Jan Švankmajer: Master of reconciling opposites

TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 2, 19th March 2021

by Vlad Vexler

The Last Trick (1964), Švankmajer’s debut film, stands logic on its head – but keeps it strict. Flights of whimsy are constrained by clockwork rhythm. The border between the animate and the inanimate melts. Destructive and creative instincts are not distinguished. The action – two conjuror figures with outsized papier-mâché heads compete to outdo each other – is reminiscent in equal measure of a child’s game and primitive ritual.

At the end, the figures tear each other to bits. Two hands remain, levitating, luring each other on. At this point, a lesser filmmaker would have the hands either clash or reconcile. But Švankmajer conjoins and resets them into mechanical motion; a ticking clock. One feels one has seen a dream austerely disassembled into its component parts.

J.S. Bach – Fantasia in G Minor (1965) blends infantile sensation and spiritual elevation. Barred doors open relentlessly; holes emerge in stone surfaces – penetrating, excreting, suckling. The procession of imagery dramatises the two phobias which underly our experience of finding an object ugly: fear of death and fear of the unknown. Bach’s music sustains two effects – it grounds the infantile sensation in nature, and conveys a sense of striving in a purposive world. Put together, the film represents an entire human life from beginning to end.

In Et Cetera (1966) imprisonment in instinct and psychic liberation go together. Figures and objects dance, levitate, assemble, reassemble in exhaustive repetition. The action is at once dreamlike and rigorous; wild and ordered, dry and achingly sad. Naturalism and magic, mechanistic determinism and world-making freedom reign together. Et Cetera is a surrealist masterpiece without flaws.

All 26 of Jan Švankmajer’s short films are available here: https://www2.bfi.org.uk/blu-rays-dvds/jan-svankmajer-complete-short-films

Vlad Vexler is a philosopher based in London. www.youtube.com/vladvexler, Twitter: @vladvexler