Švankmajer's work is often discussed in relation to the horror genre and the gothic imagination. Paul Wells looks at the director in terms of the "shock of the real."
Czech surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer has always demonstrated a natural affinity with the "gothic"—Otrantský zámek (The Castle of Otranto, 1973-79), Kyvadlo, jáma a nadeje (The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope, 1983) and Lekce Faust (Faust, 1994) immediately evidence this—and in many of his films he interrogates the boundaries of what may be regarded as the core themes, concepts and aesthetic premises located within the broadly defined generic parameters of the horror text.
Švankmajer's status as an avant-garde filmmaker, however, as well as his partial dedication to the exclusivity of animation as his core language of expression, has resulted in insufficient recognition of the ways in which his work has sought to sustain the horror genre. He achieves this goal not by embracing the typologies of formulaic re-workings of "slasher" narratives or "supernatural" stories, but by returning to the intrinsic integrity of the form as a symbolic address of the inarticulable and potentially unspeakable fears rooted in our primal identities, now over-socialised in the contemporary world.
"Fantastic documentary" and the use of animation
If one were to place Švankmajer in a schemata which might signal a point of access to his work, it might be as someone who anticipated the low-rent, anti-technology, quasi-documentary suggestiveness of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and coupled it with the tactility and cinematic bravura of Dario Argento's more coherent visual ideas. This significantly undervalues the distinctiveness of Švankmajer's approach, of course, but points up an important tension at the heart of his work between his conception of "fantastic documentary" and the fundamental principles of "militant surrealism."
I have written elsewhere that "fantastic documentary" is "a model of documentary which is re-locating the 'realist' mode within a seemingly non-realist context," and consequently seeking to disrupt or refute socially determined and ideologically charged forms of representation. Crucially, animation is being used "to invalidate common assumptions and beliefs which have been historically/politically constructed," and as a challenge to received knowledges and orthodoxies. "This is documentary not as 'film of record' but as 'film of recognition,' revealing the underlying value systems and relationships beneath rationalised, supposedly civilised, naturalised cultures," and thus, relates powerfully to Švankmajer's view that "Surrealism exists in reality, not beside it."
Animation readily facilitates this co-existence because its intrinsic artifice effectively creates an ontological equivalence in all aspects of the textual apparatus, imbuing it with the simultaneous capacity to both amplify meanings and imperatives in the materials used and images constructed, while also potentially diluting their significance by working as a model of expression which in enunciating its illusionism offers the possibility of "innocence" and "distanciation." Simply, this is one of the reasons why animated films—from Disney cartoons to Japanese animé—can be both viewed as conservatively "mainstream" and subversively "left-field" depending upon how they are received and interpreted. The issue underpinning this, of course, remains animation's enduring identity (and burden) as "children's entertainment."
The darker side of children
Švankmajer refuses this ghetto, however, not merely through the ways in which he uses the free, and in some ways, unregulatable language of animation, but in the way he perceives "the child." He suggests, "I'm not at all sure that any work of art is unsuitable for children. When children are confronted by something they can't understand, [they engage with it] so that it works by analogy, or they simply reject it and carry on as before. Adults have a very distorted idea of a child's world; they are crueller, more animalistic, than we like to admit.
The principles of desire live on in a child, who still hasn't been domesticated by the world; its imagination is that much freer." It is clear here that in suggesting there are no aesthetic boundaries that a child may not cross, Švankmajer is already challenging the socially and legally determined parameters of what is, and what is not suitable for children. In this respect, too, he signals modes of transgression which may be understood as the necessary imperatives of the artist in the facilitation of exploring new ideas, and the rejection of the restrictions of "citizenry" during that process.
This may be supported by Švankmajer's controversial position on Lewis Carroll, that he was "an illustration of the fact that children are better understood by paedophiliacs than by pedagogues." Švankmajer is here (once again) cleaving a space between the socially legitimised definitions and evaluations of "professional" cultures in relation to children's behaviour and outlook, and the more taboo, and challenging, arena of subjective investment in and "feeling" for children— an arena which may have no discernible boundaries.
By invoking the politics of "pleasure" in a highly sensitive context, and playing this out in films as various as Jabberwocky (1971), Do sklepa (Down to the Cellar , 1982), Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982), most notably, Něco z Alenky (Alice, 1987)and Spiklenci slasti(Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996), Švankmajer is never being contentious merely for the sake of it, nor operating in a spirit of exploitation or titillation. Rather, in combining the tacit credentials of documentary "realism," in authenticating alternative kinds of imagery which illustrate the "unspeakable" or the "inarticulable" in human desire, and in problematising the "shock" aspects in the reception of such imagery, Švankmajer creates what I am calling an "agit-scare." This may be understood as a deliberately constructed evocation of socially and culturally determined concerns in a way that "frightens" when being drawn to the viewer's attention, but also "agitates" (in a similar fashion to "agit-prop") by insisting upon its ideological or political dimension.
The "horror" here resides in the recognition that humankind is fundamentally driven by obsessive and compulsive needs and desires, often rooted in childhood anxieties, and played out in dream-states. Švankmajer "frightens" by prompting recognition of transgression, and by physicalising alternative perspectives. Švankmajer contemporises and materialises the documentation of his agit-scares through the "fabrication" of his mise-en-scène, noting that "Animation can bring the imagery of childhood back to life and give it back its credibility," adding "The animation of objects upholds the truth of our childhood."
Švankmajer's view of childhood is clearly not based on a sentimentalised, retrospective sense of "pastness," but of continuity and the "radical" presence of the unsocialised "child" being not merely part of the encultured adult, but the environment in which the adult participates. The influence of Edgar Allan Poe, and most particularly, Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher, is palpable here. Švankmajer adapted the book in 1980 under the title Zánik domu Usherů, but over and beyond this adaptation, Usher's perspectives readily serve as a valid descriptor of Švankmajer's perception of the lived-in and lived-through environment:
This opinion, in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganisation… The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentence had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in order of their arrangement, as well as that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in a long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its evidence—the evidence of the sentience—was to be seen, he said (and I here started as he spoke), in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added in that silent yet importunate and terrible influence, which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him, what I now saw him— what he was.
As Švankmajer has often suggested, the objects and materials he collects and uses in his work are latent with their own functions and "memory"— the content of which is liberated through animation. These objects are witnesses to a forgotten, or potentially repressed, history of "difference," which is fabricated or "re-animated" into contemporary narratives. Consequently, "this way the objects free themselves of their utilitarian function and return to their primaeval [sic], magical meaning."
The "undead" are a thematic preoccupation of the horror genre, but they are the literal presences in any animation which utilises found objects and materials, and are fundamental to Švankmajer's strategy of analogising "fear" in an "objectively descriptive" visual sense— again, the documentarian working with the unconscious drives played out in the surrealist mode. Even in this, Švankmajer recognises that he is playing a transgressive role: "my flat and studio are full of things that have a profound effect on me; and since I communicate with dead things rather than living people, according to the psychologist Erich Fromm, I am a necrophile." Thus, the "agit-scare" also occurs beyond the films themselves, in Švankmajer's own role as provocateur and in his alignment with the taboo issues consonant with the more radical, or at least, daring proposals of live-action horror texts.
This is not, however, a purely abstract agenda. As Michael O'Pray has noted, "Although the surrealist movement has become identified with the irrationality of the imagination and the oozings of the unconscious, one might argue that 'the shock or trauma of the real' is just as central to it." The "agit-scare" is just that. Švankmajer is committed to the dramatic realisation of "the real," as it has been recalled through the mediation of "childhood" and the "objectivity" he perceives in surrealist applications.
This combination of processes simultaneously politicises a range of marginalised and challenging perspectives and prompts fear, not through the actions of a "monster," but through the recovery of the "buried bodies" and "artefacts" of a history of socialisation, which Švankmajer believes is responsible for the profound misdirection of human needs and desires. The lack of fulfilment for these needs and desires prompts the deepest of anxieties in humankind. Švankmajer animates this anxiety by "fabricating" its sources, its sentience and its suppression, and intrinsically illustrates our fear of fear itself.