The Harbinger Online

Safe From Larvae and Rust: Jan Švankmajer – Part 1

“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964

Lol I missed like almost a semester’s worth of blogs sorry guyz.

A few weeks ago was browsing my Facebook feed. A repost of a video caught my attention and I started watching it. It showed the clay sculptures of two people, male and female, sitting across from each other. First they began to tentatively touch each other, then their whole bodies melded together into a flurrying mass of clay. After they separated again, a small, unformed piece of clay remained in between them, seeking attention from its parents. With neither parent willing to bare the responsibility of their product, the two started to fight and tear at each other. They broke each other’s’ clay bodies down until both are reduced to pulp, blended together again, except this time in jagged chunks and pieces.

That was how I was introduced to the Czech animator and filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. The clip was a segment called “Passionate Discourse” (Dialog vášnivý) from his 1982 short film, “Dimensions of Dialogue” (Možnosti Dialogu). What amazed me the most about the clip was that it was entirely stop-motion. Of course, any stop-motion movie is impressive because it would require the artist to take a picture of every single frame of the movie, repositioning his figures by a tiny amount each time. They take an incredibly large amount of time, patience and talent to make.

However, I have never seen anyone use it as creatively and innovatively as Švankmajer. He was able to create astonishing effects with incredible smoothness and detail. The melding and shape shifting mass of clay was so mesmerizing to watch, and one can only imagine the amount of time Švankmajer spent molding and re-shaping the texture for each frame of the three-minute clip to create the dazzling effect.

Besides being technically astonishing, the greatest quality of Švankmajer’s films is their surrealism. His films are outlandish, bizarre and speak in metaphors. The images that he creates are strange and can be slightly disturbing and nightmarish. But each image is very purposeful and every film has a message. They are able to tap into one’s subconsciousness and make the viewers feel and understand the meaning without having to explain or rationalize it. Watching his films are like replaying someone’s dreams, with the dreamer being wildly imaginative and a genius.

Švankmajer has made 27 short films and six feature films since the 1960s. He is still alive and has a new stop-motion feature film coming out in 2018. Below are some of his most excellent short films, all of which demand repeated viewings, partly because they are so rich in detail, partly because they are so thought-provoking and above all, because they are such a pleasure to watch. Someone uploaded a bunch of them on Youtube. Thanks bruh.

Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti Dialogu, 1982)

This is the one I was gushing about in the first part of this blog. It has two other segments. “Eternal Conversation” (Dialog věcný) shows heads made of food and various household items eating and regurgitating each other, grinding and reducing each other to blander copies each time. “Exhaustive Discussion” (Dialog vyčerpávající) shows the clay heads of two old men spitting out various objects on their tongues that interact in various combinations.


Darkness/Light/Darkness (Tma, světlo, tma, 1989)

The body parts of a man interact and piece themselves together in a room. It has amazing claymation and sound effects. Many of Švankmajer’s films have underlying messages about communism in Czechoslovakia. This one can be interpreted as a commentary on the repressive nature of communism on man.


Virile Games (Mužné Hry, 1988)

In Švankmajer’s most hilarious short, a soccer fanatic watches a match on TV as clay soccer players mutilate and destroy each other on the field in increasingly brutal and outlandish ways, to the cheering of manic fans. The ball then somehow landed in the man’s apartment, with the players storming in, bringing the game into his living room. The whole time he is still transfixed on the TV, oblivious to the racket happening in his room. Also a commentary on Czech soccer.


Food (Jídlo 1992)

The most well-made and conceptually brilliant Švankmajer film. Everything falls together perfectly, from the details, set design, animation, to the themes and structure. It is a sublime metaphor and commentary on the nature of food, communism, and class. I have watched it over and over again and never gotten tired of it.


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