In that his films commonly speak the language of the subconscious, Jan Svankmajer is widely considered a surrealist, but the Czech auteur’s films also intimate the chaos of political oppression. Milos Forman famously described Svankmajer as “Disney plus Buñuel,” but there’s a world of difference between the three: If surrealism were a supermarket, you might find Buñuel lobbing rocks at bourgeois ghouls in the caviar section, with Svankmajer hanging out near—or possibly beneath—organic produce; Disney, naturally, would be found in the frozen food aisle. The 14 shorts available in The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer are clearly the works of a man who had to live through no less than six different political regimes in his lifetime, and those that don’t explicitly (“The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia”) or implicitly (“The Flat”) tackle the history of Czech oppression still evoke a struggle for personal freedom. On the surface a heady ode to infinite possibilities, 1968’s “Et ceterea” blurs the roles between leader and lapdog. It’s a theme that continues in Svankmajer’s famous “Dimensions of Dialogue,” in which all possibilities are exhausted and all that remains is decay. The subversive power of these and other shorts lies in the way Svankmajer illuminates the effects of the Czech power system on the common people via grotesque visions of mundane rituals: Both “The Flat” and “Food” revolve around the inability to eat, one an allegory for political impotence, the other a metaphor for self-defeatism. (“Punch and Judy,” about two puppets whose masochistic ritual of submission and domination doesn’t phase a cute gerbil they bring into their room, may be about masturbation—or so the hands that frame the film and move the puppets would have us believe.) Because Svankmajer believes his comrades are shut in, it’s only natural that coffins, graves, cellars, cabinets, and other enclosed spaces figure so prominently in his work, but this is not to say that Svankmajer’s typically wordless shorts—a mind-boggling blend of live action, puppets, and stop-motion animation—are bleak. They’re also witty, perverse, and macabre, which is to say if you don’t accept them as political allegory, they can simply be enjoyed as straight-up Grand Guignols in the tradition of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Like Buñuel, Svankmajer was a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, and his gorgeously shot, people-less version of The Fall of the House of Usher from 1980, with its infinitely cavernous hallways and undulating masses of clay, possibly rivals Buñuel and Jean Epstein’s 1928 version in sheer force of erotic frustration and expressionistic will and reinvention.
Considering most of Svankmajer's films appear as if they've been rolled in infinite layers of dirt and clay before they reached the screen, the prints are as surprisingly clean as the Dolby Digital stereo sound.
On disc one, three stunning galleries (ceramics, drawings, and puppets) of Jan Svankmajer's artwork, a Little Otik trailer, a biographical sketch, a filmography, and the director's "Economical Suicide" poem. On disc two, more selected artwork divided into three sections (collages, cabinetry, and image lexicon), the same biographical sketch and filmography found on the first disc, Svankmajer's "In the Cellar" poem, and a really great 25-minute BBC documentary about the filmmaker titled "Animator of Prague," notable for film writer Michael O'Pray's dry but passionate contextualizations of Svankmajer's work, clips from shorts not included on this DVD set, and Svankmajer's own observations about his work and life in Czechoslovakia. A four-page insert features four poems by the director, an essay by Wendy Jackson Hall that I don't think was proofread, and inconsistent liner notes ("The Coffin Factory" is listed as "Punch and Judy"/"Rakvickama" on the equally messed-up chapter listing available on the DVD's back cover).
A given for Jan Svankmajer completists and a great place to begin for those unfamiliar with the director's work.