Puppetry has a long history in the Czech cinema which became one of the most popular self-expression art form. Many of the filmmakers used it for reflect on political and social issues such as Jiri Trnka, whose work was significant during “The Thaw”. This blog post will examine one of the big representative of the surrealist Czech filmmakers, Jan Svankmajer, using a crucial feature film of his career, Little Otik (2000), argue on whether it is responding to politics or the traditional puppetry.
In Eastern European countries “The Thaw” (1956-1968) was an important time period from political aspects, because after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev came to power who supported and enjoyed cinema. This suggest that there was no political influence on filmmaking, the relative freedom and liberty has changed the filmmakers’ attitude. “Czech artists presented their perception of reality: a devastating attack on the Stalinist system.” (Rupnik D., 1975) Filmmakers had the chance to make political comments and criticise the past and contemporary government without censorship. The Hand is a relevant short film by Jiri Trnka, which has a huge political propaganda hidden behind a story about a potter who is under control of an enormous ‘hand’ what persuades him to create what it has been told. The Hand is a surrealist constitution, using puppetry techniques and reflecting on the Stalinism.
“Surrealism is a way of perceiving life and the world. I would describe it as a magical outlook on life and the world.” Said Svankmajer in an interview who was a surrealist Czech filmmaker. He also used puppetry to express himself which was not surprising because “Švankmajer had previously worked in a puppet theatre as an artist and writer.” (Vasseleu, 2007, p.91). Hames addresses “his films as ‘politically engaged’” (2008, p.85). The key material Little Otik (Svankmajer, 2000) can be seen as a critical viewpoint of the 21th century’s society and as a traditional Czech fairy-tale. “It could be said that even when Svankmajer was drawing on influences other than Surrealism, he was utilizing the Surrealist impulses that had long been present in Czech culture.” (Owen, 2011, p.190) It clarifies that Little Otik was a translation of a traditional Czech fairy-tale just as Jabberwocky (1971) was a poem by Lewis Carroll what Svankmajer took to the screen.
“Besides its resemblances to the horror film, Little Otík is also an extremely witty take on family life, with a fine eye and ear for the banalities of domestic situation and conversation. (Hames, 2008, p.97) However, the film’s deeper message is coming from the capitalist, greedy and gluttonous society which can be seen in a clip where people are selling babies just as a consumer product.
In addition to this, even though “His films explore the world of the imagination and assert its force against the pre-digested categories of the commercial world.” (Hames, 2001), we can rate this film as an interpretation of the consequences caused by the Stalin era.
In conclusion, Svankmajer’s work politically responding to the Thaw’s ideas and Trnka’s work but the Little Otik can be seen as a representation of the post-Stalinism. Therefore, it is more like a survey of the contemporary capitalist society. He turned the Czech traditions, fairy-tale and puppetry with its “political allegorical system” (O’Pray, 2000, p.52) into the perfect celebration of the survival of Stalinism.
~ Hames, P (2001) Bringing up Baby (originally published in Sight and Sound) retrieved from; http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/hames01.php.
~ Hames P. (2008) “The Core of Reality? Puppets in the Feature Films of Jan Svankmajer” in Hames P. (Ed) the cinema of Jan Svankmajer: dark alchemy, (second edition, pp. 83-103). London: Wallflower Press.
~ Interview with Svankmajer retrieved from here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5Pkep8pUcc
~ O’Pray, M. (2000) “The Animated Film” in Hill J. & Church Gibson P. (Eds) World Cinema: Critical Approaches. (pp. 50-55)New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
~ Owen, J (2011) “Chapter 7” In Avant-Garde to New Wave: Czechoslovak Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties. Oxford: Berghahn
~ Rupnik D., J. (1975) The Politics of Culture in Czechoslovakia. The Harvard Crimson.
~ Svankmajer, J. (Director) (2000). Little Otik/Otesánek [Motion Picture]. Czech Republic: Zeitgeist Films.
~ Trnka, J. (Director) (1965). The Hand [Motion Picture]. Czechoslovakia: Krátký Film Praha.
~ Svankmajer, J. (Director) (1968). The Garden/ Jabberwocky [Motion Picture]. Czechoslovakia: Krátky Film Praha.
~ Vasseleu, C. (2007) “The Svankmajer Touch” in Dobson N. (Ed.) Animation Studies: Animated Dialogues. (pp. 91-101) California: Society for Animation Studies.