Jan Svankmajer
Picnic with Weissmann
Medium: short film
Year: 1968
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Keywords: animation
Country: Austria
Language: German
Format: 11 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063427/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 17 April 2013
It's Svankmajer being light and whimsical... until the punchline, of course. It also feels a bit Monty Python.
There's no dialogue, characters or plot, of course. As usual with Svankmajer's short films, it can tend to feel as if he's simply playing around with real-world objects and things that aren't normally animated. A shovel digs a hole, for instance. It's a real shovel and it digs a real hole by biting into the grass and earth underneath it. It simply does so by itself, through stop-motion animation. I don't know if anyone would do this these days, because CGI technology undermines Svankmajer's semi-Brechtian lack of a point by making it too easy.
However that said, the film does have a sort of narrative. We're having a picnic and the title suggests that we're enjoying it with Weissmann, but he's nowhere to be seen. Instead inanimate objects are having his fun for him. A phonograph winds itself up and plays 1920s music. Well, that's what it sounds like. It's in German and it's light and jolly. Every so often the records jump off the turntable, roll away and replace themselves. Meanwhile an incomplete chess set plays a game against itself, chairs throw around a ball and an empty set of clothes lies in the sun and eats plums.
All this is set outside, in a field that's been furnished like an Edwardian drawing room. There's a wardrobe with ancient photos pinned to it (with which Svankmajer has a minor fascination), three chairs, a desk and a lounge. That reminded me of Monty Python and I note that Svankmajer made this film only a year before the Pythons' debut in 1969. It's known that he influenced Terry Gilliam, for starters, although that said he was apparently almost unknown in the West until the early 1980s.
It's pleasant. I called it "whimsical" and Svankmajer does, uncharacteristically, manage to convey the sense of a lazy, relaxing afternoon doing nothing in the outdoors. Cards play themselves on the table, although they're no cards I recognise and perhaps nearer to Tarot than anything else. Furniture can run off to play, with chairs climbing up a gravel mound in order to roll down again, like children. There's a picture of a naked woman in a drawer, but it feels more like an antique curio than anything salacious. It's endearing, although I did start to wonder if there might not be something spooky about the absence of the eponymous, hypothetical Weissmann as his worldly possessions enjoyed themselves without him. That hole being dug struck me as a bit grave-like. The inflatable ball gets punctured and 'dies'. Plums get eaten by the empty suit and become stones, unless they're prunes. Everything that can be taken in the chess game disappears from the board, leaving only two kings moving around uselessly. Autumn comes and buries everything in superhuman quantities of leaves.
It's the Svankmajer circle of life again... and so in the end comes something that he's been building up to so carefully that it's almost an un-twist. Yup, thought so. That's pure Svankmajer, that is.
I liked it, obviously. It invites audience interpretation and it manages to convey his usual bleak, idiosyncratic themes while also being light and fun. Besides, by being about playful furniture, it's like an anti-matter universe Disney. You'd struggle if this were 90 minutes long, but eleven minutes is just right and it's always worth seeing what Svankmajer's going to animate next. Eccentric, unique and so short that you could watch it while you're waiting for the kettle to boil. You can't lose, can you?