Insect (Hmyz) – Jan Švankmajer, 2018

Once on a family holiday, we were walking around the side streets of a small Welsh town when we stumbled upon an old bric-a-brac shop that was closed for many years. Among the dusty collection of forlorn objects in the window display sat a vintage doll with braided hair, a straw hat, and a yellowed cotton dress. Her cheeks were webbed with tiny cracks and one of her eyes was missing. With her remaining eye, she gazed out across the universe like a martyr in a medieval painting. A huge dead spider lay curled up in her lap.

That image really troubled my childhood imagination, filled me with a terrible sense of nausea. It is the same feeling I got years later when I first saw Jan Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His use of musty found objects in his animation, including dolls like the one sitting in that shop window years ago, disturbs me to this day.

Strangely I consider this a good thing, and with this in mind, I thought I’d check out Švankmajer’s final film, Insects. The blurb states that it is based on the play Pictures from the Insects’ Life by Karel and Josef Čapek, although that is a little misleading. The film finds Švankmajer in a playful mood, seemingly determined to do everything apart from shoot a straightforward adaptation of the satirical work.

After a cold open where we see a middle-aged man dressed in bug wings and goggles hurrying along the street, Švankmajer appears before the camera himself to provide a foreword for his new feature. The brothers Čapek wrote the play in 1924 while Hitler was sitting in a pub scheming his terrible schemes and Lenin was building his first gulags. Meanwhile, the Czechs and Slovaks were enjoying their newly founded republic, and people found the Čapek’s play a bit too pessimistic for the times. It was sheer youthful misanthropy, he tells us, and only gained greater relevance as the momentous events of the 20th century unfolded. 

All very interesting, you might think, and this foreword certainly whetted my appetite for the adaptation that was to follow. However, that is when Švankmajer goes deliberately off-script, flunking his lines and warning us of the chaos to follow…

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A Report on the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech) – Jan Němec, 1966

Political satire can take many forms, but sometimes all that’s required is some actors, a few tables and chairs, and a patch of woodland. That’s all Jan Němec needed for A Report on the Party and the Guests, his abstract but high impact critique of life under communist rule in Czechoslovakia. It was considered scathing enough that it allegedly had Antonín Novotný, the president at the time, climbing the walls.

The concept of A Report on the Party and the Guests is about as simple as it gets. A group of middle-aged, middle-class lovers are having a picnic in a peaceful glade on a hot summer’s day. There is plenty of food and drink to go around, the weather is warm, and the friends are enjoying each other’s company. After freshening up in a babbling brook, the group are accosted by a shady little man in squeaky shoes – we later find out his name is Rudolf (Jan Klusák) – and his thuggish-looking cohorts.

Rudolf and his gang bundle the picnickers away to a clearing where he subjects them to an impromptu interrogation. The group are separated into men and women and locked up in an imaginary prison marked by a line drawn in the dirt, with two rocks representing a door.

The picnickers uneasily play along with Rudolf’s game for a while, with Josef (Jiří Němec) acting as their spokesperson. Conversely, Karel (Karel Mareš) gets fed up and grumpily storms off, crossing the line of their prison. In response, Rudolf instructs his mob to chase after the escapee and torment him a bit.

The game is interrupted by a suave older gent in a shining white jacket, known only as the Host (Ivan Vyskočil). He apologises for Rudolf’s actions and charms the group, especially the ladies, and invites them to his birthday banquet by the lake. The picnickers are quickly intermingled with the other guests when they are all assigned seating away from each other. Any complaints are forgotten with the plentiful food and drink on offer, and Josef is rewarded for his attempt to parley with a seat at the head table.

As the celebrations progress, it soon becomes apparent that one of the picnickers, a taciturn man who quietly refused to suck up to the Host previously, has discreetly left the party…

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The Good Soldier Švejk (Dobrý voják Švejk) – Karel Steklý, 1956

I once knew an indestructible drunk who had a natural talent for causing mischief, then watching the mayhem unfold with a look of cherubic innocence on his face. I shared a grotty Barrandov flat with him for a while. The place was pretty dismal so we spent most of our waking hours in the pub, where I often ended up scrambling to unravel his mess while he sat there with his eyes spinning in opposite directions, chuckling to himself.

It was around this time that I first tried reading The Good Soldier Švejk. There was a remarkable facial similarity between my chaotic flatmate and the novel’s author, Jaroslav Hašek, himself a noted pub denizen, who in turn looked a little like the bottle-nosed character in Josef Lada’s famous illustrations from the book. Over time I conflated the three, so now years later I feel like I once lived with the good soldier himself.

Buy your copy of The Good Soldier Svejk from Amazon HERE

It has taken me almost one hundred posts on Czech Film Review to pluck up the courage to write something about Karel Steklý’s 1956 adaptation, perhaps the most well-known film version of the novel. It’s a daunting task – Švejk is a cultural icon in his home country and one of the most successful Czech exports, with Hašek’s novel translated into over 50 languages. There are dozens -if not hundreds – of beer halls and restaurants across the country bearing his name, and his image is common from the gift shops of Prague to the farmer’s pub in the small Moravian village where I recently moved. The word “Švejk” has also become a catch-all for willfully incompetent, subversive behaviour, commonly linked with the type of passive resistance that the Czechs have relied on to endure the numerous wars and foreign occupations of the last few centuries…

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Food (Jídlo) – Jan Švankmajer, 1992

Svankmajer's Jidlo (Food)

Introducing Jan Švankmajer (Alice) to anyone always nets you a reputation for being a weirdo. From the word go, Food’s style is absurd and choppy, often very naturalistic, and more than a little risqué. But I think it’s well worth anyone’s time – so please indulge this weirdo as I talk about Švankmajer’s 1992 film Food and why it’s a lesser-known gem of Czech cinema.

Food contains three shorts films – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – that are thematically connected. They all contain some sort of food consumption (surprisingly) but there is often a twist that turns the simple daily rituals to downright bizarre affairs. In sixteen minutes, Food shows people who turn into machines, hungry diners devouring their clothes, and various kinds of gourmands digging into their own body-parts. So yeah, there’s a lot going on…

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In Context: Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping (Jára Cimrman ležící, spící) – Ladislav Smoljak, 1983

Zdenek Sverak as Jara Cimrman

How do you even start with a personage the size of Jára Cimrman? I feel like I’m describing Leonardo da Vinci using nothing but Morse code printed on popsicle sticks. I’d love to just talk about the film, Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping but without context, it would make no sense to you. So I’ll try to give you a sliver of a fragment of an introduction to the best playwright, philosopher, skier, and teacher – Jára Cimrman.

Jára Cimrman: Cultural Icon

This man is the closest thing to a national treasure the Czechs have, and he is still very much alive in the cultural space: his more than 15 plays are still running, he has a museum in Prague’s watchtower, Petřín, and he even has an asteroid named after him (7796 Járacimrman). His biggest peak was probably the 2005 Greatest Czech competition (which happened in reaction to the 100 Greatest Britons show in the UK and across Europe). But Cimrman didn’t make it in the end. He was unrightfully disqualified for being fictional…

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