Jan Svankmajer studied sculpture, painting, engraving, and the writings of the surrealist artists at the College of Applied Arts in Prague in the early 1950s, eventually entering the famed Prague Academy of Performing Arts in 1954 to study puppetry and filmmaking. These multidisciplinary skills earned Svankmajer a place as director and designer at the Czech State Puppet Theatre in 1958 and secured him work with the Semafor Mask Theatre in 1960. His first films—Posledni trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick, 1964), Hra s kameny (A Game with Stones, 1965), and Rakvickarna (Punch and Judy, 1966)—demonstrate Svankmajer's trademark synthesis of the arts and the particular relationship between animated puppets and objects, human actors, and automata within performance contexts and "psychological" spaces.
The most significant influence on Svankmajer is the authoritarian context in which he worked. Following the Prague Spring of 1968 and his implicit critique of communism in Leonarduv denik (Leonardo's Diary, 1972), Svankmajer was banned from making animated films for seven years. When permitted to return to filmmaking, he agreed to make approved literary adaptations. His interpretations of Hugh Walpole's Castle of Otranto (Otrantsky zamek, 1977) and Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher (Zanik domu Usheru, 1981), are nevertheless thematically similar to his later Poe adaptation, Kyvadlo, jama a nadeje (The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope, 1983) and his Lewis Carroll pieces, Zvahlav aneb Saticky Slameneho Huberta (Jabberwocky, 1971) and the full-length feature Neco zAlenky (Alice, 1988). All are strident surrealist critiques of authoritarian regimes and political repression using irrational images drawn from the unconscious.
Svankmajer's bleak masterpiece, Moznosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982), was banned in Czechoslovakia but enjoyed international success as a rich metaphor about the failure of personal and political communication. Do pivnice (Down to the Cellar, 1983)
was an autobiographical interrogation of Svankmajer's childhood, depicting the terrors of unknown and mutable objects in a dark cellar. Many saw a similarly frightening engagement with childhood in Svankmajer's Alice, which sees Carroll's Wonderland recast as a nightmare world of disturbing images suggesting death, decay, and detritus, propelled by unconscious and complex desires.
The eventual downfall of communism produced Tma/Svetlo/Tma (Darkness/Light/Darkness, 1989), an absurdist fable about human endurance in the light of repression, and a short history of postwar Czechoslovakia, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990), which retains a chilling scepticism about oppression even in the newly democratic state. Svankmajer'ssubsequent features, Faust (1994), Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996), and Otesanek (Little Otik, 2000), combine live action and animation, yet continue his preoccupations with the "life" within found objects, the reconfiguration of "the body,'' and the surreal and subversive prompts of the unconscious.
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