Jan Svankmajer
The Ossuary
Medium: short film
Year: 1970
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 10 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065947
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 25 October 2013
It's a documentary short, commissioned from Jan Svankmajer about the Sedlec Ossuary.
Firstly, what's an ossuary? Answer: it's the final resting place of lots and lots of human skeletal remains. If you've got too many corpses to bury and you can't be bothered to cremate them, then you might chuck all the bones and skulls in an ossuary. In Persia, the Zoroastrians used a deep well. It's traditional in the Eastern Orthodox Church and there are also famous ossuaries in Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain. France created one for the soldiers who died at the Battle of Verdun in World War I.
The Sedlec Ossuary is another famous one, in the Czech Republic. It's a small Roman Catholic chapel that contains the bones of between forty and seventy thousand people. What's more, these have been artistically arranged. It has bone furnishings and bone decorations, including a chandelier that contains at least one of every bone in the human body. There are garlands of skulls. It's unbelievable. It's also one of the Czech Republic's most visited tourist attractions.
It's pure Svankmajer and he doesn't have to lift a finger. He just needs to point his camera at it. It's as if, centuries ago, reality was infected by a Svankmajer virus.
That said, it's a simple film. Look, bones! More bones. Also skulls. Continue for ten minutes, then that's your lot. Svankmajer edits it energetically, but it's still ten minutes of still images if you don't count the snails. It works and I think it would be amazing to visit, but I think its length is about right.
However the film has two soundtracks. The first is the one that was censored by the Communist authorities, which is a recording of an actual tourist guide talking about the ossuary. (She says she's just a stand-in, though. "I'm not a guide. I'm just filling in.") She says interesting things about its history and she tells off children who touch the bones, because they've had a problem with people writing graffiti on the skulls. Svankmajer shows us this too, of course. I like this spoken soundtrack, but the authorities thought it was subversive. Eh? By implication it's comparing the tawdry modern world with the gothic magnificence of this ancient place, but otherwise I can't detect much in the way of political content. Svankmajer's replacement soundtrack was inappropriately upbeat music by Zdenek Lisha.
In short, this is a showcase for the Sedlec Ossuary rather than Svankmajer. That doesn't make it bad, though. On the contrary, it's freaky. I liked it.
"Step right up here to the tomb and notice how beautiful it is."