From what Jan “Honza“ Švankmajer does in his films and other creations, he seems to have been born on “The Dark Side.“ Yet to speak with, he comes across as a gentle and quiet guy. It’s what seethes inside of him that’s scary. Visiting his house is to walk into a museum of the macabre. It’s in the very most “lost-in-time,“ remote edge of the castle district of Prague, known by the totally anachronistic name, „New World“. There are creaking doorways, so low you have to duck your head to go through. The rooms are full of weirdly reconstructed skeletons of non-existing creatures, sexo-surrealistic paintings by his deceased wife, Eva, pornographic contrivances, and all manner of unholy artifacts. In one corner was a display of fantasto-erotic ceramics that he and Eva made in their own kiln. During the 1970s the Czechoslovak communist regime forbid Honza to make films at all. Making equally outrageous ceramics privately was how they eked out a living, without having to do work they didn’t believe in. It’s not hard to understand why Švankmajer’s genius was sidelined during the strict times. Morbidity and ugliness was not anything the Marxist leaders would allow to discolor the rosy view of socialist life they proclaimed.
In my early days here, all of us who worked in films were called in regularly to a special theater, where new productions were screened. On these occasions, Honza was not afraid to rise from his seat and rail against the restrictions of artistic endeavor. All that got him was banishment to the ceramic kiln he and Eva had set up in their country cabin. We were among their many quiet supporters who regularly bought items from them. They made unique gifts, which no one could believe came from a communist country – most of the stuff they produced was erotic or devilish! At that time, in the mid 1970’s, I was adapting four books by Tomi Ungerer, to be produced for Weston Woods. Tomi was a Švankmajer erotic soul-mate, even though I’m not sure either was aware of the other’s existence. Attached here is a picture of one of the milder pieces we bought. All the really edgy ones we gave away. Below is also a charming lithograph by Eva Švankmajer we own. It’s designed to be hung in four different ways. And thus is signed four times! It’s on our living room wall.
Although I once did English translations and spoke the narration for a couple of early Švankmajer films, I cannot claim to be one of his ardent fans. In fact, recently at a Prague multiplex, one of his feature films caused me to stand up and walk out. That was the first time in my life that I ever walked out in the middle of a movie. It was just too far over the line with gratuitous mannerisms for my tender boy-scout heart!
I know that Honza is a genius, and is now the worldwide darling of intellectual filmotech fanciers. He is clearly making statements that reveal the hidden truths about people. But I wonder if many of his fans tend to equate outrageous with artistic..
I don’t reach the heights (or depths) of Jan Švankmajer for sure. I’ve just tried to make films that are user-friendly. But I respect and admire Švankmajer for pushing an envelope that is far heavier and more squishy than mine. It may even be filled with entrails of sheep from which great truths are divined. I was an admirer of his early shorts. Some were truly stunning! They rarely made contact with the general Czech public, but intellectuals loved the fact that his stuff drove the communist government crazy. What they couldn’t understand, they hastened to forbid!