by Séamus P. Wilson
To be a surrealist is to be in a constant state of rebellion, and retired Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s life as an artist encapsulates this rebellious continuum.
Often finding himself on less than favorable terms with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s censors, Švankmajer embodied the characteristics of the surrealist succinctly; he sought to change the world through defying traditional, logical, and artistic norms. When distilled fully, surrealism comes from the politics of Marx and the poetics of Rimbaud.
Švankmajer’s style of surrealism was rejected by Communist authorities due to its artistic challenge of the then dominant Socialist Realist movement. When making films under the socialist studio-system, filmmakers were forced to submit proposals, scripts, and other materials throughout the filmmaking process.
Like many artistic brigands, Švankmajer was banned from creating films for eight years by the hardliner government that was seeking to reify control after the Prague Spring. His crime? The film Castle of Otranto (1977), in which a real-life newsman does a fake interview with an erratic archaeologist. The censors found this mixing of fact and fiction untenable.
On occasions when his works were not outright banned, films like Leonardo’s Diary (1972) still faced scrutiny and condemnation by pro-government newspapers, with one Czech critic calling the film a “strange piece of fantasy without socialist content.”
But even after the collapse of the hardliner communist government led by President Gustáv Husák and General Secretary Miloš Jakeš subsequent the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Švankmajer’s artistic insurrection continued — and this time put him at odds with the now capitalist, liberal-democratic state.
Švankmajer’s 17 minute short-film Food (1992) presents the human culinary experience as a satirical critique and analysis of Czechoslovakian society and class relations after the Velvet Revolution, and further illustrates the filmmaker’s surrealist view on the death of ideology in the post-modern world. Food uses its jarring sound and stop-motion animation to impose this artistic vision onto the film’s audience, and channels the physical senses of the viewer to this end.
Beginning with breakfast, Švankmajer offers his understanding of the life of the working class in Czechoslovakian society. Workers wait in long lines only to become the next human vending machines. In a new society increasingly defined by capital and money, the workers in the post-communist Czechoslovakian community splurge for greasy food. The Kafkaesque, twisted debasement of life after the Velvet Revolution is presented as a conveyor belt of absurdity.
The film continues. The walls of the room are a dull and alienating grey, and the food is an unappetizing brown. Human automatons zip through the room in a perturbing fashion that makes the viewer uncomfortable. They are shells of people; devoid of traits of humanism, defined only by their greed and their unquenched appetites. These workers emulate dehumanizing robotic and plastic sounds, reminding the audience of the present consumerism that the liberal-bourgeois playwright turned post-Revolution president Václav Havel so zealously claimed would not appear.
Then, a clatter of coins distinctly pierces through the unreality of the scene. The subsequent devouring of the food leaves the audience with a dystopian taste in their mouths. The matter of food itself is transformed and putrefied.
Human relationships between the workers have been utterly removed from any interaction in the film; the only interaction is now desire. Like ideology, human interaction is entirely diminished in the post-modern world. In the new world, the commodification of food leaves the toiling masses completely atomized as they simply pay for and replace one another.
Though one can argue the film is a satire on the socialist state of Czechoslovakia and the bureaucratic nature of said state, the film’s ensuing analysis on the power of capital and class prove that interpretation dead on arrival.
Next, and for Lunch, Švankmajer treats the audience to a taste of the decadent lives of the post-revolt Czechoslovakian bourgeoisie. After the Velvet Revolution, bourgeois norms and middle class culture emerged to prominence through the flames of counter-revolution.
To satirize these neoliberal folkways, Švankmajer presents the bourgeoisie as an eating machine of gargantuan proportions. The petite bourgeoisie depicted in a café engorge on everything before them, including themselves. The twisted faces of these lost souls acts as a vehicle to highlight the narcissistic, self-obsessed traits within this burgeoning economic class.
In a matter akin to Tantalus, the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie feast on their fellow humans for dinner. Švankmajer provides this sight to demonstrate the grotesque nature of the haute bourgeoisie. The taste of wood and paper envelopes the audience, and they crawl into their skins as the capitalist-class feasts.
Much like in Lord of the Flies by British author William Golding, there is a thin line between food and savagery in Švankmajer’s film. Stuck on the Island, the boys in Golding’s novel quickly dive into a frenzy as the desire for meat pulls them deeper within themselves. This same desire to feast pulls Czechoslovakian society apart in Švankmajer’s Food.
In a society defined by devouring, Švankmajer showcases that a descent into barbarity is inevitable. The sound of clinking and clattering china cups is juxtaposed with the brittle sound of slime. The eating of human pudenda is a sickening, yet humorous visual that comments on the nature of the parasitic bourgeoisie in Czechoslovakian society.
As previously mentioned, the film Food plays on its audience’s sensory facilities. Using this artistic tool box, Švankmajer invites the audience for a meal, one that includes not just sight, but all the senses evoked in film. Each touch of silverware and food sends a shiver down the spine of observers, as the feasting fat-cats of the film move with their grotesque futility.
As the monsters eat with their insatiable appetites, the sight of these ghastly constructs disturbs the audience. The sounds emanating from the creatures on the screen are reminiscent of the “sounds” of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel Haunting of Hill House; each creek and groan elicits horror. The smell of the scene seemingly penetrates the screen, with the sickening putrid odor of perishing food, dusty tables, and dank rooms all serving to magnify Švankmajer’s aesthetic recipe. The film ends as a man bites into a meal of his own sexual appendage.
Succeeding both artistically and philosophically, Jan Švankmajer’s Food embodies both the modus operandi and the thematic stylizations of insurrectionary surrealism. Through penetrating the primordial senses with disgust, Švankmajer utterly devalues the mores and customs of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Food‘s biting exposure of capitalist decadence serves as a vital counter-weight to counter-revolution, expertly cutting through the fat and grease of the post-USSR bourgeoisification of Central and Eastern Europe.
Séamus is a sophomore student at Temple University double majoring in Film and Media Arts and History as well as minoring in Theater. In addition, Séamus is a multi-instrumentalist. While able to play 13 instruments, some better than others, his primary instruments include the oboe and the flute. You can find him on YouTube and Instagram.
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