Otesánek; AKA Greedy Guts
“I do not work with intentions… That has nothing to do with freedom of the imagination… My preference is certainly for subsequent interpretation rather than intention. In Little Otik, the child devours its ‘parents.’ Otik is the product of their desire, their rebellion against nature. This is not a child in the real sense of the world, but the materialization of desire, of a rebellion. That is the tragic dimension of the human destiny. It is impossible to live without rebelling against the human lot. That is the proper subject of freedom.”–Jan Svankamjer, 2006 interview with Peter Hames
DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer
FEATURING: Kristina Adamcová, Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl
PLOT: Karel and Bozena are an infertile couple obsessed with becoming pregnant; one day, as a joke, Karel brings his wife a tree stump that looks a little like a child, but the woman immediately begins treating it as if it were a real baby. Bozena goes so far as to fake a pregnancy, and the husband is shocked when the piece of wood actually comes to life. Parenthood proves difficult when they discover in that the wooden child needs to be fed and has an insatiable craving for red meat; meanwhile, their sexually curious ten-year old neighbor is also obsessed with little Otik and begins to suspect his secret…
- The story is a modern adaptation of the Eastern European fairy tale “Otesánek,” as collected by the folklorist K.J. Erben. The original fable is recounted in a storybook-animated film-within-a-film.
- Jan Svankmajer’s late wife, the painter Eva Švankmajerová, had illustrated “Otesánek” for a children’s book in the 1970s.
- Per Svankmajer, in Czech the word “otesánek” (which is derived from the verb “to hew” plus a diminutive “-ánek” which denotes a child) is used for a person “who devours and digests everything (not only food).”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Crazy-eyed Bozena breastfeeding a log in maternal bliss—particularly when the camera zooms in to show a closeup of Otik hungrily suctioning milk through his stump. (As a footnote, one of Little Otik‘s iconic images isn’t actually in the movie. A bizarre still of Alzbetka licking a fried egg was featured prominently in the Otik‘s promotional material, but that precise shot does not appear in the film).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This modernized fairy-tale adaptation about an insatiable man-eating tree stump baby is actually Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional and accessible story (by far). Of course, in Svankmajer’s world, a conventional narrative includes scenes where street vendors fish infants out of tanks, wrap them in newspaper and sell them to passersby. There’s something seminal about this freaky film that mixes black comedy with dashes of horror and flecks of surrealism; it’s an excellent, comprehensible-yet-mysterious entry-level bizarre film for the neophyte weirdster.
American trailer for Little Otik
COMMENTS: When erotically curious youngster Alzbetka hides a textbook on sexual dysfunction by slipping a book cover for a fairy tale compilation over it, the deception highlights the fact that children’s fairy tales are coded messages to kids about truths that make adults uncomfortable. If Alzbetka wonders out loud whether her neighbors’ failure to conceive a child is the result of the husband’s lazy sperm, her hard-drinking father will tell her she’s too young for that kind of talk and smack her on the back of the head. He has no objection, however, to her reading “Otesánek,” the wholesomely sex-free tale of wooden baby who devours his own parents along with half the countryside.
The ironic hypocrisy of fairy tales’ deflection of parental responsibility—the concept that cannibalism is a healthy subject for children’s stories because it distracts them from thinking about the dirty truth about where babies really come from—clearly tickles Jan Svankamjer’s sense of absurdity. At first Little Otik appears to be the story of Karel and Bozena, aspiring parents who are grieving over their inability to conceive and are driven mad by their desire for children. Hubby Karel hallucinates babies everywhere: curled up inside of watermelons, doled out to lucky customers by street vendors. But he turns out to be less crazy than his wife Bozena, who immediately and without question adopts the vaguely human wooden tree stump he presents to her as a joke as a real baby, diapering it and powdering its bottom so it won’t get a rash. Bozena’s obsession, and Karel’s bemused reactions as he’s forced to cover for her as she fakes a pregnancy so the couple can explain how they suddenly acquired a baby, drives the comic first third of the film.
The comedy takes a turn for the macabre when the delusion becomes real: either Bozena’s maternal desire has magically animated the stump, or Karel has been dragged into madness along with his wife. Otik, as they name their hungry little log, is stop-motion animated by Svankmajer with just enough craft to suggest a living thing, but not so much verisimilitude that its essential unnaturalness gets lost. Wrapped in swaddling clothes and a darling knit cap, with a rattle grasped in the network of fine roots the serve as its hands and a pacifier stuck in the knothole that’s the only orifice in its blank wooden face, crying and mewling and jerking about from frame to frame, Otik is a blasphemous parody of infancy. Karel doesn’t take to his offspring, preferring to read the paper while Bozena dotes on him. “When was the last time you varnished him?,” she scolds hubby. But the blackness of the comedy deepens when Otik’s all-consuming nature becomes apparent. No matter how much baby food and formula, and eventually meat, his parents shove into his hollow maw, he can’t be filled; he continues to cry and wave his little roots in famished distress. The story moves from comedy to horror as it becomes increasingly apparent that Otik’s insatiable needs may end up devouring his parents’ lives not only figuratively, but literally as well…
But Little Otik‘s further twist is that the story becomes more about the neighbor girl Alzbetka than about Karel and Bozena. The parent’s roles fade away as the young lady’s part matures. It’s as if Karel and Bozena are only real life illustrations of the Otesánek legend the little girl reads. After all, Little Otik is formally a fairy tale, and fairy tales are for the benefit and instruction of children, not adults. Alzbetka begins as a minor character, a juvenile shadow of Bozena. She mirrors the older woman’s maternal longing in a childish way: she wants the couple to have a baby so she won’t be the only kid in the apartment building, she plays with baby dolls, she places a ball under her blouse to mimic a pregnancy. Her selfish desire for a little playmate feeds her insatiable curiosity about the hidden adult world of sex, but she only dimly understands the mechanics. She imagines her elderly neighbor is a pedophile, a notion the adults around her pooh-pooh. After all, she doesn’t understand sexual desire well enough to really know what a pedophile is or does; she doesn’t even know what a penis looks like, and in one of the film’s weirdest moments she imagines it as a grasping hand emerging from inside the withered coot’s dusty trousers. But as her knowledge of the adult world grows, so does her confidence and power. It appears that she was right about the old man’s proclivities, and maybe she can even use this knowledge to her advantage.
Ultimately, Alzbetka pushes Bozena out of the picture, becoming Otik’s surrogate mother; and it’s ultimately Alzbetka who has to deal with the tragic adult consequences when it comes time to cleanse the world of the aberration and restore the natural order. In the fairy tale, when Otesánek is defeated, his victims come pouring out of his hollow body, none the worse for wear but a bit wiser. But Alzbetka has grown too much over the course of the film, tasted too much of the forbidden knowledge of the adult world, for such a condescendingly reassuring childish conclusion; by Otik‘s end, she knows a happy ending is not coming.
Little Otik is a rich and deeply textured movie that could be understood in many ways. You could view it as Eraserhead re-imagined as a black comedy (who’s worse off: Henry, the abandoned single parent of a mutant baby, or Karel, who has a crazed wife to oppose his every attempt to fix the situation?) Although the film is obviously a black satire of “baby fever,” Otik and has voracious appetite could also be seen as an indictment of consumerism and consumption, an interpretation that’s bolstered by a running joke involving the ruthless commercials Alzbetka’s father is constantly watching on the television (“the rest are all poisonous rubbish…” a spokeswoman hypnotically intones during a spot for chocolates). But, at its core Otik is a fairy tale; a fairy tale that becomes self-aware of its own status as folklore when Alzbetka realizes that the mythological events of “Otesánek” are repeating themselves in the real world. In Svankmajer’s view, fairy tales are an expression of rebellion—a rebellion of the imagination against the way things are. Bozena and Karel are cursed with bareness, but they want a child so dearly that they imagine one into existence. But rebellion is unstable and brings unforeseen consequences, and even the wildest tale can’t completely imagine itself out of reality. Eventually, convention demands, the story must end, things must return to normal, the aberration must cross the final line and get a hoe to the belly. That’s the tragic dimension of imagination, and the bitter lesson that the coded fairy tale secretly imparts to the wide-eyed child hoping to be let in on the mysteries of existence.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“In the best surrealist tradition, [Svankmajer’s] continual juxtaposition of normal human urges (like eating or having a baby) with their apocalyptic results keeps viewers off balance.”–Deborah Young, Variety (contemporaneous)
“It’s hard to isolate exactly what makes Svankmajer’s deliciously bizarre nightmare comedy so horrifying. The film simultaneously touches on so many fears: from male discomfort over where babies come from (Karel has surreal visions of floating newborns being found in watermelons and scooped out of a baby monger’s tank like carp) to anxieties about unnatural creation and the terror of an all-consuming baby that literally feeds off its mother. Perhaps it’s simply the realization that we’re all slaves to our desires…”–Ken Fox, TV Guide
IMDB LINK: Greedy Guts (2000)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Little Otik Press Kit – Zeitgeist Film’s American press kit for Little Otik
Zeitgeist Films Little Otik – The homepage for the American video distributor contains a synopsis, stills, credits, and background info on director Jan Svankmajer
Cole Smithey’s Classic Cinema: Little Otik – A 3-minute video review of Little Otik
DVD INFO: Zeitgeist’s 2003 DVD (buy) recently went out-of-print but is still commonly available (our review copy came from Netflix). The ample extras are an excerpt from Peter Hames’ 2006 interview with Svankmajer for Sight & Sound, selections from the director’s Little Otik production diary, the trailer, a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills, and Svankmajer’s 12-minute 1969 surrealist short “The Flat” (which will show those who think Otik is the weirdest thing they’ve ever seen just how much deeper the rabbit hole goes).
(This movie was nominated for review by Elise, who described it as a “Czechoslovakian fairy tale filmed with lots of stop motion and some creepy sexual innuendos.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)