cholesterol, sugar and liver enzymes are on the up. During the afternoon I worked a little on Otesánek—it seems I've made a choice. I was chiselling his head. Probably I'll swap his left hand and cut his little toes.
Today we received a notice announcing Pavel Prochazka's death. It threw me somewhat and Eva too, I think. You can't just write off friendship from schooldays even though we were unable to see each other after his emigration post-August 1968. One cannot forget that they let me and my family (Eva and Verunka) stay in their flat for a week during the Soviet invasion when the radio warned that the signatories of "2000 words" were being arrested by the KGB and that they shouldn't stay at home. That report later turned out to be false, but, in that moment of despair, the Prochazka family took us in. The death notice we received had Pavel's text as a strange fictive conversation with death which ends with "and thus I died." There is no date as to when he wrote it. The text feels as if it was a suicide.
23 February 1999
[Paul] Leclerc with Bertrand [Schmidt] and Anička came to see us in Knovíz. They shot [for a French documentary] how we were manufacturing several Otesáneks. They were in the forest with us where we searched for parts of Otesánek's body and in the sand quarry where we looked for small pine roots for his fingers and toes.
24 February 1999
Today we shot an animation test on video of Otesánek's movement, or more precisely of his wooden torso with the help of new complete parts which we cut yesterday in the forest. We used the French friends' camera who, once more, filmed us at work.
25 February 1999
|Two Štádlerovás: Mother and daughter |
During the afternoon in Knovíz, I did acting tests with the first chosen little Alžbětkas. Out of the six chosen ones, only four turned up. Those missing were, of course, the ones I was most relying on. Out of the ones I tried, there was only one able to move and communicate naturally. One could probably even work with her. Furthermore, she's really an "adult" type of energetic girlie. She would even look like her "mother" (if I choose the actress from the Ypsilon theatre for the role of Štádlerová). We'd have to dress her differently and change her hair-style though.
27 February 1999
All day long I watched on video the tests for Alžbětka. The Alžbětka I picked is to my liking more and more. Although she is a little big (143 cm), and she is nine years old, it seems she is "a personality" (at least in the way she answered my question). I re-read the script and imagined her in particular scenes, and it seemed to me that there were no hitches. There is the danger, though, that she will grow up too much during the year when shooting will gather pace. Incidentally, she is the daughter of a television producer (as we found out later), so we could expect some level of understanding from her parents. At least, I hope. Certainly, though, we'll keep on searching.
28 February 1999
I stayed in bed all day. On the odd occasion I switched on the video of the Alžbětkas. I starved all day. Tomorrow I'm going to get my blood taken.
1 March 1999
The hospital was a waste of time. They didn't take my blood. All day I urinated into a plastic bottle as they wanted urine over a 24-hour period. I pissed two litres of high-quality urine for them.
4 March 1999
|The eyes have it: Žilková in full craziness|
We invited Veronika Žilková for a chat, as I am counting on her for the role of Mrs Horáková—the main female part, that is. It seems I've chosen well. Her eyes are really crazy—full of masochism. It looks as if she takes the role seriously but with actors one never knows.
In the evening, a meeting of the group. I asked Martin Stejskal for advice regarding one shot of Otesánek: Otesánek sucking milk from his "mother's" breast.
5 March 1999
I am a hand. And a hand is a tool. I am, therefore, a tool. A tool for giving and receiving emotions. (Thus, not a working tool.) On the palm of my soul are engraved my life-lines. On occasion I read them in front of the mirror. This activity lost the flavour of anxious narcissism long time ago. I am a victim of tactilism. I have too many erogeneous zones for one body. Sometimes I feel that I can't even fit into it. I have never worked but, in spite of that, my fingers are in constant motion even when I sleep. Clenching and unclenching, intertwining and sometimes even exchanging places.
Permanently they try to pass on something to the deaf-and-dumb nearby. Usually in vain. Sign, non-verbal speech (in fact, the only real language which is capable of expressing the ambiguity of things and events because it gushes from inexhaustable sources within the imagination) nobody wants to understand anymore. For this civilisation it's a language of the barbarians, psychopaths and cripples because there is no profit in it. I am a hand with six fingers with webs in between. Instead of fingernails I have petite, sharp, sweet-toothed little tongues with which I lick the world.
Eva spends whole days painting. She is finishing a large series of alchemistical paintings "Mutus liber." I consider it to be one of her pivotal works. She doesn't go out, and her whole time is divided between creative euphoria which she experiences next to her ladder and falling into despair in which everything around her, including herself, is repudiated and condemned. In her "lighter" moments, she yearns for revenge.
10 March 1999
I put on a cassette of the first test with the Alžbětkas. I fear that we will find nothing better than [Kristina] Adamcová. I will have to do more tests with her though.
14 March 1999
I still keep saying and put it on paper that I am not interested in art and, at the same time, I make films, projects, drawings, collages etc, and collect paintings and drawings and other artistic artefacts. So, how is it? I am not interested in art. That is, art with a big A. But I am interested in certain artists, or more accurately certain works of art by certain artists but not because I consider them to be more "artistic" than other works or because they strike my "sense of beauty" but because they touch something more important which exceeds the concept of art—that is, the basis of life, in another words, a form of inner still undefined imagination (which is nothing else than prima materia of our existence). A work of art which manages to break through into this "secret" underground imagination, the deeper the better—only such a piece I find interesting because it liberates a human being. And liberation is the only meaningful activity of a human. Only this anti-aesthetic dimension of an artistic (and not only artistic) piece of work is of interest to me. (Several things of equal value: "Painting, statue, a found object, drawing for the media, natural outcrop, dream, a chance meeting, overheard conversation, speeches by lunatics etc.").
Art (like other forms of human endeavour) is , above all, a document of an era. But there are works which rise above this general category and very much in the sense of the liberation of the individual or, in another words, they are revolutionary works not in a relationship to aesthetics (aesthetic "revolutions" are only mutinies on one's knees) but in a psycho-social sense. Because this is the pitch where the game is played in relation to our freedom.
19 March 1999
Departed for Stankov. But, in all truth, I don't feel right about it. I'm immersed in Otesánek and it's more of a disturbance than a rest. Moreover, we haven't seen eye-to-eye with Eva, and she's been reproaching me all day.
26 March 1999
With Jarda we picked actors from the register at Czech TV and later on at Jessica's. I think we have found actors for the role of the pensioner, Zlabek, and probably for Bulanková, the caretaker, as well, and, maybe, for the commissar and others. I brought home several lists of names with actors' photographs. The rest I'll select at home. With Mr Horák we'll try [Jan] Hartl and Mr Štádler will be Pavel Nový. The casting is really finished.
27 March 1999
I'm reading the script of Otesánek and imagining the selected actors in their roles. I've got through about one-third of the script, and it looks like there won't be any hitches.
28 March 1999
I am in despair because I'm incapable of remembering my dreams when I wake up. I lost this capacity some time ago because, out of laziness, I stopped recording my dreams.
30 March 1999
Tuesday. In the morning, we departed for Knovíz to prepare everything for another test of the Alžbětkas. Around two o'clock, Jarda brought them. Four new girls and Adamcová. From the new ones, only one was maybe capable of something. I tested Adamcová properly this time. I went through several scenes from the script (the harder ones). I made her slog until I was satisfied. I also wanted to know what she could take. I think that at the fiftieth time round it was quite decent. The main thing is that from shot to shot it got better. She is intelligent; in her own way a personality and she is believable as Kretschmerová's daughter. Without a doubt, those are big plusses. Furthermore, she's not spoiled by various theatre schools and amateur actors. Problems will arise with large details. The mouth, eyes.
3 April 1999
I dreamt a horrible dream. The deceased Pavel Procházka telephoned me. He lamented that his wife Stana had left him, and all he had left was myself. During the telephone call, he slowly crawled out (as far as his waist) from the receiver and put his head on my shoulders and cried. At that moment I noticed that the ceiling of my room was on fire. I woke up in terror. At first I wondered what to do, I wanted to take a look upstairs to check that there really was no fire there, then I realised that if there was a fire I would smell the smoke. Anyway, we don't use stoves for heating.
5 April 1999
More and more I'm mulling over the idea whether to additionally buy a sty at Stankov and re-build it turning it into a gallery and together with what used to be a granary we could create an area which we would make accessible as a kind of "adjunct" of Gambra. There would be a permanent exhibition, for one, of my and Eva's works bu also themes such as: "The Archimboldo principle", "Verism in Czech fantastic art", "Media art", and, of course, a permanent exhibition of the Surrealist Group. In the chapel, we could create a set from Faust and in the granary cellar an alchemists' kitchen. It would still need to find space for the torture chamber like from Kyvadlo, jáma a naděje.
6 April 1999
We arrived in Prague from Stankov. Eva is due for a check-up in a weeks' time and is beginning to go crazy. Notwithstanding that, she is clearly healthy. But reason in these moments remains powerless.
9 April 1999
I spent the morning with Eva at the military hospital. I went to have my blood taken, Eva went to the oncology deptartment. In the end, I managed to persuade her not to wait for the agreed appointment and go earlier and save herself a week of stress. Of course, everything is all right, and she is due back in July. At noon we left for Stankov.
Stankov. It's beautiful here.
10 April 1999
Night by night
I'm in the dark forest
full of romantic animation
shuffling by the dug-out crater
in which long ago boring poets rolled around
by the crater throwing vulgar abuse
into the face of extracted sand
Night by night
I stood there
with closed eyes
sweaty hand behind my back and listened to the soaking-up of roots
growing-up of lizard's tails
and the constant moulting of owls
Until one moonless night
from the crater blasted balls crawled out
smothered in Hellmann's mayonnaise
and politely greeted me
"Praised be Lord Jesus Christ"
Before I managed to retort
a set of knocked-out teeth sprang out
madly chewing sugarless Orbit
then prolapsed guts joined in
inserted between two halves
of a sliced bun
And already in front of me stood a complete person
Finally a swarm flew out of the crater
of snow-white ladies sanitary towels
make of Ria
and began to
with gracefully waving wings
circle above his head
Ecce Homo of the end of the twentieth century
I took him by the hand
and ran for shelter in the hills
Invisible planes threw down
postcards for the trip
with a coloured snap of the setting sun
in South Carolina
General Secretary Solana
in all that excitement misted up his glasses
17 April 1999
By Thursday, we have to gather the reproductions and texts for Analogon (descriptions of works in the Holy Theft exhibition). So, I worked on it a little.
18 April 1999
Sunday. I made a rubbing "The Pope gives a computer expert a pedicure." Eva finished painting her series of "Holy pictures."
21 April 1999
In Knovíz. In the morning, I went through Otesánek's animation with Beda Glaser and agreed (with the cameraman, as well) that animation tests will be shot next week. Beda managed with Tomáš to go round to the local butcher to agree a purchase for next week of a pork tongue and some membranes for the lining of Otesánek's mouth. In the afternoon we drove around Slany with Jarda and Juraj. We managed, I think, to find the butchers' and the toy shop. In the meantime, Eva with Katka made a selection of clothing for Horák and Mrs Horáková from our store.
24 April 1999
During the night I had awful dreams. I dreamt that I was in a theater and that I was lying in a box and right on the edge. I was terribly afraid that I would fall but I could't move myself back. There is something in the way. Furthermore, I'm scared to make any sudden movement, so, as not to crash down below. Right then, someone is saying that Arp and Zimbaca (couldn't hear the third name) joined in "the action." Anxiety of falling woke me up and I found that I am really lying on the edge of the bed in danger of falling on the floor because from behind Brouk is pressing me and I am uselessly trying to push him back. At that moment, Eva began to cry loudly in her sleep.
As usual, I was chatting to Eva in the morning and suddenly some new space opened up and I began to describe new ideas for Otesánek to her. Ideas for which I was still waiting which move the script forward (paricularly its beginning) on to another more imaginative level without leaving the ground of reality from which it all springs from. I think that was what I was waiting for. Lately, I've had to overcome ever-increasing doubts. Suddenly the script appeared to be too "descriptive" as it doesn't give a possibility of "getting into the play," that it's too constricted by the story and that it would force me into a "conventional" treatment. But these ideas seem to me to get round these pitfalls. I'm beginning to like the script again.
27 April 1999
|Otesánek in the early stages of growth|
Knovíz. Test of animation and cameras.
We shot how Otesánek drinks from a bottle of milk with a dummy. Big detail. This will be a key take in the film (although instead of the bottle it will be Horákova's breast). This test we'll pass to Martin Stejskal to improve it further on the computer. If it works of course.
In the meantime, we did the rounds with Jarda: butcher, police station, toy shop and, above all, we have probably found a house in Slany where we would shoot passages, steps and the cellar. Unfortunately it has no garden. We would have to create it in the yard.
28 April 1999
Wednesday. Shot more animation tests. How Otesánek jerks and cries. (Shot it to the sound of a child crying.) And, mainly, how Otesánek pigs himself on Mrs Horáková's hair. We made his gums, out of pig's lungs. And, of course, the pork tongue couldn't be left out. Maybe tomorrow we will see it in projection. Another scouting trip. Drove with Tomáš to Kladno to find a cinema and a supermarket. We found a cinema of sorts. Not a supermarket, though.
29 April 1999
Daily chores will not be until tomorrow. Drove out with Ruzicka and Juraj to find more cottages. Went through several huge second-home villages. But finally found it. Two cottages next to each other with steps facing each other. One is shabby. In the background, a forest. Methinks it's exactly it. Only we'll have to build a shed.
In the evening, a meeting of the group at the "Green Gate" in the Brevnov part of Prague. Martin brought already printed and trimmed fortune cards—collective work by the group. Eva immediately began to tell the lads their fates. Handed in the script "Family Fortune" to Analogon.
30 April 1999
In the morning we were at the Barrandov Studios. I saw an animation test. (Probably) Otesánek's jerking and crying went all right. In Knovíz, we added to it the sound of crying. It will need adding on to it in the cutting room. We'll do it with Marie on Monday. The shot of Otesánek sucking from the baby-bottle will need better re-touching of its individual phases. We'll see what Martin manages to do with it on the computer. On the other hand, the shot of the eye and hands did not work out at all. Careless animation, the tissue of the pig's lungs oxidized and became an unnatural red, the tongue could hardly be seen. Have to do it again and a bit differently.
In the afternoon we took Jarda to show him the selected cottages. Eventually we managed to catch one of the owners of the cottages. We even took a look inside. I think after a few alterations it could work.
2 May 1999
Carried on with a description of costumes. Film would seemingly have a whole array of disguises. It's not as simple as I imagined. Eva is drawing illustrations in the animated part of Otesánek.
6 May 1999
Towards noon we left for Knovíz. The whole afternoon we scoured around the costumes. It's clear that a large part of the costumes we'll find in our own store. That would be super.
In the evening a meeting of the group: Franta, Bruno and Bertrand joined a 1 May demonstration of anarchists protesting against a skinhead get-together. They formulated a petition against the police intervention which protected the Sieg Heil-ing skins on their unpermitted march through Prague. Absurd. Signed it with Eva, of course. The following would like to take part in The Holy Theft exhibition: Terosian, Camacho and Benoit but it would mean getting hold of money to cover the insurance.
7 May 1999
Whole day spent sorting out and choosing costumes for Otesánek. It went well. Really only minor things are left: shoes, t-shirts etc. We'll carry on next week. Eva took away the selected things to Prague. They have to be washed and ironed.
8 May 1999
Saturday. In the morning Martin Stejskal came round to pick up the cassette with the animation tests. He'll try to improve them on the computer.
24 May 1999
I killed a person. I battered him to death with a plastic ruler. I tried to kill Dr Sládek (Chairman of the far-right Republican Party) with the very same ruler but I didn't succeed.
Police investigated me but only as if. They knew I did but they laid a false trail. During interrogation the investigator kept winking at me. I woke up with the feeling of: "So, I've even killed somebody. How will I live with that?"
Costume test with Hartl. All costume tests have gone almost surprisingly smoothly. With Mr Vanášek, we toured second-hand furniture stores to convert Štádler's flat. It looked hopeless. In the end, we bought a few things but I am not sure it's exactly what we need. We'll see when they bring it round and we put it in place.
At four we met (the group) in Lazanský Palace [in Prague's Castle district]. Today the spaces where the Holy Theft exhibition will be seemed in a fairly good condition and, above all, very large. Now it will be a case of filling them "thematically." The Archbishop's Palace can be seen from the windows where it stands across Hradčany Square. We couldn't have thought up a better place for the Holy Theft.
28 May 1999
|Death of a social worker: |
Bulanková dragged in to her doom
All week we toiled at furnishing the Štádler flat. Today it dawned on me how to show the audience Otesánek eating someone for real and not only talk about it or show his "cannibalism" when it's all over. We'll put a door with a glass panel leading into Otesánek's room. The glass, though, will be dull and textured (with a pattern). The view through the glass changes depending on the distance from it. If one is standing close behind it it is possible to look through it as if through a transparent window. If one steps back a little, though, everything changes into a blurred shade until it disappears completely. And in this way one could stage the gobbling up of the social worker by Otesánek. Bulanková occasionally "seen," Otesánek "unseen".
1 June 1999
First day of filming. We shot scene five.
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