Trapped in the Obsession: Jan Svankmajer’s Short Films

With each passing day I’m starting to think I might be going for a film studies degree next. xD It just seems that my blog is half filled with film reviews, and rereading my posts makes me kind of wish I’d gone for a joint degree in the first place… Oh, well, here goes another artistic film-related random rant…

Remember my praising the accomplished surrealist Czech director Jan Svankmajer in my previous post? Well, here I am at it again, since I recently bought some DVDs of his complete short films, and watching them has managed to put me in a particularly good mood.

One of the most striking films in the collection, is one of his earlier works, Et Cetera (1966). This 7 minutes short is mesmerizing in its almost obsessive circularity, starting with a pronounced FINE in elaborate typeface, and ending appropriately with a DA CAPO AL FINE.

Jan Svankmajer – Et Cetera
Uploaded by popefucker. – Classic TV and last night's shows, online.

This amazing short is all about circularity and futile actions that repeat themselves ad infinitum without being brought to a satisfying closure. In the first part of the animation, there is a human figure on an encyclopedia-style plate, trying on different pairs of wings in a neverending attempt to leave the illustration. The second part shows two interchanging figures, one human and one animal, cyclically exchanging places as trainer and trained, which seems to be a bitter irony directed at the mechanics of being human. The final segment shows a human figure similar to the previous ones, constantly and almmost desperately trying to solve a conundrum: how not to be trapped. It first draws the contours of a house around it, then, dissatisfied, erases it and draws it again as a separate object. In both cases the figure finds itself either trapped inside or outside of the sketched house, thus showing an inability of coming up with a creative solution (e.g. a door that would allow communication between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’) in this 2d universe which is inherently constraining.

I keep falling in love all over again with Svankmajer’s dark satire, which is forcefully apparent in all of his shorts. His surreal hermeneutics I find extremely compelling and especially challenging, since the viewer is constantly forced both to accept the illogical course of events in Svankmajer’s work and to try to uncover the thread occulted under the uncanny imagery. His films are both vaguely disturbing and incredibly attractive through their impossible connections and their atmosphere of ‘theatre of illusions’ (much like the films of Georges Méliès in that sense).

As soon as I get enough spare time on my hands, I’m fully resolved to watch all of his shorts and as many of his longer films that I can get access to, and possibly start ranting again about the god-like talent and imagination of Jan Svankmajer.


[still from “Alice” (1988) via]

Unrelated edit: Some of you might have noticed that I changed the title (and subtitle) of the blog. That’s mainly because I accidentally stumbled upon a livejournal blog bearing virtually the same title. I don’t know why that bothered me so, but it made me think that, perhaps, I should have tried to be a bit more original when naming this here livejournal. So there you go, I have re-baptised it as Encyclopaedia Vanitatum – a dictionary of spectral curiosities (and by the way, many thanks to Mike @ To the Ends of the Galaxy! for being so cool as to help me with the title!). I’m quite happy with this new identity, I think it suits my blog pretty well, and I guess I’ll be keeping Sakasama no Chou purely as an unofficial anthem.

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