The Kunstkamera is a film by the famous Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer about his own home filled with oddities.  And an important manifesto about the principles of beauty

The Kunstkamera is a film by the famous Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer about his own home filled with oddities. And an important manifesto about the principles of beauty


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Film critic Anton Dolin talks about the new work of the Czech director Jan Svankmajer “Kunstkamera”. Without dialogue or commentary, the 87-year-old classic shows in this picture his own castle, filled with installations, paintings, puppets, statues and other oddities. Ultimately, we have before us a manifesto film about what beauty can be.

The film, which 87-year-old classic of Czech surrealism Jan Švankmajer calls his last, was first presented to the public in the appropriate place – at a small, seemingly hidden festival in the Czech town of Uherske Hradiste. An extended director’s cut is expected to be presented this fall at the Jihlava Documentary Film Festival. But even the current version makes a grandiose impression. First of all, to connoisseurs and admirers of the unique director’s work, who are waiting for each of his next works as a revelation. But even those who are not yet familiar with Shvankmaier will not soon forget watching the Kunstkamera.

The initial data is very simple. For many years, Shvankmajer, together with his wife and colleague, the late artist Eva Shvankmajerova, collected a unique collection of works of art and artifacts in his castle house in the town of Horni Stankov. This amazing place has never been a museum open to the public. The living space is intricately and organically intertwined with the exhibition space, forming an indissoluble unity.

That is why Švankmajer and his long-term partner at the Atanor studio, Jaromir Kallista, decided to turn the collection into a non-dialogue film – documentary and fantasy at the same time. Before us is the laboratory of an animator-warlock and cinematographer-alchemist.

This is not quite a metaphor or exaggeration. From the very beginning of his career in the 1960s, Shvankmeier has been distinguished by the seriousness of his intentions and serious radicalism in the study of the human subconscious – and those paradoxical exits to mystical knowledge that can be found in these depths. He experienced a ban on the profession, but this did not change him and did not incline him to the political conjuncture. On the topic of totalitarianism, Shvankmaier spoke exhaustively only once, in The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia in 1990, and again turned to archetypes.

Dissecting myths (“The Faust Lesson”, 1994) and fairy tales (“Alice”, 1987, and “Log”, 2000), referring to the legacy of the Marquis de Sade (“Conspirators of Delights”, 1996, “Madness”, 2005), Freud ( “Outlive Yourself”, 2010), Kafka and Czapek (“Insects”, 2018), the director does not change himself. Combining feature films with animation, sculpture, painting, collage and installation techniques in original films, he presents his misanthropic and bewilderingly honest view of the world order to the audience with unfailing frankness.

The Kunstkamera is a wordless encyclopedia of the endlessly rich, eclectic and at the same time absolutely integral universe of Shvankmayer, its inner landscape, presented with all possible scrupulousness. Like any good museum, its house is carefully designed according to a curatorial program that has found room for eccentrics and eccentrics of all time.

Here are engravings by Durer and Callo, animated images of Brueghel, multi-piece portraits of Arcimboldo, travesty rethinking of Botticelli. Copies or originals? It does not matter, for the collector of oddities this question does not matter. Next to what looks like masterpieces, through one montage gluing, there are countless works of anonymous people who are close in spirit and philosophy: pornographic porcelain from somewhere in the East, dances of death are clearly from gallant agedrawings and paintings of eccentric imitators who considered themselves geniuses.

Naturally, the own works of Shvankmayer and his wife are integrated here – crazy and bewitching sculptures, installations, paintings. Some refer to specific films: shabby puppets – devils and angels – are reminiscent of Faust, creepy baby dolls – of Alice. So this is the author’s encyclopedia of the director, simply organized not alphabetically, but mysteriously poetic. Labels and signatures are not expected here.

Geographical, cultural, stylistic and historical boundaries Shvankmayer fundamentally does not recognize – his postmodern democracy is organically intertwined with the pre-scientific illegibility of the compilers of the first cabinets of curiosities, who did not distinguish between works of art and natural curiosities.

But, of course, it does not follow from this that we have before us only a colorful tour of the creative universe of an original artist. The Kunstkamera draws on a manifesto, even though it is purely visual: the surrealistic principle of beauty as an accidental meeting of an umbrella with a sewing machine on an autopsy table becomes for Schvankmaier a practical method for protecting creative freedom – a kind of absolute in his coordinate system.

The pandemic has accustomed the world to virtual trips to museums in the format of video tours. Resorting to this service, we were aware of its imperfection: after all, seeing with our own eyes is not the same as following the operator, looking through the window of the screen. In a strange, but also logical way, in the surrealist system of Shvankmayer, who does not separate the copy from the original, the film about the Kunstkamera becomes something no less than the museum itself, but more. Indeed, to the very set of curiosities, he adds montage and the author’s rhythm created with his help, in the full sense of the word musical. Here the main co-author of the director is Antonio Vivaldi, whose concerts, sometimes intricately prepared, accompany visitors from the first exhibit to the last.

The tour also includes unexpected “magic” effects of self-opening doors and footsteps sounding behind the scenes, reminding that Shvankmayer is not just a director, but an animator. And finally, dog bowls, an unmade bed, a kitchen, the author’s bedside table or his slippers. He is not a caretaker here, but a demiurge, although he did not appear in the frame: he created this world and lives in it. This means that his spirit blows here as he pleases, and, I want to believe, will not disappear even after the death of Shvankmayer. The haunted house museum is a fantasy very much in his spirit.

Švankmajer’s previous film

Anton Dolin


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