In Little Otik, a town seemingly toys with a middle-class couple incapable of conceiving: Jan (Karel Horák) is judged by the cardboard cut-out of a pregnant woman; the streets are filled with women pushing baby carriages; and a grocer sells a newborn to an expectant mother after being pulled from a vat of water, wrapped in newspaper and placed into a shopping bag. The great Jan Svankmajer’s use of repetition evokes Jan’s burgeoning insanity. He stares out the window of a gynecologist’s office only to see his doppelganger waiting to purchase a child. Infertility madness erupts during Jan’s weekend trip to the country when he confuses a tree stump for a baby boy. Just when he learns to accept little Otik into the family, the wooden child develops a deadly appetite that challenges the love of his parents.
Young Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcová) is the precocious daughter of Jan and Bozena’s (Veronika Zilková) next door neighbors. She’s the more body-conscious cousin of Svankmajer’s Alice—she brings books on sexual dysfunction to the dinner table, lessoning her parents on Jan’s low sperm count. Her mother refuses to see the obvious when Alzbetka spots Mr. Zlábek’s (Zdenek Kozák) pedophiliac gaze (in classic Svankmajer stop-animation, the man’s button-fly pants unleash a roving penile arm). Alzbetka is the film’s all-seeing, all-knowing moral observer. She hoards food for Otik once Jan places the overgrown tree stump in the basement of their apartment complex. Svankmajer stunningly empowers Alzbetka by granting her full control of her sex, homing in on the girl’s maternal instincts—though she once feared Mr. Zlábek, now she uses her prepubescent body as bait.
Little Otik is a film about the maternal instinct, one that fascinatingly likens birth and growth processes to that which is mechanical. Svankmajer emphasizes the absence of human contact during a sex scene scored to the sounds of a saw and a television commercial that hawks an iron that purportedly operates under its own volition (Alzbetka’s frustrated mother is later seen damning her broken, man-operated iron). Alzbetka’s downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Stádlerová (Jaroslava Kretschmerová), plants cabbages in her backyard. Her relationship to soil is both a signifier for organic growth and a devilish metaphor for penetration (her finger scoops a hole in the ground where she dumps her cabbage seeds). Svankmajer also likens a glowing Bosena to the Virgin Mary (indeed, the film depicts an immaculate conception of sorts), who breastfeeds Otik just as Jan tries to take an ax to the wooden boy.
Alzbetka is hyper-conscious because she understands history even if she can’t own it. If Rosemary’s baby was the spawn of Satan, Svankmajer’s Otik bears a more convoluted birthright. Little Otik is at once the incarnation of Czech folklore (one known solely to Alzbetka) and a couple’s twisted wish fulfillment. Once mother and son make contact, it’s impossible for Jan to separate them. Bosena tends to Otik as if he were a real child: She gives him showers and powders his little wooden penis and anus. Otik may grant them social acceptance but they are oblivious to the monster’s mythic consequences. Jan realizes the existential implications of the mythic curse that inextricably ties him to the child. He mutters, “I have Otik. We have Otik.” Indeed, Otik isn’t a mere wooden child—it’s a condition, a legacy that accompanies paternal desperation.
However potent Little Otik may be at testing the limits of parental love, its the most deadpan piece of pop art this side of The Simpsons. Bosena is skeptical of Jan’s affection for Otik despite the man’s declarations of love (“When was the last time you varnished him?” she asks). Svankmajer is a fatalist in the strictest sense: Jan and Bosena’s black cat slithers into frame, portending its own doom (Otik turns the animal into snack food) and Alzbetka uses matches corresponding to the building’s occupants to determine who will be Otik’s next meal. Alzbetka is in constant struggle with the inevitable and cognizant of the powerful signs (cabbages, a hoe) that point to Mrs. Stádlerová‘s role as dragon-slayer. Little Otik‘s finale may is riveting. Svankmajer curtailing a young girl’s desperate need to rewrite folklore before it rewrites itself.