Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 1 
7 Jan
2002

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Jan Svankmajer's Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970)STRACH: CZECH HORROR
The bare
bones of horror

Jan Švankmajer's
Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970)

Švankmajer's early career in short film-making holds some under-appreciated masterpieces. Jan Uhde looks at a "horror documentary" shot in the wake of the Soviet-led invasion.


Today, the talents of the Czech animator, visual artist and Surrealist Jan Švankmajer are known and recognised world-wide. But international attention and interest in his work came only when Švankmajer turned to more commercially viable feature-length film projects and topics more familiar to the general public, starting with Něco z Alenky (Alice, 1987), adapted from Lewis Carroll's popular book, and Lekce Faust (Faust, 1994), the late-mediaeval tale which has inspired some of the greatest artists both in literature and film. By then, however, Švankmajer had been producing short films for a quarter of a century, among them some of his best works such as Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of a Dialogue, 1983).

Jan Svankmajer's Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970)One of the neglected masterpieces produced during Švankmajer's early career is Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970), a "horror documentary" shot in one of his country's most unique and bleakest monuments, the Sedlec Monastery Ossuary. The Sedlec Ossuary contains the bones of some 50 to 70 thousand people buried there since the Middle Ages. Over a period of a decade, they were fashioned by the Czech artist František Rint with his wife and two children into fascinating displays of shapes and objects, including skull pyramids, crosses, a monstrance and a chandelier containing every bone of the human body. Their work was completed in 1870, and these artifacts have been placed in the crypt of the Cistercian chapel as a memento mori for the contemplation of visitors.

Subversion from a safe medium

Jan Svankmajer's Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970)Švankmajer filmed this extraordinary exhibit as a black-and-white 10-minute short soon after Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in August 1968. After a few brief months of the Prague Spring, the collective aspiration that the Communist regime might finally be liberalised and acquire a "human face" was shattered. The post-invasion regime, installed in the fall of 1969, became known especially for its repression of culture. Film-makers, particularly those of the "Czech New Wave," were among the most severely persecuted. The fact that a non-conformist like Švankmajer was allowed to shoot in this atmosphere at all was in part due to the fact that he was working in the relatively obscure and inexpensive domain of short film production; this may have saved him from the crackdown that struck his more exposed colleagues in the feature film studios during the 1970s.

Moreover, Švankmajer's remarkable tenacity and creative thinking enabled him to sometimes outwit the regime's ideological watchdogs; these external pressures very probably helped him sharpen his artistic tools—a familiar phenomenon replayed recently in Iranian cinema. An example of his strategy was Kostnice. The film was commissioned as a "cultural documentary," a form popular with the authorities and considered relatively safe politically. But the subject Švankmajer chose must have been a surprise for theJan Svankmajer's Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970) apparatchiks: on the one hand, the Sedlec Ossuary was a first-rate historical site which, at first glance, suited the official didactic demand. On the other hand, there was the uncomfortable subject of decay and death as well as religion, reflecting a subtle yet defiant opposition to the loud secular optimism of the communist officialdom.

In addition, Švankmajer included the "banal, pedestrian, Party-line comments of the tour guide [which] deliberately counterpointed with the riot of skeletal imagery." This was considered ideologically unacceptable and the film-maker was forced to replace the commentary; he chose piano music with a female vocalist singing (in Czech) the surrealist poem by Jacques Prévert, "Pour faire le portrait d'un oiseau" ("To Paint the Portrait of a Bird").

Yesterday's horrors today

Jan Svankmajer's Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970)Well-known for his appreciation of the macabre, Švankmajer found in Sedlec a subject sufficiently grim not to have to add very much to it. The theme of ageing, ruin and death appears right from the beginning in the introductory shots of the film: an old man slowly pedalling his creaking bicycle on a potholed road towards the dilapidated chapel; pitted and withered sculptures covered by invading lichens. A moving snail in the eye socket of a stone-carved skull—a surrealist icon—recalls the eternal cycle of life and death exemplified in Bergman's Det Sjunde Inseglet (Seventh Seal, 1957), in which a squirrel jumps onto the stump of a tree that has just been felled by Death.

Švankmajer is above all an animator; indeed, most of his films are 2-D and 3-D stop-motion animation, frequently involving live action. In some of them, like the recent feature Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000) or Byt (The Flat, 1968), the live component becomes an important element of the film. Kostnice, on the contrary, does not use animation at all—the entire film is composed of documentary images which the artist manipulates in a singular way. The film-maker employs elaborate, contrast-rich editing, alternating static images and leisurely camera pans with bursts of rapid-montage, swish-pans and tilts reminiscent of the impressionist technique of the pioneer of early French film Abel Gance. At other times, a long shot of the chapel's interior, a sculpture or a camera pan is intercut with close-ups of a skull or another poignant detail, producing an atmosphere of nervous tension.

Jan Svankmajer's Kostnice (The Ossuary, 1970)The undulating voice on the soundtrack is subjected to similar fragmentation: the declamation of Prévert's poem corresponds rhythmically to the images on the screen. Finally, a subtle detail in the concluding images of the film links the macabre atmosphere of death with the oblivion of the living: adolescent initials scratched into the skulls and bones by anonymous visiting vandals. A silent commentary on the eternal forgetting of humans—or perhaps their effort to laugh at death? According to the Czech Surrealist and Švankmajer's friend František Dryje:

[Kostnice] is realistic Gothic par excellence. Against the background of a macabre interior which could in other circumstances quite easily become the stage for a ghostly encounter, the author allows everything to unfold that is dark and which the human character has been carrying with it since time began, and which makes itself icily clear in the face of rigidly encoded contemporary stupidities.

Kostnice is not make-believe horror. The bleached, silent bones which it portrays are real, as were the deadly epidemics, wars and unspeakable massacres and other atrocities in their wake. These memories represent horrors not much different from those of today; only historical distance separates us from them.

Jan Uhde

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Also of interest
About the author

Jan Uhde is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. His writings include Latent Images: Film in Singapore (co-author, Oxford University Press) and Vision and Persistence: Twenty Years of the Ontario Film Institute (University of Waterloo Press). He is Editor of Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media, and has contributed to periodicals in Canada, the United States, Germany, Holland and the Czech Republic.


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