Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

The Importance of Being Small: Jan Svankmajer and Austrian Film History

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

The Importance of Being Small: Jan Svankmajer and Austrian Film History

Article excerpt

At the invitation of the Austrian production company Puluj/Studio A in Linz, in Upper Austria, the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer directed two of his most important films, Spiel mit Steinen (A Game of Stones, 1965) and Picknick mit Weissmann (Picnic with Weissmann, 1968). Both shorts are now part of the collection of animation films at Filmarchiv Austria. They vividly represent key examples of the so-called "Small European Cinema", and pose important issues in the context of archive collections and animation research projects taking into account the European perspective.


In Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, author Lewis Carroll writes of the special quality of being "as large as life and twice as natural". This phrase, used by Carroll to describe his heroine Alice, also serves well as a description of the smallest possible contraction of Jan Svankmajer's cinematic poetics - poetics which are indebted to the theory of surrealism and its practice of rearrangement, exaggeration, and distinctiveness. After his education at the Prague Academy of Applied Arts and the Academy of Performing Arts, Svankmajer, born in 1934 in the Czech capital city, devoted himself to various artistic forms of expression, but focused above all on the medium of cinema. With his animated films he was already considered a prominent member of the Prague group of surrealists by the end of the 1960s, at a time when the return to the fundamental concepts of this artistic - and also political - attitude became noticeable.

The Czech surrealists' notion of freedom representing justice naturally holds an evident potential for problems. Svankmajer has never tired of exploiting this subtext in his works, including his most recent ones. In the vein of Antonin Artaud he has pursued the flexibility of narrative and the resilience of the body/ the bodily under the conditions of political criticism. Svankmajer's multilayered and frequently absurd works manage to find a balance between the putative irreconcilability of content and formal methods. In his critical works, from avant-garde experiments to feature-film-like literary adaptations, this upholding of aesthetic distance can be understood as an almost programmatic precondition, which develops its intellectual explosive force from the above-mentioned hiatus of what is depicted and what is criticized. Many of the artists influenced by Svankmajer have taken up this approach; British filmmakers Stephen and Timothy Quay, with their deliberately similar stance on anamorphosis and animation, are a particularly distinct example.

Svankmajer's consistent departure from reality, his clashing of the real and the imaginary via the use of puppets/objects (as proxies for humans) and films (as proxies for reality) find their ideal representation in the cinematic medium. Disembodied organs and organless bodies populate his landscapes, which can be described as cinematic still-lifes natures mortes). The emphasis on an all-encompassing materiality, in the sense of the axiomatic lifelessness of things and the deadness of matter, exposes our inability to control reality. Inevitably, this lack of control emerges from the scenery, as large as life, making image and sound a challenge and their intensity practically twice as natural.


Jan Svankmajer's creation of works in Austria began with an invitation in 1964 by the Austrian film producer A. Hans Puluj after the 12th Mannheim International Film Festival, where the Czech director had been honoured with the highest award. Puluj took great interest in Central and Eastern European film, and offered to produce a film project by Svankmajer, whose recent success must have made him seem an attractive prospect. In 1949 Puluj had founded the company Studio A, based in Linz, under the name of Froschberg Film Productions. First operating exclusively as a studio space for rent, the company expanded its business to the actual production of films. …

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