Jan Svankmajer
The Garden
Also known as: Zahrada
Medium: short film
Year: 1968
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Writer: Ivan Kraus, Jan Svankmajer
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 17 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063833/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 13 May 2013
It's a Svankmajer short film, but unusually it's neither animated nor written by him. Instead it's by someone called Ivan Kraus, but it's most definitely surreal.
The two main characters are Jiri Halek and Ludek Kopriva, to whom we're introduced as they urinate in a tin hat. (There's nothing particularly remarkable about this. It was either that or to go behind a tree.) Then they drive off, discussing rabbits. They're normal. It's in a contemporary setting. Nothing weird or attention-grabbing about it, unless you count Svankmajer's characteristic fondness for extreme close-ups of things like Halek blowing his nose and taking his medicine.
They get to Halek's house, where he shows Kopriva his garden, his rabbits and his wife (Mila Myslikova). He's an ordinary bloke, except for the fact that his garden fence is a human chain. They just stand there, gazing out wordlessly. They don't move, except when Halek is acting as if he's opening a gate in this 'fence'. He removes a padlock and everything. Recently one died, although we don't know what killed him.
This is pointless and disturbing, obviously, looking like slavery for the sake of exerting meaningless power over others. What's more, though, Halek hardly even notices them. They're like furniture. Kopriva has to bring them up repeatedly in conversation before Halek will shut up about other domestic stuff.
It's freaky. It's also a brilliant metaphor for almost anything you want it to be. You can see Czechoslovakian communism, if you want. That's the context in which Svankmajer made this film and it's a powerful lens through which to examine what he's saying, but the film he's made is disorientating and extreme enough that it could probably speak to anyone, in any country and any historical period. Any culture with mindless, faintly sinister pressure to conform. Any culture where some people or social groups are exploited or otherwise treated as less than human. Any culture where a few words whispered in someone's ear could make them do something incomprehensible, because of pressures that are here left unsaid. Fear? Threats to loved ones? Financial reward? Watching for alien invaders? Are they protesting in silent vigil against something? We never learn, which is half of what makes it so powerful.
It's also stronger for being live-action. I'm a fan of animation, but the whole point of this garden fence is that it's made of real people. It wouldn't have had the same impact had it just been animation, instead of extras standing in someone's garden.
It's a simple piece, but it's mad. The Fence People are silent, but Svankmajer never lets us forget their humanity. Sometimes two of them will be holding hands. One's pregnant. It's a brilliant image of paranoia, yet you don't know what you're meant to be paranoid about. It's one of Svankmajer's most powerful short films, I think.