Tag Archives: Jan Svankmajer

LIST CANDIDATE: FAUST (1994)

DIRECTED BYJan Svankmajer

FEATURING:  Petr Cepek

PLOT:  A grim “Everyman” is lured to a decaying theater and prompted to re-enact an

Still from Faust (1994)

adaptation of the Faust legend, with the lines of reality and fiction frequently skewed.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Svankmajer offers a strange and twisted version of the famous story with little in the way of exposition or explanation. Humans interact with claymation figures and life-size puppets, the scenery changes without warning from theatrical sets to real-life exteriors, and mysteries and ambiguities abound. While the foundations of the Faust tale are definitely there, they’ve been contorted and disguised into true Svankmajer surrealism.

COMMENTS:  I haven’t actually read any of the multiple versions of the Faust legend (most notably adapted by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe), so Svankmajer’s film was my introduction. The wordless opening depicts a sullen middle-aged man who is given a map with a red dot. After some strange happenings in his apartment, he decides to follow it and ends up in a dark theater populated by a silent crew and an array of stop-motion oddities. For reasons unknown, he dresses himself up as Faust and begins reading the script aloud, eventually making his way to a stage facing a recently-assembled audience. He gets stage fright and abandons the costume and stage, but continually finds himself back in character, summoning the devil’s demonic aid Mephisto, signing away his soul, and generally making a black magical mess of things. His real life merges seamlessly with his performance, as he switches back and forth between puppet form and human form, painted backdrops and the streets of Prague.

What makes Faust so puzzling is the lead character’s complete refusal to question what is happening to him—the viewer is in the dark for the entirety of the film, left to either coax out some explanation for the events onscreen or abandon any attempt at making sense of things (I opted for the latter). Our Everyman is compelled to act out the legend, with demonic apparitions and mysterious sights appearing in both the “stage” version and his supposedly real life, casting a dreamlike shadow over all of the proceedings. Two silent and conniving fellows follow him around, manipulating his actions without clear motivation. Like a more horrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the protagonist seems lost and aimless until he is speaking pre-penned lines out of a Faust script, eventually becoming the character he speaks for simply because there is little other choice. His strange experience is revealed to be cyclical: a host of unassuming “Everymen” have surely fallen prey to Faust‘s allure.

Regardless of the story’s meandering, perplexing structure, the imagery alone is enough to captivate any weird viewer. A clay baby forms itself out of an hourglass and proceeds to evolve through all the stages of life; huge wooden heads roll down a mountain path and assemble themselves into puppet forms of an angel and a devil; a restaurant table inexplicably spouts wine; a host of puppet royalty drowns in a painted sea; Mephisto takes on the eerily sculpted appearance of Petr Cepek when he speaks; a team of ballerinas harvest hay in unison; a human man gets down and dirty with a wooden devil disguised as a female puppet. It’s all there, and more! Along with, of course, Svankmajer’s noted ear for terrific and often unsettling sound effects.

It’s weird, it’s confusing, it’s imaginative: Faust transforms a familiar tale into a strange and compelling dream. The words remain true to the source material, but all of the visuals are wonderfully bizarre and often without precedent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Svankmajer introduces a dark, squishy, perversely surreal world: It’s part Lewis Carroll, part Kafka, part David Lynch and absolutely not American… Using stylistic elements that he’s developed over 40 years of film making — live action and stop-motion animation, wooden and clay figures, grotesque imagery and vivid sound effects — Svankmajer creates the warped, disturbing logic of a bad dream.”–Edward Guthman, San Francisco Chronicle

75. ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)

“Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film made for children… perhaps.  But—I nearly forgot—you must close your eyes.  Otherwise, you won’t see anything.'”–Opening narration to Alice

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DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Kristýna Kohoutová, voice of Camilla Power (in English dubbed version)

PLOT: A bored young girl sits in a drab room throwing stones into a teacup when she suddenly sees a stuffed white rabbit in a display case come to life, pull a sawdust-covered stopwatch from inside its torso, and disappear into a desk drawer.  She follows it and winds up in a strange land full of talking socks, slithering steaks, and menacing skull-headed animals with razor sharp teeth.  The girl follows the white rabbit through a series of bizarre rooms until he leads her to a playing card king and queen who order the rabbit to cut off her head with the pair of scissors he carries.

Still from Alice (Neco z Alenky) (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Alice was Jan Svankmajer’s first feature length film after making award-winning short films for twenty-four years.  After Alice he returned to making shorts for six years before he made his next feature, Faust, in 1994.
  • Before branching out into filmmaking, Svankmajer’s primary training had been in building marionettes.
  • Svankmajer sneaks a couple of references to classic horror/suspense films into Alice: a scene where Alice is menaced by a flying creature is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), and a scene where the White Rabbit takes an axe to a door and then sticks his head through the hole is a blackly funny citation to Kubrick‘s The Shining (1980).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Although it’s difficult to top the bony “animals” that look like they were reassembled at random from a jumbled pile of a paleontologist’s relics, it’s the White Rabbit who makes the biggest impression, from the moment he comes to life and pulls his paws out from the display case floor where they had been nailed.  His strangest habit is licking sawdust (his own guts) off the pocket watch he keeps stashed inside a wound-like gash in his torso.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  “Alice in Wonderland” is a nonsense fantasy, a fairy tale of fractured reality; it makes a perfect template for a weird movie, but no adaptation has taken the story so deep into the frightening labyrinths of the subconscious as this uncanny animation. Carroll’s and Svankmajer’s opposite talents and sensibilities complement each other perfectly, like pure cane sugar mixed with white powder heroin.


Clip from Alice

COMMENTS:  “Alice in Wonderland” has been adapted for the screen a dozen times, and the Continue reading 75. ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)

Alice has been placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the complete entry can be found here.

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Kristýna Kohoutová

PLOT: Experimental Czech animator Jan Svankmajer crafts a decidedly creepier version of

Still from Alice (Neco Z Alenky) (1988)

Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland, moving the action to a decrepit house and replacing most of the characters with crude stop-motion dolls.  A live-action Alice moves among them, making her way through various rooms that correlate to scenes in the original story.


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Svankmajer’s remarkably innovative visuals, haunting use of sound effects, and minimalist storytelling render a familiar tale almost unrecognizable, removing sugarcoated elements of childhood fantasy and replacing them with a macabre surrealism.  His unsettling animation techniques and intricate set design are undeniably bizarre, giving the proceedings a shiver-inducing aspect that’s difficult to identify.  It’s a strange, imaginative film whose weirdness is guaranteed to leave an imprint on viewers.

COMMENTS: Most casual filmgoers associate animation with twirling princesses, talking toys, and catchy music numbers—just pleasant family fun.  Jan Svankmajer rejects this notion.  In works like Alice, he employs the undeniably off-putting technique of combining live-action actors with stop-motion figures.  The effect is a memorably uncanny take on a classic story, making an already-weird children’s tale even weirder.  Alice makes her way through cupboards, paper walls, and doors of varying sizes in a seemingly never-ending, decaying house (sometimes inexplicably opening up into a woodland field), encountering numerous recognizable characters in unrecognizable forms.  The source material is naturally altered in this re-imagining, both in plot and tone.

The White Rabbit is a rejuvenated taxidermied bunny, with wide plastic eyes and a stomach leaking sawdust.  He chatters his large teeth menacingly and licks his pocketwatch with a humanoid tongue.  The Caterpillar is a torn sock puppet with human eyes and teeth, presiding over a litter of phallic cloth creatures moving rapidly within the floorboards.  The Mad Hatter is a bearded wooden marionette, and the Queen of Hearts is a 2-D cut-paper drawing.  Alice herself becomes an old-fashioned china doll whenever she’s miniaturized.  Each character design fits both the unsettling atmosphere of the film as a whole and the dusty, antique look of the “Wonderland” house.

An extraordinary facet of Alice is the sound design.  There is absolutely no music.  Svankmajer instead opts for a range of effective, often gratuitous sound effects.  There is very little dialogue, and the few spoken lines by any character are all said by Alice herself, often accompanied by a close-up shot of her mouth as she indicates who is talking.  The special attention to sound effects and lack of conversation among these fantastic creatures actually keep it from becoming a typical fantasy.  Despite the unreal nature of the visuals, it feels more grounded in reality without the specific music cues or over-scripted conversation typical of other films, even while we are consistently drawn back to its status as a fairy tale when Alice’s lips are shown narrating.

Alice is the kind of film that isn’t especially frightening—at least, not in a standard horror-movie sense. Viewers are thus affected because they can’t actually figure out what is so scary about it.  Perhaps it’s our innate fear of taxidermied animals coming back to life, or the unnaturalness of food moving about on its own, or the inherent creepiness of abandoned houses, or the frequent use of close-up shots, or the eerie stillness that comes with lack of a musical score.  Perhaps it’s just the utter uncanniness of everything that happens in this movie.  Whatever it is, it’s really weird, and completely captivating.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has an irresistible potency and allure. Watching it, we feel the enthrallment of the irrational.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Leslie Rae,” who called it “one of the most visually disturbing/surrealistic films I’ve ever seen.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)