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Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, The (1984)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Prelude: Portrait of Svankmajer (à la Arcimboldo)

The puppet Jan Svankmajer is assembled in front of a poster of his real-life counterpart. A drop of blood is applied to its 'hand'. The puppet reaches into its chest and soaks a small tuft of cloth in the blood. The cloth is then extracted, triggering a clockwork mechanism, and the puppet comes to life. It eats the cloth.

Pins For Loose Geographies

A series of upright pins moves across a patterned surface, followed by a matchbox, a feather and a map of Europe that highlights Paris and Prague. A segmented ruler flips the map over and reveals a guide to Prague, which opens to reveal a map of the city. The pins move across it, and various Prague landmarks spring up in three dimensions. The feather dances across the map, coming to rest near Prague Castle.

Atelier of Svankmajer - XVIth & XXth Century Simultaneously - An Unexpected Visitor

A Prague tram moves past the window of Svankmajer's studio, which is decorated with Giuseppe Arcimboldo's 'Vertumnus' (1590), a portrait of the Bohemian Emperor Rudolf II, as though constructed from fruit and vegetables. Similar Arcimboldo portraits are revealed. Svankmajer examines and then empties a bag containing a brush, a tube of paint, scissors and other objects. A child wearing a paper hat enters the studio. Svankmajer beckons him to approach. The child bends over the table, and removes his hat and the top of his head. From the interior of the child's head , Svankmajer extracts a long string of fluff, lea and Svankmajer removes a long string of fluff. The child, his head now hollow, watches Svankmajer as he spins a series of toys and balls before showing him a picture frame whose interior is constructed so that a different Arcimboldo portrait appears with a change of viewing angle. Svankmajer produces a miniature theatre.

Pursuit of the Object

Svankmajer examines various objects that are stored in a room lined with drawers - dried plants, animal bones, books, wooden blocks. He shakes his head. Some objects transfer themselves from one drawer to another.

The 'Wunderkammer'

The child explores a room lined with objects, including skeletons of imaginary species constructed collage-fashion from real bones.

The Child's Divining of the Object

With the assistance of the child, Svankmajer climbs a ladder to reach the upper drawers. The child is particularly attracted to a drawer marked 'Elementa' and shows it to Svankmajer. The drawer turns out to be connected to an elaborate series of interlocking smaller drawers. The child singles out one of these and Svankmajer opens it, revealing a number of textured stones. He examines them.

The Migration of Forms

Svankmajer removes some coloured ribbons from a drawer. The child pushes it shut, only to find other drawers opening from the front of the existing drawer. More drawers open, and the ribbons form themselves into birds, flying out and merging in the central space.

Metaphysical Playroom - A Tactile Experiment

The child lies on his back and watches various wooden blocks disporting themselves. A sextet of pins carries a sugar lump across a table. Svankmajer shoos them away. The child places a box on the table with holes cut in the side. Svankmajer inserts his hands and feels the object within, attempting to guess what it is purely from its physical form. It's a large hairy spider, but he guesses 'fox fur' and 'fir tree' instead.

The Child Receives a Lesson in 1/24 of a Second

Svankmajer opens a box and removes his camera. A ball begins to bounce down the stairs, but stops in mid-air. Svankmajer shoots a frame, adjusts the position of the ball, and shoots another one. The ball jerkily comes to life again. The child runs after it, until it stops in mid-air in front of his face.

Finale - For a New Dawn

Svankmajer inserts a glass eye and a book inside the child's head. The child thanks him and catches a tram. His hat remains, and will be added to Svankmajer's collection.