CAPSULE: THE OSSUARY AND OTHER TALES (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Various

PLOT: The collection of short films on this disc range from people-puppet tellings of classic opera to unconventional documentaries, as well as examples of what Svankmajer is most known for: stop motion animation with a decidedly macabre aura of cheekiness.

Still from The Ossuary and Other Tales
“The Last Trick”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would be easy to argue that these short films are all very well done, and easier still to contend that a handful of them are disorientingly bizarre. However, the overall degree of weirdness fluctuates greatly, and seeing as this is a compilation of shorts anyway, Mr. Svankmajer will have to make do with his feature-length Certifications.

COMMENTS: Jan Svankmajer’s influence is well known to the visitors of this website. His body of work, beginning in 1964 with “The Last Trick,” has inspired everyone from ‘s to the Pennsylvanian duo, the . The Ossuary and Other Tales is something of a scatter-shot collection of his short films from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, and is intriguing both for its content and its omissions. Over the course of two hours, the viewer gets to marvel at increasingly surreal sleight-of-hand from a pair of competing magicians (“The Last Trick”), watch a summary of the earth’s life forms put to classic dance riffs (“Historia Naturae [Suita]”), see ominous social commentary (“The Garden”), and even catch up on some classic opera (sans opera) with “Don Juan.” The overall result is a nice showcase of Svankmajer’s scope and talent, but it leaves one feeling that there are some gaps.

Two of the highlights of the anthology are “The Ossuary” (1970) and “Castle of Otranto” (1979). Both are documentaries. The former is made up entirely of shots of the famed Sedlec Ossuary, home to the remains of forty to seventy thousand people whose bones are arranged in intricate formations. Most notable are an enormous bone chandelier and the coat of arms of the royal house that funded the project. The voice-over from the never-seen tour guide provides commentary, challenging the school children the guide is ostensibly lecturing to contemplate what they could hope to make with all this human material, and constantly reminding them that there is a 50 crown fine (“to be paid immediately!”) for touching the remains.

“Castle of Otranto” is more conventional in that it features an interviewer speaking with an amateur archaeologist who is convinced the fabled story from Horace Walpole’s Gothic tale is based on an actual castle, the Otrhany ruins found in (then) Czechoslovakia. The documentary bits are interspersed with Gilliam-esque (Svankmajer-esque?) animations of Walpole’s story, one that involves love, betrayal, and a truly massive knight. The amateur archaeologist contends that the Otrhany ruins show evidence of both the existence and gargantuan size of said knight as described in the book; the interviewer is skeptical, providing some mundane explanations for the archaeologist’s circumstantial evidence. In a nice twist, the words of doubt prompt a tumbling of rocks and debris on the pair and the camera pans up to a massive gauntlet smashing through the tower above them.

There is too little space to cover everything included here, but at the same time I was left wanting more material. Those who enjoyed the “uncanny valley” effect of the Certified Weird Marquis will revel in Svankmajer’s “Don Juan,” with its people dressed as marionettes. The dangers of solitary drinking and soccer obsession are explored in “Virile Games,” which features a man slowly getting hammered while watching a match on TV, and combines live-action, cut-out animation, and stop motion (the last of which showcases the offing of the soccer players in various clever ways). So there is a wealth of material here: but not nearly all of it. Looking over a list of Svankmajer’s shorts, it appears that maybe just half show up in The Ossuary. Hopefully a truly comprehensive Blu Ray disc will come along to put things right; until then, I advise completists to pick up what they can where they can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a great compilation of truly odd little films.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk

(This movie was nominated for review by “hazebass7,” who said “This movie is teeming with weird imagery and a great avant-garde feel. I was greatly entertained by this collection’s weirdness and I think that it would be a great addition to the list!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “CAPSULE: THE OSSUARY AND OTHER TALES (2013)”

  1. I met Jan Svankmajer at his house, the Gallerie Gambra in Prague. He essentially told me to sod off. That was my brush with my film making hero.

    Here is how I detailed it on Facebook in 2012 during my Trip around Europe:

    “Now THIS has to be the highlight of my trip. This is the Gallerie Gambra, which houses Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist art and artifacts. Guess who answered the door…none other than the man himself! I met Jan Savnkmajer, and totally in an unexpected way.

    When he opened the door my eyes must have been so wide, cause he shook his head and immediately shut the door on me. I thought, I’ve just bothered Jan Svankmajer, but I’ll never get this opportunity again, so I rang the doorbell again (I could hear him scuffling about behind the door). He opened it, this time talking to someone on his mobile phone. He looked irritated, but I waited until he had finished his call and then I asked:

    ‘Jan Svankmajer?’

    He nodded and said yes.

    I shook his hand and said.

    ‘My name’s Bryan. I love your films. They’ve been such an inspiration to me’

    He smiled a somewhat weary smile and said ‘Thankyou’

    ‘Listen, are you open?’

    He shook his head, smiling, ‘no, no, no’

    ‘Are you going to be open later?’

    The Gallery website said it was supposed to be open 12 – 17.30, Wed – Sun. I was there at 1330 on a Thurs.

    He replied:

    ‘My English, not very good’

    I said:

    ‘My Czech not very good either’

    He started closing the door, so I held out my hand again and said:

    ‘It was a pleasure meeting you, thank you. Good luck with your next film’

    He shook my hand and smiled, he seemed a bit rattled but was being courteous. he shut the door, I took these photos of the outside and left.

    Only later, dazed, having a perfunctory lunch, did it occur to me – I should have asked to take a photo with him.”

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