INTERVIEW: Cinematic Alchemist; Jan Svankmajer discusses "Little Otik"
by Daniel Steinhart
(indieWIRE/ 01.08.02) -- For nearly four decades, Jan Svankmajer has produced some of the most challenging images in world cinema. Using his signature blend of stop-motion animation and live action, the Czech surrealist continues to create supernatural cinemascapes of everyday objects come-to-life. In his latest film, "Little Otik" ("Otesánek"), Svankmajer transforms a backyard tree stump into an uncontrollable monster. A subversive, darkly comic satire, the film serves as proof that the director's imagination is as inventive and unpredictable as ever.
Based on a Czech folktale, "Little Otik" centers on an infertile couple who decide to adopt a tree stump as their child. Under their care, the chunk of wood, named Otik, comes to life and develops an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Hoping to starve him to death, the husband locks Otik in the basement. His plan is foiled by a little girl with an unnatural interest in sexual dysfunction who intervenes and nurtures the creature.
The reclusive 67-year-old Svankmajer corresponded with indieWIRE via email from his castle outside Prague. He discussed his obsession with cellars and food, his experiences with LSD and his reservations about computer animation. Zeitgeist Films will release "Little Otik" in select U.S. cities over the next several months.
indieWIRE: Why did you choose to adapt this particular folktale into a film?
Jan Svankmajer: Folk fairy tales are old myths retold. One of the very basic myths of this civilization is concealed in the story of "Little Otik": man's revolt against nature and the tragic dimension of this revolt. It's a theme that interests me. It's the Faustian theme, the theme of freedom.
iW: You've always been interested in conducting a dialogue with your childhood. How does "Little Otik" address those concerns?
Svankmajer: I conduct a dialogue through the obsessions I have been bearing since childhood, which are not possible to keep pent-up. Within the story there are at least two of these obsessions: the cellar and food, which further develop my mental morphology.
iW: Both the cellar and the pedophile in "Little Otik" are images that appeared in your short film "Down to the Cellar," though in slightly different forms. Why did you revisit these two threatening images?
Svankmajer: During my childhood, the cellar was one of the most terrifying places for me. Every time my mother asked me to fetch potatoes or coal from the cellar, my knees shook with fear. The fact that the threat was not explicit made it even more frightening. It's very similar to how children think of pedophiles. They are always being warned about them, but their parents are not capable or are unwilling to precisely explain what that danger is, but the child can sense it. He can see that the warning from his parents has an emotional background. Thus a pedophile becomes a phantom of his childhood.
iW: What role does food and eating play in your films?
Svankmajer: Food is another theme that comes from my childhood. I was a boy who suffered from a lack of appetite. I was forced to drink wine containing iron in order to increase my appetite and was also sent to camps for fattening people up. The ways people deal with food and eating can be quite good at reflecting our civilization.
iW: Do you use your work to confront your fears?
Svankmajer: My creative work is not didactic, nor is it an attempt to make the viewer a better person. Having said that, I think that creative work, including film, must be liberating. It must free the viewer. But how can you free the viewer unless your own creative work frees you first of all? Creative work has always been my self-therapy.
iW: Does the film reflect your experience with parenthood?
Svankmajer: It probably does to a limited extent, but it is not deliberate. "Little Otik" is, first of all, an imaginative film. It is not a realistic, psychological probe into social problems.
iW: Is this film a reaction to genetic cloning?
Svankmajer: "Little Otik" uses poetic images along with metaphor, metamorphosis, and symbolism. An image always has the possibility of having more meanings than a word. It requires interpretation, and the interpretation is wholly powerful. An imaginative film is not necessarily anchored in the particular time period in which it is expressed. This is the case with "Little Otik." The story for the film was created in the mid-1980s, a time when cloning was only present in sci-fi stories. Now it seems like a reaction to more contemporary issues. This is the advantage of any imaginative creative work; it always adds new layers of themes and interpretations.
iW: Do you have any interest in using computer animation?
Svankmajer: I have certain reservations about computer animation. It does not seem very realistic to me. What I mean is that objects of such virtual reality have never gone through the emotive experience of real life, thus they do not bear any marks of reality, of having been touched. And so they remain dead. They are not from this world; they only pretend to be. However, there is one four-second frame in "Little Otik" that was worked on with a computer.
iW: You recently began to speak about your drug experiments for the Czech military. Could you talk a little about what that experience was like for you?
Svankmajer: I extensively describe my experience with LSD in my diary -- extracts from it are on the "Little Otik" DVD. I wrote about it in the diary because when we started filming "Little Otik," I had rheumatic problems with my joints, which were treated at the same military hospital where the drug experiments took place. After having had such an experience with the experiments, I would only like to say that drugs may be a solution for people who lack imagination. I do not need them. I consider only the first stage of intoxication to have some imaginative value. The second stage, a paranoid depressive state, is something I do not want to go through again.
iW: Did the experiments have any effect on your work?
Svankmajer: The experience has had almost no effect on my work.
iW: Do you have any new projects that you are working on?
Svankmajer: Yes, I do. I have two projects. I finished writing a new script called "Madness" that combines live action and animation. It is freely based on motifs from the stories by E. A. Poe and from the philosophical works of Marquis de Sade. It will be a kind of philosophical horror film. Before that I will probably do a multimedia project called Stravinsky's "Petrushka." It will be staged as a piano concert by Michail Rudy of Stravinsky's ballet as the centerpiece. It will be a combination of live performance, animated and non-animated film, and stage action.