Prague Sprung


The almost ubiquitous Prague surrealist Jan Svankmajer, well into his seventies now, may be the season’s secret man of the hour, with his new feature Lunacy having just opened in August and the appearance of this DVD omnibus, arranged to complement Kino’s “Collected Shorts” package. He was and remains a peerless provocateur, his signature experience being smashups of cultural re-exploration, sociosexual commentary, Czech puppet traditions, food used in ways it shouldn’t be, things that shouldn’t be food but are, dream frustration, and a crystalline faith in the obscure desire of objects. These nine heretofore ungathered shorts range from his aboriginal puppet-theater debut The Last Trick (1964) to 1989’s anatomical Claymation nightmare Darkness, Light, Darkness. Prime among the others are Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy in G Minor (1965), a Fantasia realignment that examines the decay of Prague’s architectural surfaces; The Garden (1968), an animation-free parable on collaborationism and one of the key films that got Svankmajer banned from filmmaking by the Czech authorities through most of the ’70s; and Manly Games (1988), a ripping satire of spectator sport and its audience. Also in the package is the rare dance on the grave of Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1979), which Svankmajer had begun as a paper doll rendition of the classic gothic story and then resumed, after his studio parole was over, as a quasi-mock-doc taking aim at deranged bureaucratic idiocy. Released simultaneously by Kino is Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness, a collection by a fellow Czech animator who has sluttishly bounced between styles and performed virtually every kind of frame-by-frame filmmaking. Still, The Club of the Laid-Off (1989) is a darkling treatment of human routine performed by decommissioned mannequins in a collapsed slum, and Krysar is a 1985 mini-feature version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin set in a fascinating woodcut-Caligari universe, and fueled by tireless visual invention.

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