Jan Svankmajer
The Castle of Otranto
Medium: short film
Year: 1977
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Original creator: Horace Walpole
Keywords: animation
Country: Czechoslovakia
Actor: Milos Fryba, Jaroslav Vozab
Language: Czech
Format: 15 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075817
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 25 October 2013
It's a Jan Svankmajer short film based on Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, but presented in a way that includes both a documentary-style interview and an animated reconstruction.
So, who's read Walpole's original novel? I haven't, I'm afraid, although I've been told that it's "short and, if you can handle the archaic language, quite fun." Horace Walpole was an interesting chap, though. Son of the first British Prime Minister, art historian, antiquarian and Whig politician. The Castle of Otranto is supposedly the first gothic novel, written in 1764 and trying to combine what Walpole saw as the "old romance" (i.e. supernatural nonsense) and the "new romance" (i.e. novels as we'd understand them).
Svankmajer's film starts with shots of a "typically Czech castle", which looked indistinguishable to me from a typical English one. Stone walls, ramparts, etc. It's a ruined castle, though. We're now introduced to two people: Milos Fryba and Jaroslav Vozab. Fryba is a TV interviewer, talking to a genial old academic (Vozab) with an unusual theory. He starts by observing that there was a real Don Juan (dubious) and that the Montagues and Capulets were real (I don't know about that, but this is Shakespeare we're talking about), then from this goes on to suggest that Walpole's novel was based on real events.
In fairness, it's possible that it was. In 1924, Montague Summers suggested that Manfred of Sicily (1258-1266) had been an inspiration for the plot. However that's not enough for Vozab, who thinks that the real town of Otranto, in Italy, isn't actually Otranto at all but instead a Czech town with a similar name. It's easy to laugh, but surprisingly Vozab comes across as a likeable, level-headed academic and he makes his case sound plausible. It's an attractive castle, anyway, and Vozab shows us interesting things he found there. I was happy to spend time with all that.
Interspersed with that is an animated rendition of the novel, in a style like Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartoons.
As a straight adaptation, it's unsuccessful. The plot seemed disjointed. The main thing I took away from it was an impressionistic mish-mash of pseudo-medieval plot beats and giants. The story includes Manfred, Conrad, Isabella, Hippolita, Theodore, Jerome (?), Theodore's father and no decent introduction for half of them. Who are they? What do they want? They're having sword fights, but why? I thought I understood what was going on at the beginning when Manfred was trying to force Isabella to marry him, but after that I lost track somewhat of the storyline.
This shouldn't be surprising. Svankmajer's compressing an entire gothic novel into half of a 15-minute film. Of course characters aren't going to get proper introductions! Svankmajer's just having fun with what I presume are actual illustrations from the book (or others of a similar vintage), cut out and coloured in. He's giving us a flavour. He's also keen to remind us that this is a book, so any dialogue is presented by having the camera pan down to show us what's written below the illustrations.
The supernatural stuff is the highlight of both the documentary and the animation. Svankmajer's take on Walpole's novel makes it look as if giants are wandering around Italy. Look at the helmet that falls from the sky to kill Conrad on his wedding day! It's as big as a cottage! (That's from the novel, apparently.) Look also at the monstrous legs we see on the other side of a door at one point (with their owner far too big to be visible), or the Knight of the Big Sword. The knight himself seems human. His sword, on the other hand, appears to be a missing leg of the Eiffel Tower. Little of this ends up having anything to do with the plot, which concerns normal-sized people, but it's freaky. Svankmajer also gets another chance to be gothic with the dungeon full of skulls.
As for the documentary, Fryba ends up calling Vozab on the novel's supernatural elements. Surely even he wouldn't try to claim that those are real? That's just Walpole spicing up his narrative with a bit of oogie-boogie, isn't it? Vozab's response is to get all Fortean, which eventually takes us to an outrageous visual gag that Svankmajer then deliberately undercuts in the closing credits by showing us the special effects he used to make it.
This isn't a particularly meaningful film. It doesn't have a social conscience and it's not saying anything angry about human society. Svankmajer's in a mellow mood. He's simply taking pleasure in his literary and historical game, with his sympathies clearly on the side of the fantasists and Forteans. It also feels like fairly conventional-looking animation, because quite a lot of other animators have done things like this (usually for budgetary reasons) whereas Svankmajer's often done animation of a kind that no one in their right mind would even consider. Its interest comes from the fact that he's animating 18th-century illustrations. It's a playful film. It's not one of Svankmajer's astonishing films, but it's light-hearted and amusing.