Some reviews are harder to write than others. This is not one of them. Being asked to comment on the collected short films of Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer is like being asked to assess the impact of John Ford on the western or the artistic validity of Federico Fellini. Svankmajer is such a major figure in cinema that it is difficult to be anything but grateful that his short works are being offered in a DVD set. Thankfully, the collection is quite good in that it not only offers a wide range of films but also a documentary, images of Svankmajer's work in various visual art media, examples of his poetry, and a brief biography.
Actually, this double set is a rerelease of two earlier DVDs that sold separately. The present set contains fourteen short films made over the course of three decades: A Game with Stones(1965), Punch and Judy(1966), Et Cetera(1966), Picnic with Weissmann(1969), The Flat(1969), A Quiet Week in the House(1969), The [End Page 156] Fall of the House of Usher(1980), Dimensions of Dialogue(1982), Down to the Cellar(1982), The Pendulum, the Pit, and Hope(1983), Meat Love(1989), Flora(1989), The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia(1990), and Food(1992). Also included is The Animator of Prague,a nearly half-hour BBC documentary directed by James Marsh and released in 1990.
Svankmajer's work is critically acclaimed for several good reasons. He is recognized as a leading figure in avant-garde cinema, producing provocative works reflecting the influence of surrealism and mannerism, and he is somewhat unique in his ability to parlay his success as an experimental filmmaker into several feature-length films. Svankmajer's artistic statements are all the more interesting because he has accomplished his work within the changing political contexts of Czech history during the past four decades. He has been censored heavily (to the point of not being able to make films at all) but has found the means for continuing to speak out; his already multilayered work is made all the more complex when it is considered as a statement of resistance. As if all this were not enough, Svankmajer has yet another accomplishment of note: he bridges the gap between live-action and animation, proving without a doubt that the two practices are not at all separate entities but merely variations within the larger realm of motion picture production.
Several factors have profoundly influenced Svankmajer's art practices. Among them are his early association with puppetry and theater, including his education at the Institute of Applied Arts in the early 1950s and his work at the Theatre of Masks, the Black Theatre, and the Lanterna Magika Puppet Theatre. Aesthetically, Svankmajer's work is generally discussed within the parameters of mannerism and surrealism; he has been a member of the Prague surrealist group since the early 1970s. Then, of course, there are the several political contexts in which he has worked. Peter Hames observes in the introduction to his edited collection Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Svankmajer(Praeger, 1995) that "Svankmajer was born in 1934, which means he has undergone the unusual experience of six different political regimes and their attendant ideologies" (2).
Svankmajer was banned from cinema production for some years and subject to close scrutiny when he was allowed to work, but during his time out of cinema he channeled his artistic energy into other projects. He explains, "I never made it out to be a tragedy whenever they banned one of my films. I got on with other things. I devoted my time above all to tactile experiments. I made collages, graphics, and various sculptures and objects" ( Dark Alchemy,100). Examples of some of these works appear on the DVD. They include ceramics, collages, "image lexicon" drawings, and puppets, as well as his "natural history cabinets," which depict an alternative view of fish, birds, and other entities of the natural world filtered through Svankmajer's eerie lens. Many of these extras are from the early 1970s, at the beginning...