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Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, The (1984)

Courtesy of Koninck Studios

Main image of Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, The (1984)
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer: Prague's Alchemist of Film
16mm, colour, 14 mins
DirectorsBrothers Quay, Keith Griffiths
Production CompanyKoninck Studios
ProducerKeith Griffiths
AnimatorsBrothers Quay
MusicZdenek Liska

Impressions of the work and creative philosophy of the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer.

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The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, Prague's Alchemist of Film (its full on-screen title) began life as an hour-long documentary for Channel 4's esoteric late-night film strand Visions about the work of the great Czech animator, filmmaker and card-carrying Surrealist artist. The programme was made up of extracts from Svankmajer's work interspersed with analysis from critics, art historians and Surrealists, linked by nine animated sequences by the Brothers Quay. These links were subsequently joined together and released to cinemas as a separate 14-minute short.

Even after the removal of the contextual material, what remains is surprisingly coherent and accessible, at least by the Quays' usual standards. Though prior familiarity with Svankmajer's work helps, even a complete newcomer (which would have described most of the original audience) will be able to glean that he's based in Prague, that he's fascinated by the era of the sixteenth-century Bohemian emperor Rudolf II, especially his court painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (creator of portraits of human faces made up of fruit, vegetables, fish and other assorted objects), and that he has a peculiar addiction both to the hidden power of inanimate objects in general and, more specifically, their texture and feel.

While the Quays' film draws heavily on these elements of Svankmajer's universe, it otherwise makes no attempt at imitating his highly individual style. This was partly an expedient measure dictated by the demands of the original documentary, where it would clearly have been undesirable to risk confusing actual Svankmajer clips with the Quays' work - but it also allows them to delve far deeper into Svankmajer's philosophy by giving it an alternative interpretation via their own distinctive imagery.

The puppet representing Svankmajer bears little resemblance to the man himself: he's an Arcimboldesque representation whose head is made up largely of books. Throughout the film, he demonstrates his ideas to an unnamed child 'pupil', whose hollowed-out head he literally empties at the start, before crowning it with a small book-hairstyle of its own at the end to suggest that his education is complete.

The closing credits supply two dedications, the other being in memory of the then recently deceased Zdenek Liska (1922-1983). A major though undervalued composer, largely because his best work was produced for stage and screen, his music can be heard throughout the Quays' film in excerpts taken from the Svankmajer films Historia Naturae, Suita (1967), The Flat (Byt, 1968) and The Ossuary (Kostnice, 1970).

Michael Brooke

*The short film version is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003', while the original full-length Channel 4 documentary is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films'

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Video Clips
1. An unexpected visitor (2:55)
2. Pursuing the object (3:09)
3. Metaphysical playroom (1:54)
4. The animation lesson (1:41)
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)
Channel 4 and Animation