Jan Švankmajer: Decalogue
Compiled by Jay Bursky
Jan Švankmajer is an award-winning Czech filmmaker and Surrealist, known for his disquieting use of stop-motion animation, which he often juxtaposes with live actors and traditional Czech puppetry. He is also a prolific studio artist, poet, and theoretical writer in the Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group. A director of 26 short and 6 feature-length films, he is perhaps best known for Alice (or Something from Alice), his Alice in Wonderland adaptation, and for his Golden Bear-winning short film Dimensions of Dialogue. His most recent film, Surviving Life won the 2011 Czech Lion award. In 2009, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival awarded him Special Prize for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema.
- Remember that there is only one poetry. The antithesis of poetry is professional expertise. Before you start filming, write a poem, paint a picture, put together a collage, write a book or an essay, etc. Because only the nurture of the universality of expression will guarantee that you create a good film.
- Succumb totally to your obsessions. You have nothing better anyway. Obsessions are relics of your childhood. And from those very depths of your childhood come the greatest treasures. The gate has to always remain open in that direction. It’s not about memories but about emotions. It’s not about consciousness but about subconsciousness. Let this underground stream freely flow through your inner self. Focus on it but, at the same time, let yourself go. When you are filming you have to be “immersed“ for 24 hours-a-day. Then all your obsessions, all your childhood transfers itself onto film without you even noticing it. In this way your film becomes a triumph of infantility. And that’s what it’s about.
A scene from Surviving Life
- Use animation as a magical act. Animation isn’t moving about inert things but their revival. More precisely their awakening to life. Before you attempt to bring some object to life try to comprehend it. Not its utilitarian role but its inner life. Objects, particularly old ones, have witnessed all sorts of events and lives, and bear their imprint. People have touched them in different situations and with different emotions and printed into them their psychological states. If you wish to make their hidden contents visible through the use of a camera then you have to listen to them. Sometimes for several years. You have to become a collector and only then a filmmaker. Reviving objects using animation must proceed naturally. It must come from the objects and not from your wishes. Never violate an object! Don’t tell your own stories with the help of subjects (objects) but tell their stories.
- Keep interchanging dream for reality and vice versa. There are no logical bridges. Between dream and reality there is only one slight physical operation: the raising and closing of eyelids. With daydreams even that is unnecessary.
- If you are deciding which to give priority to – whether visual perspective or physical experience – then always trust the body because touch is an older sense than eyesight and its experience is more fundamental. Furthermore, the eye is pretty tired and “spoiled“ in our contemporary audio-visual civilization. The experience of the body is more authentic, not yet encumbered by aesthetics. A marker which you shouldn’t lose sight of is synaesthesia.
- The deeper you go into a fantastic plot the more you have to be realistic in detail. Here it’s necessary to rely on the experience of the dream. Don’t be afraid of “a boring description“, pedantic obsessions, “unimportant detail“, or documentary emphasis if you want to persuade the audience that everything they see in the film relates to them, that it does not concern something outside of their world but that it’s about something, without them realizing it, in which they are up to their ears. And use all tricks at your disposal to convince them of this.
- Imagination is subversive because it puts the possible up against the real. That’s why always use the craziest imagination possible. Imagination is humanity’s greatest gift. It is imagination that makes us human, not work. Imagination, imagination, imagination…
A scene from Alice
- As a matter of principle chose themes toward which you feel ambivalent. That ambivalence must be so strong (deep) and unshakeable that you can thread its knife-edge without falling off on one side or the other, or, as the case may be, falling off both sides at the same time. Only this way will you avoid the greatest pitfall: the film à la thèse.
- Nurture creativity as a means of auto-therapy. Because this anti-aesthetic standpoint brings art nearer to the gates of freedom. If creativity has a point at all then it is only in that it liberates us. No film (painting, poem) can liberate a member of an audience if it doesn’t bring this relief to the artist himself. Everything else is a thing of “general subjectivity“. Art as permanent liberation.
- Always give priority to creativity, to the continuity of the inner model or psychological automation over an idea. An idea, even the most poignant, cannot be a sufficient motive to sit behind a camera. Art isn’t about stumbling from one idea to another. An idea has its place in art only at the moment when you have a fully digested topic which you wish to express. Only then will the right ideas come to the surface. An idea is part of a creative process, not an impulse towards it. Never work, always improvise. The script is important for the producer but not for you. It’s a non-binding document which you turn to only in moments when inspiration fails you. If it happens to you more than three times during the shooting of a film then it means: either you are making a “bad“ film or you’re finished.
Just because I’ve formulated The Decalogue doesn’t necessarily mean I have consciously abided by it. These rules have somehow emerged from my work, they haven’t preceded it. In fact, all rules are there to be broken (not circumvented). But there exists one more rule which if broken (or circumvented) is devastating for an artist: Never allow your work of art to pass into the service of anything but freedom.
Although I have formulated this Decalogue on paper it doesn’t mean I consciously refer to it. These rules somehow emerged through my work, they didn’t precede it. Anyway, all the rules are there to be broken (not avoided). But there is one rule which, if broken (or even avoided), becomes destructive to the artist: Never subordinate your personal creativity to anything but freedom.
Jan Švankmajer (February 1999)