Monday, 3 August 2015

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1991)


Director: Jan Švankmajer
Scriptwriter: Jan Švankmajer

Out of all of Jan Švankmajer's short and feature length animated and live action films, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia is the only one that has been openly political. Christened a work of "agitpop", it stands out in the Czeck surrealist's career when his themes are usually universal in theme. Originally I feel in love with his films for turning everyday objects into living entities: animal tongue slithering along onscreen, tables enjoying picnics in the countryside, and people made of vegetables in reference to the art of Giuseppe Arcimboldo amongst other images that are only seen in his work. Soon after I found appeal in how he used to tackle themes such as sexual taboos (Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)) to conformity (The Garden (1968)), or transformed literature from Lewis Carroll to Edgar Allen Poe into his own vision. The Death of Stalinism... is still very much a surreal work as his other films, juxtapositions that should not be coming to life and reflecting subjective symbolism. But in depicting its theme of the history of communism in Czechoslovakia from the later 1940s to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, this becomes the most openly political work he had made yet with detailed references to real events and political figures.

The film begins this journey through history with the statue of Joseph Stalin being placed on an operating table, his head opened up and the bust of Klement Gottwald, head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia from 1948 until 1953, being birthed from inside his head. The film despite its more noticeable political content is still unequivocally Švankmajer's interpretation of them, his trademarks of stop motion animation representing the emotions about his country during these decades and the then-future, the statue of Stalin still haunting the Czech Republic disguised in the country's colours at the end. The 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks is depicted by rolling pins for example, moving on mass in various sizes from giant to small one crushing stones and other things in their path down a hill. If one had a good knowledge of the history of Czechoslovakia during the later forties to 1989, or was born in the country, this short would have immense meaning, a matter-of-face absurdity to these images which do not trivialise the severity of them.

Far from didactic it still presents the material through Švankmajer's grim if quietly black humoured tone, a grotesqueness in the ordinary. The farcical nature inherent within this real history, images of bullet holes suddenly appearing in brick walls, is comparable to Juraj Herz's The Cremator (1969), both difficult to laugh with in their humour knowing real people died outside of the cinema screen. The film succinctly depicts the end result of the history with a prolonged scene of gloved hands, faces not seen, crafting workers out of clay and moulds, the creations going on conveyor belts to their own executions by hanging, the bodies falling back into the bucket of clay used to create them. A skull eating through pictures of Stalin or the infamous Soviet leader developing eyes emphasises the director's visible rage at what took place during his lifetime, but it interconnects with acts of violence that take place in his other short films like Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) or Virile Games (1988), in the most innocuous of places like the latter's depiction of a football match as much as in political events that shape a whole country. If there is a danger of the meaning of the short being lost as people forget the history being retold, there is still this general absurdity and violence in normalcy that runs through many of the director's films, linking with his Surrealist views.


Technical Detail:
Openly, Švankmajer is one of the most profound influences on my film tastes as they were developing. With this comes a knowledge as well of the incredible determination and exhausting hours of time that were likely spent to create a ten minute short like this. Even his last feature film Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) (2010), which used paper cut-outs, looked like it was laborious and time consuming to get each scene and moment done right. Švankmajer even more so then the similarly talented Quay Brothers is concerned with aesthetic textures in his films as part of depicting his ideas. The camera is usually static for each shot but he channels the cinematic qualities deprived from the restriction to the content onscreen in the animation and production design.

A statue of Stalin is given threatening life, and when the two birthing sequences happen, you get the disgusting texture of entrails being moved aside by gloved surgeon's hands to birth the child of Stalin's politics, right down to an umbilical cord being cut and a slap on the back of the statue bust's head to make it cry. What Švankmajer learnt, in his life as a puppeteer, an animator, an artist, and a film director, with the many skills he learnt over the decades, is deceptively simple yet ignored to a horrifying extent in a lot of cinema, that in real life the world as a person views it in texture and "coarseness" is as much part of our existence as our thoughts and relationships are. That a floor can be dirty or clean, a hand can have arthritis or dirty finger nails, that objects are chipped or splintered, details you rarely get in realistic drama and fantasy films equally. Far from mere surface detail, it is instinctively part of people's perceptions of their environments, and it's important here in this film too. The starkness of the film in these small details adds to the importance of its message, the rudimentary decoration of where the clay workers are made and hung, the knife used to cut the nooses the same one used to spread mustard on the godlike hands' meal, to the intersplicing of images of propagandist sporting activity with De Sadian illustrations of orgies.

Abstract Spectrum: Surrealist;  Expressionist
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
The overt political tone of The Death of Stalinism... does reduce the abstract tone of this film compared to others in Švankmajer's filmography. When he is dealing with more universal themes or adapting other artists' work like in Jabberwocky (1971) he allows it to be starting points for very unconventional imagery and juxtapositions, which are simple in their execution of the ideas but still startling and uneasy to the viewer. The surrealism that does exist in this particular film is still poignant, used to emphasis the message of the film.

Personal Opinion:
Originally I was cold to The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia for many years compared to other Švankmajer short films. I'd recommend, if you explore Švankmajer's short films, to begin with Jabberwocky and Dimensions of Dialogue, while personal favourites like Food (1992) to Virile Games also stand out as the next ones to watch. The Death of Stalinism... would've had greater power originally if my knowledge of Czech history was stronger, but it has grown in significance as a stronger production. Inherently the level of quality in the creation of the short and it's execution of ideas is as strong as in all the other films, and as the one overtly political film in his filmography, it stands out greatly on its own terms.


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