Švankmajer at the Barbican

I went, very briefly, to London last week to see a veritable hero of mine, Czech film legend Jan Švankmajer. The Barbican held a screening of Švankmajer's first, and perhaps most widely known, feature film Alice followed by a detailed question and answer session hosted by writer Peter Hames. The digitally restored version of Alice was a joy to see on the big screen and was all the more enjoyable when surrounded by an audience of obvious fans of the director.

Alice (1988) Dir. Jan Švankmajer. © First Run Features

Alice has always been a film close to my heart for various reasons. I saw the film at a fairly early age and I remember it having a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything like it, either visually or aurally or as a total filmic experience. On first viewing as a youngster I'm not sure I particularly liked the brutal, visceral world presented, or understood the subtleties of Švankmajer's vision, nonetheless I never forgot the images or the experience of watching the film. One thing I did take away was a seed of motivation; this notion of 'I could do that'; not in an arrogant sense but in the same way that Quentin Blake's lively illustrations are not intimidating to children as they have a familiar purposeful and excited approach. Alice was filmmaking on a more suggestive and non-literal level, a hand-made feel, rough around the edges and yet full of spirit and energy. On watching the film again recently after countless other viewings it struck me just how humorous it is; from the abrupt close-up dialogue of the main character to the movement and physicality of the supporting puppets, the whole film has a real whimsy to it.

The man himself on stage with Peter Hames and translator

Seeing Švankmajer talk in person was brilliant. He was everything you could have wanted him to be; understated, reserved yet animated when talking passionately about his themes and ideals, respectfully casting aside any intellectual allusions often read into his work. He spoke about the restrictions of making films in Czechoslovakia in the eighties, about how the claustrophobic visual style of Alice came about through circumstances and constraints as opposed to any major artistic vision. When he made Alice the Czech authorities ran all of the film studios in the country and none of them were interested in making this film with him. The money to get the project made came from all over; Switzerland, Germany and the UK in the form of Channel 4. The whole thing was made on the sly, behind closed doors in Švankmajer's studio which was an old bake house in Prague.

I was particularly interested to hear about his motivations as a filmmaker and what kept him still making work, what he felt his films were about and why he had a desire to tell these stories and make these statements. He talked about how freedom was the only issue worth still making art about and I remembered a statement I'd read recently in an interview with Peter Greenaway, another director I really admire, in this interview for the Guardian. He spoke about how sex and death were the only things left for him to make work about; the very beginning and the very end. I find it fascinating to hear what continues to motivate filmmakers who have been making work over several decades. Švankmajer made a poignant statement when asked why his work still focuses on the regimes that dominated Czechoslovakia during his time. He said communism and fascism were abscesses on human society and the atrocities committed up until the Velvet Revolution were so terrible that he had to continue making work about these subjects.

A bit of a fuss driving through rush hour traffic in London but worthwhile for an inspiring evening. Check out the other events in the season on the barbican site.