Jan Svankmajer
The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia
Medium: short film
Year: 1991
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Keywords: animation
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 10 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099386/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 20 November 2013
It's a Jan Svankmajer history lesson. Wow.
Firstly, some background. Bohemia's the old name of the Czech Republic, or today technically it's a region within it, of about 6 million people. Prague's in Bohemia.
As for the history, Svankmajer's covering 1945-1989, i.e. the post-War Communist takeover up to the Velvet Revolution. He was born in 1934 and he made this film in 1991, so it's basically his entire life from when he became a teenager.
Germany took Czechoslovakia in 1939, after what Czechs and Slovaks call the Munich Betrayal. They thought they had a military alliance with France and Britain. Svankmajer would have been five at the time. About 345,000 Czechoslovak citizens were killed or executed, while further hundreds of thousands went to prisons or concentration camps, or were used as forced labour.
After the war, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were popular, partly because of the Munich Betrayal (see above) and partly because of the Soviet role in liberating the country. They did well in the 1946 elections, but then, two years later, took power anyway in what they called a "revolution" and established Czechoslovakia as a Communist state. There was an attempt at liberalism in the 1960s, but it ended in Russian tanks on the streets. This lasted for over forty years, until eventually Gorbachev and glasnost allowed liberal democracy to return to Czechoslovakia with the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Svankmajer lived through all that. This film is what he thought about it.
We begin with the demolition of buildings and bullet holes being machine-gunned into a wall. It's 1945, with medals, old photos, newsreel footage and so on. There are plenty of real historical images in this film. Things swiftly get more metaphorical when a surgeon does a wash and scrub-up, puts on gloves, gets his scalpel and operates on a clay bust of Stalin. Scalpel right down the face. Open up the front of the skull. Up plop gory brains and innards, from which the surgeon pulls a smaller clay bust. (I think it's Klement Gottwald, the Stalinist who booted out all non-Communists from government, nationalised the country's industry, collectivised its farms and oversaw purges.)
The surgeon cuts an umbilical cord. He then smacks Gottwald around the back of the head and elicits baby squalls.
More history, more photos and footage. We then get a production line in which hands make men from clay and put them on a conveyor belt, to be carried up to a noose to be hanged. The corpses then fall into the clay bucket and sploodge into anonymity, ready to be made into further victims. This is done to jolly nationalist music.
More photos of the country's glorious leaders. A skull smashes through the photos.
We see the Prague Spring of 1968, illustrated by runaway rolling pins. More machine guns. A Stalin moustache grows under someone's nose. The music's quite fun. More photos, more history. Soviet gymnastic triumphs are intercut with engravings of 18th century obscenities. (Porn? Gang rape? Not sure.) Patriotic flags are painted on everything, e.g. old tyres, car parts and another bust of Stalin. Time for the surgeon to deliver another squalling baby!
What boggles me about this is that it's a co-production with the BBC. I approve wildly, but it's amazing to see Svankmajer making no concessions to a non-Czech audience. It's entirely visual and making most of its points through surreal allusions, so you'll be a bit stuffed if you don't know any Czech history. What I've just been through above should suffice, though.
In short, magnificent. It's not just commenting on history. It is history. Svankmajer had been attacking his country's dictators (among many other things) for his entire life... and at last it was over. Democracy had won. This is Svanmajer's verdict on nearly half a century.