The Wager of a Militant Surrealist
On Jan Svankmajer's The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia
Copyright (c) 1998 by the Slavic Research Center. All rights reserved.
In 1990, the year after the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia, Jan Svankmajer made The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia and subtitled it "A work of Agitprop." As these titles plainly demonstrate, it is the most political of all his films, attempting an overview of his country's history after the Second World War. It is commonly believed that overt political comment within a work can badly affect its artistic value. The complexity and sophistication of artistic language is too often weakened when faced with the simplicity of political vocabulary. Accordingly, from the standpoint of the work of art, the relationship between art and politics is extremely delicate. Despite this, Svankmajer made an explicitly political film. Did he sacrifice the artistic value? If so, to what end? And what significance does the film have to its creator?
The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia begins with the scene of an exploding building, and then deals with such precisely epoch-making political events as the "Liberation from Fascism" in 1945, the "February affair" in 1948, the "thaw" after the mid-1950s, the "Prague Spring" in 1968, the "normalization" after 1969 and the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989. The last event thus represents the "death" of Stalinism in the film. Stalinism imported from the Soviet Union became the state's political system in 1948, when the Communist Party came to power under the leadership of Klement Gottwald. In the film this event is depicted in an exceedingly impressive manner: a stone bust of Stalin is laid on an operating table, and a surgeon cuts open its face to reveal innards from which is plucked a second smaller bust of Gottwald, covered in blood. Gottwald's bust is slapped and the first cry of a newborn baby resounds. This "birth" of Gottwald is accompanied by the implantation of Stalinism. In the film the bust of the Czech Communist Party leader is seen actually making a Stalinist speech, during which historic documentary footage of cheering crowds is intercut. The images in this sequence imply that both Gottwald and, apparently, his countrymen enthusiastically embraced the adoption of Soviet Stalinism for the Czech nation, a political change that determined the course of Czech history for the next forty years: the four decades covered in episodes that follow in the film.
One of its most criminal deeds of Czech Stalinism was the purge of the dissidents, and this is described directly as well as figuratively in the film. The photograph of Rudolf Slansky, who was unjustly sent to the gallows, is presented on the screen, overtly alluding to this atrocity. Workers with fingerless black gloves mold the clay into body parts from which replicas of a heroic worker are produced on an assembly line. This industrial system can be considered a criticism of the standardization of individuals during the Stalinist era. At the end of the conveyer the figures plummet onto a table, then right themselves and walk towards a gallows. They are promptly hanged, their bodies falling back into a bucket of clay. The bucket is carried to the workers making body parts, which suggests that the process may continue eternally.
The film also depicts the other historic events mentioned above in the same sort of symbolic manner. Symbolic as they are, the episodes have direct references to historical realities in Stalinist Czechoslovakia: the film makes use of certain figures who were closely connected with this era and events that took place there. Consequently, the understanding of The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia depends heavily on a viewer's knowledge of the Czech history. In other words, the longevity of the film will rely upon the freshness of the viewer's memory of recent history, especially the revolution of 1989. Naturally enough, Svankmajer understands this. He remarks that the film might be totally incomprehensible in one hundred years. For what did he then have to make such a film as might age more quickly than any of the others?
Svankmajer considers the film to be a kind of "catharsis," stating that he wanted to rid himself of the tension accumulated during the past forty years of his life spent under Stalinism. In this way, the motive for making the film can be regarded as the matter of inner choice, resulting from personal experience under the political system in question. It is noteworthy from this point of view that he devotes himself to surrealist activities. He joined the Prague Surrealist Group in 1970 after meeting its leading theoretician, Vratislav Effenberger, and since then he has been one of the most active members. Surrealism, for him, is not only aesthetics but also philosophy, ideology, psychology and so forth: it is, in a phrase, a particular attitude towards the world. What kind of attitude does he take then?
Citing Effenberger as a major influence, Svankmajer recalls that Effenberger was a man of unwavering morals in a world of Stalinist servitude, hated by all those whose attitude he confronted. Svankmajer insists that Effenberger's consistent views were rejected as dogmatism by eclectics of all kinds. Needless to say, Svankmajer shares Effenberger's views and takes the same attitude towards Stalinism. In his opinion what matters in artistic creation is the internal strength of the Ôreserves' that the artist carries within himself; the means of self-expression are interchangeable. With this perspective, therefore, it can be said that Svankmajer's surrealist attitude has much to do with "catharsis," and that in a sense, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia is a natural consequence of this attitude.
As has just been suggested, the film-director regards the means of expression as secondary, but from the viewpoint of art, the expression represents everything. Of all the means of expression that he uses in filmmaking, animation is the most important. In The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia animation is utilized very effectively, particularly in various memorable scenes: when the statue of Stalin moves his eyes; when the clay figures walks towards the gallows; when the rolling pins symbolizing the Russian tanks of 1968 roll down a hill, crushing cans and scattering stones. With animation the film actually assumes magic aspects. Magic, because the moving of inanimate objects turns the world into a mysterious and uncertain place. Significantly, for Svankmajer, animation is, in fact, a modern form of magic.
Interestingly enough, Svankmajer states that surrealism is an attempt to put the magic dimension back into art, and remarks that art without magic is of no use. This means for Svankmajer's view of art, animation is closely tied with surrealism. Viewed in this light, it can be said that in The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, surrealism thus plays an essential role. What has been discussed above makes it clear that the surrealist traits are evident in both the aesthetic and the thematic aspects of The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia. Therefore, it is a film that reveals the characteristics of Jan Svankmajer the Militant Surrealist. Svankmajer recognizes that Stalinism in its many guises is just one symptom of contemporary civilization, a civilization he believes that art must attack at its roots. It seems that Svankmajer intends to continue the fight against the absurdities of the human beings by means of his surrealist art.
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