Continuing Steve Williams’ exploration of the strange and surreal world of Czech cinema. Part one discussed the origins of the Avant-garde. Part two explores how Czech surrealism fostered lyricism and absurdity.
Jan Nemec, the enfant terrible of the Czech New Wave, represents a synthesis of the poetist ideal of pure cinema and the politicisation of the Novy Vlna. Demanty Noci, his 1964 film, is pure poetry of the senses. It excoriates, it bites, it enflames and inflicts wounds. It conjoins past, present and future, dream and reality. And it does this whilst barely uttering a word – the dialogue, as with his homage to silent cinema Martyrs of Love, is minimal, almost unimportant. Its use of texture and landscape through the cinematography of Jaroslav Kucera is vital in producing a sensory collage.
In stark contrast is The Party and the Guests (1966) – one of four films of the Novy Vlna to be banned forever. Another collaborative effort with his then wife Esther Krumbochova, the film depends on verbal language and dialogue. The meaninglessness phrases uttered by the party guests are empty-headed, dogmatic slogans –an Absurdist approach to communication. The protagonists’ individualities are stripped through by the forces of the microcosmic society created. The resultant powerlessness they experience leads to them seeking refuge in materialism, in objects, and to their complicity in maintaining the sclerotic system in which they co-exist.
An inability to decipher, to attach meaning, to allude knowingly to cosily recognisable symbols is threatening to any of us, but particularly to those with a despotic bent. Allegory, paranoia and oversensitivity are the bedfellows of any totalitarian regime. It’s partly their duty to read hidden meanings where there are none, their commission to be paranoid and to seek to control every thought and impulse contained within human nature. Utopia is beyond human, beyond humanity. It lies permanently over the horizon. One almost suspects that films were commissioned so that the farcical process of censorship and censure could begin again, solely to justify their own existence.
As Devetsil gave birth to Poetism, Poetism to a Czech surrealism, so this surrealism fostered elements of lyricism and absurdism. Both are evident in Pavel Juracek and Jan Schmidt’s Joseph Killian (1963) and in the works of Vojtech Jasny, Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. One of the original absurdist writers was, of course, Franz Kafka, born in Prague, and the line stretches through Vaclav Havel to modern writers from the Czech Republic. The tradition has a particular relevance to realism, argues Martin Esslin, in ‘Eastern’ Europe, where writers like Beckett were considered ‘political writers’ and absurdist theatre could recreate a realism ‘undreamed of in the west’.
Vratislav Effenberger post-war leader of the Czech Surrealist Group’s assertion that Absurdism possesses a critical function, that in order to objectify the absurd and irrational ‘reality’ that surrounds one, one merely has to point a camera at it, is evident in the ‘realist’ films of the New Wave, particularly those of Passer and Forman. The authorities banned Milos Forman’s Fireman’s Ball (1967) ‘forever’, for being over critical of its power. Its existentialist-absurdist view of the prosaic and the parochial depicts authority as bungling, seeking to impose order and reason on things it doesn’t understand and can’t control. Things like human nature. The reality on display is farcical, but one imagines entirely equable with the Gogolian existence that one had to become accustomed to. A man is offered tickets for stolen raffle prizes, to make up for the loss of his house in a fire – a fire that was raging while all the firemen’s attentions were taken up with concocting their own seedy, bucolic beauty pageant.
Absurdity and Surrealism’s critical functions seek either to disintegrate reality or to vitalise it. Many people’s idea of Czech Surrealism is embodied in the films of Jan Svankmajer, a man as uncomfortable with the term surrealist as he is with that of filmmaker, saying that ‘Surrealism is psychology, it is philosophy, it is a spiritual way, but it is not an aesthetic. It was drawn as an element from various different artists, but it does not exist’. Roger Cardinal sees Svankmajer as a collagist, echoing that congenital preoccupation of the Czech avant-garde. One of Svankmajer’s inspirations, Arcimboldo, produced surrealist collages of the 16th Century Holy Roman Empire, Rudolf II, from fruit and vegetables. Dimensions of Dialogue, Svankmajer’s 1982 film, most clearly emulates Arcimboldo as well as demonstrating strong dialectical elements of surrealism.
Svankmajer’s fascination with the secret life of objects is also interpretable as apolitical. He sees himself as a collector of objects, as opposed to a consumer – and via this process builds a relationship with them in order to uncover their true identities. The ability of objects to challenge perceptions of language and of reality, became a device employed by Surrealists as well as artists of the Novy Vlna. As Dawn Ames points out, in Breton’s essay Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality, seems to suggest that dream objects should be put into circulation in reality as a way to challenge reality itself. This eventually manifested in the surrealist objects by artists such as Dali, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim. Rene Magritte, in his pictorial declaration ‘Ceci ne cest pas un pipe’ also pointed at the unreliability of a universal concept, use and identity of an object. Similar use of objects can be seen in Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) – when a ring changes significance, and a neck tie changes purpose – and in Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lightning (1965), where a chicken is either symbolic of failure, an allegory of collectivism or creature that provides eggs. The interpretation is in the eye of the beholder and in the moment of convergence.
Svankmajer joined Effenberger’s Surrealist Group after Czechoslovakia was invaded by the tanks of the Warsaw Pact countries under the auspices of the Soviets and produced his first overtly political works as a consequence. The Garden (1968), a live-action film manipulates absurdist and surrealist elements into a devastatingly simple and excoriating political allegory that deals a blow by concretising an irrational reality.
This and subsequent films, such as Leonardo’s Diary (1972) and The Flat (1968), enraged the Communist party censors and Svankmajer was banned from filmmaking for seven years. In Leonardo’s Diary he splices formalistic animations of Da Vinci drawings with unauthorised footage of the reality of life under Communism. Beauty and progress flow in the film, contrasted with the drudgery and decline of existence in the Soviet utopia. This is a significant reversal of a further surrealist use of objects, apparent in Svankmajer’s films. He imbues the quotidian, the banal objects populating this existence with magical properties and a fantastical secret life. For him, salvation and liberation are to be found in these objects. They are within reach and accessible on an everyday basis. They stimulate the imagination, they free the one part of humanity that cannot be taken from you – that of the creative being who exists within all of us. Andre Breton saw existence under a ‘pragmatic reality’ or an ‘arbitrary utility’ as robbing us slowly of our boundless childhood creativity. Svankmajer’s fascination with objects is an attempt to reconnect with that innate imagination, just as Teige, Nezval and other forbearers had in the previous decades. Surrealism was politicised, especially in these central European parts, as the inner world, the sovereign state of the individual is one place ‘they’ – whoever ‘they’ may be – can never wholly rule.