Jan Svankmajer
The Flat
Medium: short film
Year: 1968
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Keywords: animation
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 13 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062770/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 21 April 2013
It's Alice in Wonderland as a metaphor for the secret police in Czechoslovakia after the Soviets invaded in 1968. Or alternatively it might just be weird stuff about the universe playing pranks on a hapless guy for laughs.
Unusually for Svankmajer's short films, it's almost all live-action. He only uses occasional moments of animation, as our hero (Ivan Kraus) tries to do ordinary things in his flat. Kraus never acted in anything else as far as I can tell, but this is a shame and I enjoyed watching him. He has enormous eyes, like Dominique Pinon in Delicatessen, and he manages to seem human and sympathetic throughout even when saying nothing and existing only to be put through ever more cartoonish ordeals.
I likened these to Alice in Wonderland, which of course would be Svankmajer's first full-length film. It doesn't stay in that mode throughout, but there's a lot of Lewis Carroll in here. Inanimate objects give Kraus directions, for instance, albeit with chalk arrows on the floor rather than "drink me". A chair grows or shrinks at your inconvenience. Kraus's attempted dinner is about as functional as the Mad Hatter's tea party and even similarly has a mouse. The colander spoon, the indestructible egg... all these felt very Alice to me.
After a while, though, the film leaves behind any single source and turns into something that's darker and unmistakably Svankmajer. The impossible mirror is like live-action Escher, the antique nudie pin-up reminded me of Picnic with Weissmann and I was cringing a bit at the scary nails that make Kraus strip. Holes are knocked in things, often taking on exactly the shape that made them (e.g. the hand-shaped holes in the table) like a Looney Tunes cartoon. A wooden fist punches Kraus repeatedly in the face. Dogs eat Kraus's dinner, filmed in such extreme close-up that it's hard to see what's happening. Then there's the amazing bed.
Essentially, the universe is torturing our hero. Every time he tries to do anything, his surroundings attack his sanity. This is quite funny in a bleak, sadistic way. It's also cool, because it's always entertaining to see Svankmajer's twisted imagination on the loose.
That's what happens in the film. What was happening in real life of course in Czechoslovakia in 1968 involved the Soviet army, tanks and then afterwards interrogations by the secret police. These would involve disorientating the prisoner by putting him in a windowless cell in which the light was always on and the guards and interrogators would behave in bizarre, unpredictable ways to try to break him. Food would arrive randomly, questions would make no sense and eventually the prisoner would be forced to sign a confession that they may or may not have written themselves. Compare with what happens in this film, in which Kraus seems to be trying to escape from his surroundings and ends up attacking the walls with an axe to try to get out. His final action is to sign his name on a wall that already bears hundreds of signatures, while standing in front of something guillotine-shaped.
That said, the film's too whimsical and comedic to be disturbing, but it's still clearly going down a dark road even if you haven't noticed and/or are rejecting this possible subtext. It's entertaining and fun, but to some extent it's also showing us what a Loony Tunes cartoon might be like if its protagonist weren't a cartoon but instead a real person. (Well, sort of. Svankmajer could hardly be accused of realism here, despite the down-to-earth presentation of Everyman Kraus in his poor black-and-white surroundings.) Wacky, but bleak.