Like The Last Trick
, it's a Jan Svankmajer short film in which two old-fashioned puppet characters do violence to each other for our entertainment. Apparently it's also been known as The Coffin Factory and The Lych House, if that gives you any idea. The characters are presumably Punch and Judy, although "Judy" is clearly male and I suspect (s)he might actually be Joey the Clown.
It's surreal and disturbing, obviously, but that goes without saying.
We begin with an opening sequence that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the film and is one of the creepiest things I've seen in ages. Six clockwork monkeys in 18th century outfits are playing music. They have glass eyes, or sometimes just empty sockets. Every so often they bare their skull-like teeth. After that, we see lots of cherubs in classical art. In front of this is a merry-go-round. If you think you can make sense of all this, you're a better man than me (and quite possibly kidding yourself).
Next, the story begins. Yes, I said "story". I was surprised too. The scene is set as we watch a puppeteer's hands donning two puppets, then Mr Punch appears on an old-fashioned puppet stage. This is all self-consciously traditional, with no attempt made to make the hand puppets look like anything but what they are. This is made doubly jarring by Mr Punch's pet. No, not the crocodile. It's a guinea pig. It's a living, breathing guinea pig. Mr Punch gives it food and the animal sits there placidly eating throughout the film, looking cute.
I can see what Svankmajer's doing here. It's another Brechtian trick, underlining the puppets' unreality by contrasting it with a real animal. However the very success of this backfires, because the guinea pig is a scene-stealer even when doing nothing (which is all the time). It's a live guinea pig! You spend more time watching it than you do the hand puppets.
By now, though, the Punch and Judy show has begun. To be honest, it's about right. It's on a par with the original. It's more gruesome than you'll be expecting, but anyone who wasn't expecting violence is clearly unfamiliar with the source material. Besides, I'm not sure that even Svankmajer goes quite as far as the real Punch and Judy used to. Consider Jack Ketch the hangman, who used to be a regular character and would arrive to give Mr Punch his richly earned punishment, only to be tricked into putting his head in his own noose. "The hanging" sometimes still gets performed these days if it's for an adult audience, but less often for the kiddies.
Svankmajer doesn't do that. There's no hangman. Instead we simply have Punch and Judy haggling over the guinea pig, which may or may not be an allegory for communism versus capitalism. After all, Czechoslovakia was a communist state even before the Soviet tanks rolled in in 1968. This bartering soon degenerates into frenzied attacks with wooden mallets, which end with Mr Punch dragging out a coffin, stuffing Judy into it and severing her hand in order to be able to close the lid.
He even lights candles on the coffin. This looks like some kind of religious and/or cultural tradition and I suspect that it might be another example of Svankmajer taking the blackly savage mickey.
However these puppets don't die easily. This may or may not be because they're puppets. It's not explained. The important thing is that every time a puppet climbs out of that coffin, the violence escalates. Other things to enjoy in this movie are a nail being hammered through the coffin like a stake through a vampire, which I thought was going to pierce Mr Punch's eyeball but instead just ended up impaling his head and protruding from the back of his skull. After that it gets still worse. Heads get split in two, pulverised and shot full of nails. Eventually both puppets 'die', whereupon the puppeteer's hands emerge (in stop-motion animation) and the guinea pig walks offstage (also stop-motion animation). Why should the two actual living elements in this film have been deliberately made to look so unnatural? Goodness knows. Ask Svankmajer.
All this is interspersed with random clips of animated archival newsprint and other shots that have nothing to do with anything. Oh, and this film also won the Josef von Sternberg Award at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, whatever that is.
It's mental. You could practically write a book on its subtext and it wouldn't really matter whether your interpretation was what Svankmajer had intended or not. The winner in the battle between (red) communist Punch and capitalist Judy is... the oblivious guinea pig. Much-loved traditions of puppetry for children are revived, only for terrible things to be done to them. I imagine children might enjoy this, but their parents wouldn't.