Jan Svankmajer

Das Universum des Jan Svankmajer

The Decalogue of Jan Švankmajer

Kurt Bracharz

In 1999 the filmmaker Jan Švankmajer published in Analogon, the magazine of the Czech surrealists that had been founded in 1969, banned immediately after its first number and in revived in 1989, the short text Desatero, which now also exists in German (2002), French (2002), Italian (2003) and English (2006). Decalogue, the English translation by Tereza Stehlíková, from which the following will be quoted, was published in the journal Vertigo (Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2006). [Or the original: Dekalog (i.e. Decalogue), the German translation by Hans-Joachim Schlegel, was published in the catalogue of the 2011 Švankmajer exhibition at the Vienna Kunsthalle, Das Kabinett des Jan Švankmajer: das Pendel, die Grube und andere Absonderlichkeiten (i.e. The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer: the Pendulum, the Pit and other Oddities), edited by Ursula Blickle and Gerald A. Matt.]

Švankmajer’s decalogue takes up two pages of the publication, and so is somewhat longer than that of the Second Book of Moses. [This sentence may have to be modified if we use the previous sentence referring to the English translation, as it seems we must.] For a better overview, Švankmajer’s ten commandments are here compressed into ten lines:

  1. Before you start making a film, write a poem, paint a picture, create a collage, write a novel, essay, etc.
  2. Surrender to your obsessions.
  3. Use animation as a magical operation.
  4. Keep exchanging dreams for reality and vice versa.
  5. If you are trying to decide what is more important, trust the experience of the eye or the experience of the body; always trust the body, because touch is an older sense than sight and its experience is more fundamental.
  6. The deeper you enter into the fantastic story the more realistic you need to be in the detail.
  7. You should always use your wildest imagination.
  8. Always pick themes that you feel ambivalent about.
  9. Cultivate your creativity as a form of self-therapy.
  10. Never work, always improvise.

The first and third commandments show to whom this text, which instead of “Decalogue” could more profanely be entitled “10 Tips for Filmmakers”, is addressed: to those who want to make films in the style of Jan Švankmajer. This may sound mocking, but is not meant to be; we might instead say “in the style of early Borowczyk” or “in the style of the Quay Brothers”, but in Austria at least you have a considerably better chance of seeing films by Švankmajer on television than the brilliant Renaissance (1964) of the Polish director Walerian Borowczyk or the bizarre Street of Crocodiles (1986) by the American twins Quay, who live in England. The work of all these filmmakers is shot in stop-motion, and today you can buy programmes for the stop-motion animation of videos for the home computer, which could make Švankmajer’s decalogue interesting for amateurs (whom he presumably was not addressing in 1999). Does this mean that today everyone can make surrealist films by applying Švankmajer’s recommendations?

The question is not so easy to answer because there are different views as to what films may be properly called “surrealist”. As the earliest and most famous examples, every filmmaker will cite Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (1928) and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), but both were attacked by the hard core of the French surrealist movement around André Breton. Dulac was even excluded from the group, while Buñuel could fend off attacks only after the appearance of his next film, L’Âge d’Or (1930), which immediately after its premiere was banned by the police, reconciling Breton’s orthodox surrealists. Both Dulac and Buñuel expressed surrealist intentions at least in their declarations of intent. In her writings Dulac set forth the ideal of the “pure film”, which was emancipated from all other arts and particularly from language, and which therefore cannot be recounted: “No history, no ideas and feeling, must arise from the sheer suggestive power of the images”, she said in 1928 at a lecture in Amsterdam. Buñuel and Salvador Dalí wrote the script for Un Chien Andalou within a week using the technique of “automatic writing”. In this way they wanted to create a film that symbolized nothing and could not be explained logically. This adhered to the first definition of surrealism from 1924: “Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations”.[1]

To French surrealism Švankmajer, who was born in 1934, naturally had no relation, but in the year of his birth a surrealist group was formed in Prague. After 1930 there were surrealist groups in several European countries, in the United States, in Mexico and in the Antilles. Of chief importance for the theoretical development of surrealism were those groups which included writers who produced the pertinent texts. The core of course was the Paris surrealists, who for a time included Germans such as Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer, and Catalans such as Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. But also important were the Belgian group around René Magritte and the Prague group formed in 1934 around the poet Karel Teige. While today there is a veritable flood of publications about the French, German and Belgian groups, there is at most a dribble about the sources of the Czech surrealist movement, although Breton and Eluard visited Prague in 1934, surrealist exhibitions took place there in 1935 and 1938, and there in 1936 the journal Surrealism appeared. After the second surrealist exhibition in 1938, the Czech surrealists had to go underground, but up to the mid-1040s there were painters who were explicitly dedicated to surrealism. Surrealism in Czechoslovakia flourished again after 1963, that is, following de-Stalinization.

Švankmajer studied from 1950 to 1954 at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in the department of puppetry. The acquaintance in 1960 with his later wife Eva Dvořáková and the surrealist theorist Vratislav Effenberger led to Švankmajer’s joining the surrealist group. Through Alfréd Radok and the multi-media avant-garde theatre Laterna Magika he came to film, initially as an assistant for the Faust film of Radok’s brother Emil in 1958. In 1964 Švankmajer made his first short film, The Last Trick. Today his œuvre comprises twenty-six short films, made in the years between 1964 and 1992, and six full-length films, the best known of which is probably Alice, Švankmajer’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. A series of his short films can be seen on the Internet, and a complete DVD edition has been published by the British Film Institute. Of the full-length films, only Alice and Conspirators of Pleasure are available with subtitles.

In the afterword to his Decologue, Švankmajer wrote that these ten rules emerged from his work; they by no means preceded it and it is not as if he deliberately adhered to them in shooting. Let us now take a closer look at the decalogue.

The first rule comes out against blinkered specialism. Švankmajer politely calls it “professional expertise”, but his reference to “universal expression” makes clear it is his view that anyone who understands only one thing has in reality grasped nothing. That as the opposite of specialism he invokes “poetry” may be traceable to Czech “poetism”, that bridge from cubism to surrealism devised by the poet Karl Teige and also represented by the painters Jindrich Štyřský and Toyen (Marie Čermínová). As for the key words “collage” and “collecting”, it is advisable to view the film The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, which the Quay brothers made about Švankmajer’s cabinet of wonder. Or Švankmajer’s own Historia Naturae, Suita, from 1967.

The second rule sounds like psychoanalysis when it speaks of the inner flow of childhood feeling in an unconscious that the artist should let flow freely. This flux of feeling and associations, which should not be mistaken for specific childhood memories, corresponds in many respects to the “true function of thought” in the original definition of surrealism.

The third rule explains technical animation, as the animation of inanimate things, as magic. It presupposes that the operations actually become magical, a placing of oneself in the inanimate object, and the first presupposition for this in turn is “becoming a collector” and then long contact with the objects. Incidentally only one of Švankmajer’s short films makes do without animation: Zahrada (1968), The Garden, in which a homeowner builds a “living fence” of human beings around his property. The surrealism of this film, in which the human “fence posts” patiently endure their use, is reminiscent of surrealist cinema in the style of Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador (1962), in which a group of party-makers can no longer leave a room although there is no apparent reason for this psychological barrier.

While the third prescription applies precisely to Švankmajer’s own films, the fourth, the constant shifting between dream and reality, could have been proposed by any traditional surrealist. Alice combines rules 3 and 4 in a special fashion because the figure of Alice herself oscillates between a real little girl and a doll, and things in her surroundings are constantly animating themselves and again falling back into their materiality.

Very Svankmajerish, however, is the fifth rule, which gives precedence to the bodily senses other than sight. A remarkable idea for a filmmaker (even if the most famous scene of Buñuel’s Chien andalou is the close-up of an eye being dissected), but the sense of touch, which is what matters most for Švankmajer, is of great importance for the collecting and recognizing of objects (see item 3). In the full-length film Spiklenci Slasti (1996; English title: Conspirators of Pleasure) an inventor builds a machine that gives him caresses, but for the viewer the haptic sense plays an even greater role in Zánik domu Usherů, a film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, in which the story, read by a narrator, is illustrated only by moving images of matter, namely clay, stones, walls, a coffin, a building. It is intended that the viewer should be able to feel himself into the story synaesthetically.

The sixth rule specifies how to outwit the viewer: precision of detail must convince him that the fantastic whole is indeed showing him his own world, for it corresponds in detail to his experience.

Those who watch Švankmajer’s short films in succession cannot overlook the fact that he actually has, in accordance with rule 7, probably always used his wildest imagination. Devouring and being devoured is his main theme, and Švankmajer’s omnivores, who can devour table and plate and themselves, never suck vampirically but always tear with sharp teeth.

The eighth recommendation, to devote yourself only to subjects to which you have an ambivalent relationship, should certainly prevent what Švankmajer seems to think the worst sin – to make a film whose events are intended to illustrate a preconceived thesis. That would indeed be the perfect contradiction to “[t]hought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations”.

Rule number 9 perhaps surprises the contemporary reader, at least because of the use of the word “therapy”. Although “therapy” is here obviously seen as the opposite of “aesthetic”, the idea that art can be auto-therapy seems today to be obsolete. On the other hand, Švankmajer insists that he is not making “art”.

Amusing is rule number 10, which warns against the high estimation of sudden ideas – amusing because for years now we have been confronted in art galleries by a multitude of individual vagaries which, even if they are good, immediately fizzle out. A sudden idea, however brilliant, is no use; you need a lot of staying power. If you have that, you can of course still incorporate appropriate ideas, but the engine of the whole must be the flow referred to in the second rule. On its dark surface a golden leaf of an idea may well be borne along by the current.

In the afterword to his decalogue Švankmajer says that you can transgress (but not avoid) all his instructions, but that the transgression of only one single rule “becomes destructive to the creator: Never subordinate your personal creativity to anything but freedom”. Here it looms again, “Le fantôme de la liberté”. But that of course is another film.


Translated from the German by Jonathan Uhlaner


[1] Translated by Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), pp. 66-75.

An eventful history of nature

Thomas Macho


Once there used to be no natural history. When in the first century AD Gaius Plinius Secundus wrote his Naturalis historia, he did not present diachronic developments, processes of progress or decay, but rather an encyclopaedic collection in 37 books with well-nigh 2,500 chapters. In the preface he explained that he wanted to touch on everything that the Greeks called tes enkykliou paideias, some 20,000 items that were unknown (ignota) or not reliably researched (incerta ingeniis facta). Pliny had therefore taken as his subject what today we would assign to different sciences: for example, to physics, astronomy, meteorology, geology, mineralogy, geography, ethnology, zoology, botany, anthropology, medicine, pharmacology and the agricultural sciences. Some topics were commented on several times; for instance, meteorology in the 2nd and 8th books, or zoology in the 8th to the 11th and in the 18th books. The order of the reports, drawn, as Pliny proudly noted, from some 2,000 books, remained unsystematic. This reflects a picture of the world in which diversity dominates over the successions of mythical eras (as in the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis).

With the spread of the Christian religion this picture was reinforced, in keeping with the creation story in the Book of Genesis, according to which God created all beings in six days and found them good. In short, everything has been there since then and could be ordered in a scala naturae, a chain of being. Such ideas still influenced the Baroque cabinets of wonder; there in accordance with the classifications of Casper Friedrich Neickel’s Museographia of 1727 consorted together Naturalia (stuffed animals, plants, minerals), Mirabilia, Scientifica and Artificialia. Although curiosities, monsters and apparently unique objects were collected and exhibited, the system aimed primarily at the encyclopaedic completeness later to be caricatured in stories of the production of a map on the scale of 1:1 (Jorge Luis Borges), in an Encyclopaedia of the Dead (Danilo Kiš), or expressed in the impossible desire of the British book collector Thomas Phillipps, which three years before his death in 1872 he formulated in a letter to Robert Curzon: “I buy printed books because I would like to have a copy of every book in the world!!!” The main work of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, published in Paris in 44 volumes between 1749 and 1804, still referred the discourse on the “époques de la nature” to the horizon of the royal cabinet of Naturalia, as his subtitle betrays: “avec la description du Cabinet du Roy”. The temporal ordering that was to gain Buffon the reputation of a precursor of the evolutionary theories of Larmarck and Darwin was shaped by Christian chronology: the creation lasted six and one days, and since the creation of man at most six thousand years have passed; based on the Jewish calendar Buffon even calculated the exact date of the creation of the world: 7 October 3761 BC, eight o’clock and eleven minutes. Even so, it was admitted that the dimensions of the biblical creation story could be expanded: for God, after all, a thousand years are as a single day.

Once there used to be no natural history. That is why Arthur O. Lovejoy, in the William James Lectures at Harvard in 1933, propounded the thesis, which he published three years later under the title of The Great Chain of Being, that perhaps the most significant epistemic rupture of the nineteenth century could be characterized as the “penetration of time into science”, as the temporalisation of the chain of being. Although the theologically prickly question of whether the convergence of what is possible and what is real restricted God’s creative freedom was already discussed in the High Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas had argued that, while God had indeed conceived of an infinite variety of possible things, he had not chosen to realize all of them, an answer that naturally exacerbated the problem of theodicy: if God had chosen freely, why did he choose the existence of evil (or at least deficiently good) existences, and so possibly foregone the realization of the infinite possibilities of the good? But it was only in the nineteenth century that the time of the history of the earth and of evolution extended ever deeper into the past, while the future became an unforeseeable project of technical progress and a gradual “education of mankind” (according to Lessing). Since then, not only has the (in comparison with the cosmic spheres of the ancients) boundlessly burgeoning space of the universe filled human consciousness with fear and terror, as Pascal and Nietzsche confessed, but also the extension of time.


The question of a Historia Naturae, posed by Jan Švankmajer in his nine-minute short film from 1967, is therefore by no means a trivial one. And his answer is exceedingly subtle: for it cites the history of the representation of nature before its real historisation in the nineteenth century; that is, precisely the visual worlds of the cabinets of wonder, the idealizing of encyclopaedic fullness, the tableaux of early modern natural history; but it cites this iconography of nature so as to set it in motion by cinematographic means. The opening fames the usual credits with some of the allegorical portraits by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593). These portraits are proto-surrealist collages consisting of fruits, beasts and plants; they show the four seasons or the four elements. Specifically, on the left of the screen appears repeatedly the representation of air; on the right the portrait of water. Then a dedication is faded in: it is addressed to a contemporary of Arcimboldo, the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), who installed in Prague a significant cabinet of wonders. From 1575 to 1587 Arcimboldo was Rudolf II’s court painter before he was allowed to return to Milan; between 1590 and 1591 he painted the portrait of Rudolf that represents the facial features of the Emperor with the aid of flowers and fruits from all the seasons as Vertumnus, the Etruscan-Roman vegetation god of transformations.



Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Air (1566), private collection Basel

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Vertumnus (1590/91), Skoklosters Slott (Sweden)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Water (1566), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


The eight chapters of Historia Naturae are introduced by another pictorial quotation that invokes the context of the cabinets of wonder: namely the 1622 title engraving of Continuatio rariorum et aspectu dignorum varii generis quæ collegit et suis impensis æri ad vivum incidi curavit atque evulgavit by Basilius Besler (1561–1629), a Nuremberg apothecary who was curator of a botanical garden and cabinet of naturalia. The eight sections follow according to the scala naturae. It begins with the aquatic animals (Aquatilia): mussels, ammonites, crabs and crayfish are shown in rapid frame rates and with numerous zooms, and in several places the forms seem to shape a speaking mouth. The second chapter is devoted to the hexapods (Hexapoda): butterflies, beetles, bees and crickets, black-and-white and coloured illustrations, tableaux (in display cases) and close-ups alternating with one another. Not only media and historical differences are crossed, but also the boundaries between life and death: anatomical specimens  are animated into living animals; suddenly crickets walk in their glass cases before again going rigid. (By the way, a parallel cinematic machine with six legs of varying length, which allow for a great deal of mobility in all degrees of freedom, is also called a hexapod. This hexapod was invented in the 1950s; it is used mainly for flight simulations.)


Basilius Besler: title engraving of Continuatio rariorum (Nuremberg 1622)

The third chapter leads into the realm of fish (Pisces): fish watercolours, skeletons, fish eyes and scales in close-ups, fish specimens that circle – reminiscent of an aquarium – a skeleton in a glass case, and finally an animated skeleton that explodes this glass prison. The next chapter treats reptiles (Reptilia), living turtles, colourful turtle shells on the wall, snakes that, coiling incessantly, pass into skeletons, salamanders, lizards and frogs, and shortly before the end a living frog in a glass. The reptiles are followed by the birds (Aves): beginning with many-coloured eggs, a life-like stuffed dove on a table over which a cage (of varying sizes) is placed before the dove comes to life. We see early modern bird water colours, close-ups of birds’ eyes, feathers and wings and dancing bird skeletons in the cage; and finally a skeleton lays an egg, which cracks. The scala naturae then leads on to the mammals (Mammalia), to the tiger, restlessly and in greatly accelerated fast motion treading up and down his cage, to the zebra, the porcupine and the armadillo, again as stuffed animals and skeletons, before in the seventh chapter the apes (Simiae) perform a kind of dance in rapid alternation between diversely coloured illustrations and film shots of living members of their kind. In highly expressive frontal portraits they seem to make faces, to grin, to frighten; they swap fruits – and yet again mutate into skeletons. The last and eighth chapter treats – how could it be otherwise? – man (Homo). We see anatomical wall charts, folding pictures, engravings of the uterus, musclemen in the tradition of Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) and his De humani corporis fabrica (von 1543), wax models, close-ups of human eyes, ears and mouths.


Each chapter of Historia Naturae concludes with a short sequence: it shows a man who with a fork guides a cleanly cut piece of beef to his mouth, chews and swallows it. The chewing and swallowing noises are as loud as if they had been recorded from within the body. Only the final chapter on Homo presents a skull; it too eats meat. The message is easy to grasp: collectors, artists, emperors, historians and biologists remain in the end eating beings. The meat disappears in the close-up of the mouth, as before the flesh from the skeletons of snakes, fish, birds and apes; and even the dead want to eat. Recently the New York science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert published a disturbing book: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, (translated into German by Ulrike Bischoff under the title of Das sechste Sterben. Wie der Mensch Naturgeschichte schreibt). The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. In the prologue Kolbert writes: “No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable events have occurred. Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one. When it is still too early to say whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five, it becomes known as the Sixth Extinction”. [1] The wonder cabinet is a cemetery, a danse macabre of gorging.

How man writes natural history” (the subtitle of the German translation of Kolbert’s book): Jan Švankmajer has staged his Historia Naturae as suita. Each chapter is assigned a dance: the Aquatilia a foxtrot, the Hexapoda a bolero, the Pisces a blues, the Reptilia a tarantella, the Aves a tango, the Mammalia a minuet, the Simiae a polka and Homo a waltz. The composer of these dances is the Czech film composer Zdeněk Liška (1922–1983); he wrote music for more than 160 films and television productions, including The Shop on Main Street (by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965) and Shadows of a Hot Summer (by František Vláčil, 1977). Music is not of course a mere extra to Historia Naturae, as the intertitles of the Besler model already announce. It sets the temporality of the encyclopaedia in motion; it rhythmises the narrations of the collage. The objects and tableaux, formed by Švankmajer into pictorial lexica and showcases of fantastic zoology, mineralogy and anatomy, are translated into time lapses and actions. This is about historicising so as to make visible the temporalisation of the scala naturae (in Lovejoy’s sense), but also about forcing the “petrified relations”, as Marx wrote in the introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, to dance by “singing them their own melody”. In short, Švankmajer too wants to make the “petrified relations” of nature, as they appear in museums and collections, in display cabinets, stuff animals, panel paintings and artfully assembled skeletons, dance by singing to them their own melody.


Peter Greenaway: A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)

The artistic influence exercised by Jan Švankmajer’s films should not be underestimated. In 1984 the twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay succeeded in making Švankmajer’s work known to the Anglo-Saxon world; that year they produced their film The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer. One year later Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed & Two Noughts was released. The opening credits of this film begin, underscored by Michael Nyman’s memorable music, with two children dragging a reluctant Dalmatian to three glowing blue capital letters: ZOO. The view switches to a tiger cage. The tiger treads ceaselessly from one end of the cage to the other; on the floor lies the head of a zebra. On the right side of the screen sits a young man, who is measuring the tiger’s movements with a stopwatch. Braking and accident noises startle him. A car has rammed a red and white barrier. A woman screams while the left half of a windshield is filled by a swan, which evidently has collided with the car. At the same time in the right upper third of the picture we see an Esso advertising billboard emblazoned with the familiar slogan: “Put a tiger in your tank”. The next shot shows a photographer before the cage of a gorilla; the sounds of the frame counter, shown in close-up, are reminiscent of the stopwatch. The gorilla is crippled; he lacks a right hind leg. From the bird’s eye view we see again the unfortunate car, on which paramedics are now working with welding equipment; behind it we again recognise the capital letters “ZOO”. This film will revolve around letters and animals, around the strange encyclopaedic entanglement of animals with the alphabet, as we know it from children’s games in which a randomly selected letter must be associated with a city, a country or an animal: monkey, bear, chameleon, dolphin, donkey – on until whale, yak and zebra. Greenway’s film may be seen as a kind of commentary on Historia Naturae; it shares with it the love of wonder cabinets, of the diversity of representational media, of musically inspired stagings of museumed nature preserved in cages and display cases. In some ways it seems the Greenway, like Švankmajer, reaffirms Elias Canetti’s remark that “he thinks in animals as others think in concepts”.


Translated from the German by Jonathan Uhlaner


[1]  Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt & Company, 2014.


"Das Universum des Jan Švankmajer" - The Universe of Jan Svankmajer


Jan Svankmajer
Das Universum des Jan Svankmajer

Katalogdokumentation zur Ausstellung mit Fotos und Texten von Thomas Macho, Kurt Bracharz und einem Interview von Gerald Matt mit Jan Svankmajer.
Herausgeber Kunstraum Dornbirn
Deutsch/ Englisch, 122 Seiten
Verlag für Moderne Kunst, Wien
ISNB: 978-3-903004-73-6