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Jan Švankmajer’s ‘The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia’ and the art of Surrealist Satire|Shantanu Singh

Shantanu Singh

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution ended the one-party reign of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. It also lead to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, giving birth to today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is often remembered as a Gentle Revolution by the Slovaks for its non-violent nature– mostly guided by student protests and strikes. The last straw was a collective 2-hour general strike by all citizens of the country on the 27th of November, 1989. As a result, the entire leadership of the Communist party along with the leader Miloš Jakeš had to resign. Caused due to increasing street protests and the failure of the Warsaw pact, the revolution catapulted the region towards democracy and market-based economy. Free elections were held for the first time in the June of 1990 and the election of one of Czechoslovakia’s foremost dissidents Václav Havel marked the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Aside from being a statesman and a dissident of those times, Havel was a writer and a philosopher. His rather absurdist style of writing wove theatre into politics – almost all his works before the Revolution were born out of the despair and anger he felt at the repression of personal freedoms by the communist regime. In his play titled The Garden Party, he is openly satirical of the degenerate and ideological bureaucratic system that existed in his country. Thus, the country got a storyteller and a befitting icon for the new era.

But there was another icon for the times. Czech animator and filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, born 2 years before Havel, had lived under the same regime and been a witness to it all. A man of the theatre, Švankmajer’s initial influence were puppets he received for Christmas when he was seven. At that time, animation and puppet art was dominated by the likes of Polish animator Ladislas Starevich, “Czech Méliès” Karel Zeman and puppet-maker Jiří Trnka. Švankmajer followed suit as a stop-motion animator and filmmaker. With time he evolved out of the more surreal-poetic style of storytelling that his predecessors had come to be known for. Influenced by the art of Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Švankmajer gave life to inanimate objects in his movies, thus continuing his childhood practice of puppet theatre. Like Arcimboldo, who made unique portraits with the use of objects as varied as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books, the Czech filmmaker would build his own kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities.

During the communist regime, his art was banned from being distributed around the region. A Czech critic dismissed his 1974 Cannes screening of Leonardo’s Diary as being “a strange piece of fantasy without socialist content”. Neglected as being too surrealist and politically undesirable by the establishment, it wasn’t until the Velvet Revolution that bans on his films were lifted. The first work to release after November 1989 was his film titled The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia. The film is a polemic against the brutal regime and senseless reign of the communist rule in the region ever since the Soviet Union’s invasion. It isn’t just an expression of anger built up over the years as it goes beyond the emotions to document the life and times of the people under the communist regime.

Švankmajer called the film “a work of agitprop” thus making it political. Agitprop evolved as an ideological art in the Soviet Union. Agitprop was an abbreviation for the works of the Department of Agitation and Propaganda, which was then renamed as the Ideological Department that was entrusted the job of disseminating information and ideology. That made the film, intentionally or otherwise, a true work of agitprop, although with a sense of ringing irony.

Many scenes from historical footage and photos of important personalities are interspersed in the film. Because of these scenes and photos, Švankmajer remarked that the film “might be totally incomprehensible in one hundred years”. Nevertheless, the iconic scenes of workers being made out of clay who walk to the gallows to the tunes of propaganda music only to fall back into the bucket of clay from which they were made stand out. Švankmajer didn’t intend to put art before politics, so it is noteworthy that the political essence of the movie wouldn’t leave an impression on the viewer had it been portrayed through any other style of filmmaking. The use of wooden rollers, which crush everything on its way, to depict the consequence of being a dissenter in the times of the Communist rule is an image that leaves an eerie and unpleasant taste in the mouth. Old leaders die, new leaders emerge, they dissent, and that is suppressed for Communist rule to go on. The movie ends with Stalin’s bust being reintroduced in the red, blue and white colours of the revolution. Then the bust is incised once again to reflect the anxiety and dread that the future holds.

The short film is as good a documentary as any historian could chalk up – with all its accuracies and leeway for possible inaccuracies. The anger against the establishment, which was the driving force for this Švankmajer work, is brought out through a magical world of the inanimate telling the story of the animate. It is as a work of catharsis for the maker himself and those who share the history of the region.

#JanŠvankmajer #ShortFilm

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