Jan Svankmajer
Down to the Cellar
Medium: short film
Year: 1983
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Writer: Jan Svankmajer, Josef Kolber
Keywords: animation
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 15 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085448
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 13 November 2013
It's another Jan Svankmajer short film and it's a bit like a fairy tale. You know, the twisted originals from centuries ago. Show it to your children if you want to freak them out of their minds.
It has actors, but they never speak. (Another child-friendly point: no subtitles to read.) A little girl (Monika Belo-Cabanova) is going downstairs. She reminded me slightly of Red Riding Hood, with a basket and quite a lot of red in her outfit, although that said her cardigan isn't red and she doesn't have a hood. Instead she has huge pigtails. She's the film's main character, but Svankmajer hasn't chosen a super-cute moppet and instead you could imagine her being scary in a horror movie.
She passes an old man and an old woman on the staircase. The latter's washing the steps. Belo-Cabanova inches past them and finds... THE CELLAR.
This isn't a cellar. It's a door into some kind of creepy otherworld and with hindsight this film looks almost like a dry run for Svankmajer's Alice five years later. It's dark, so Belo-Cabanova needs a torch. It's big. Inside it's like catacombs, or perhaps the maintenance tunnels for a sewer system. It has pipes and old brickwork. Our heroine goes in and finds weird stuff.
That's as far as I'll go with the plot summary. "Weird stuff" is Jan Svankmajer weird stuff, incidentally, which means stop-motion animation of mundane objects and a thematic interest in eating. The shoes are hungry and they fight. Deeply strange things are done with coal, but one of them is the making of coal cakes. The potatoes are all-important, obviously. There's also a cat, which feels like only a minor logical extension of Alice's pet cat Dinah in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and suggestive of what would have probably happened had Dinah been around when Alice drank from the bottle marked "DRINK ME". This feels mildly unusual for Svankmajer, incidentally, since he doesn't often have a protagonist who can be threatened like this.
And then there's the punchline. It's so simple and clear. A child could understand it, although they might also get the screaming heeby-jeebies at it. Belo-Cabanova's got to go back.
This one's a good introduction to Svankmajer, I think. It's a gateway drug, if you like. Even children could watch it, although there might be no way of knowing whether your particular child will have nightmares or go berserk with love for it. (Or both. Quite possibly both.) Anyway, it's freaky and utterly characteristic of Svankmajer, but it's also a straightforward narrative with a little girl as its main character. It's like a companion piece for his 1988 Alice, except more grounded in the real world and with other humans on-screen as well as the girl we're following. I liked this one a lot. It's nowhere near as impenetrable as much of his work, but it would be silly to pretend that only impenetrable things can be good.