Barbican Film: ‘Watch Me Move’ Season – Jan Švankmajer’s ‘Surviving Life’

If you haven’t heard of Jan Švankmajer before, then your brain is in for an interesting experience. The Czech stop-motion legend seemingly won’t rest until he’s brought pretty much every inanimate object to life, from staplers and books to egg whisks and apples. For his 2010 feature Surviving Life, showing as part of The Barbican’s Watch Me Move’ season, he’s done it with humans.

Surviving Life was accompanied by the director’s 1983 short, Dimension of Dialogue, which is a perfect introduction to the director’s unique style. Crafting heads out of cabbages, cutlery and kitchen utensils, the 11 minute short brings them together in an attempt to represent conversation in society. Apparently, it consists of people eating each other’s faces and regurgitating them until everyone turns into mashed up pulp – you haven’t thought seriously about human interaction until you’ve seen a saucepan crushed to pieces by an onion.

Following that exhilarating piece, Surviving Life seems like a tamer project. But it’s just as radical with its surreal blend of live action and stop-motion.

The story of a man struggling to understand his dreams, it’s a psychoanalytical comedy. The director even tells us that in an introduction featuring an animated version of himself. He then adds that the film uses stop-motion people instead of conventional acting because he ran out of money, and that the comedy part of the film isn’t very funny. You suspect he’s wrong on both counts.

But that’s the kind of subversion you can expect from the world of Švankmajer, where women run around naked with their heads replaced by chickens and dreams feel more real than normal life. No wonder Eugene (Václav Helsus) wants to spend all his time sleeping instead of staying awake at home with his wife.

It helps that a mysterious woman (Klára Issová) meets him while he dreams, dressed all in red with flowers that occasionally burst from her hat. She’s called Elisa, she reveals, as they embrace, two coloured cutouts against the black and white scenery of Czechoslovakia’s streets. Switching between stop-motion photographs of the couple and close-ups of their actual faces, it’s an effect that’s as entertaining as it is bewildering. Things get even weirder when Eugene impregnates his dream woman and gives birth to himself as a baby.

Trying to find meaning to this enigmatic scenario, Eugene rushes to a psychoanalyst for advice. She isn’t much help either, preferring to straddle him on her couch and take her clothes off, rather than find the route of his condition. All the while, two framed pictures of Freud and Jung in her office look on and smirk, as their theories are constantly misunderstood – a wonderful device and an example of the director’s attention to background detail.

Unfortunately, Švankmajer also feels the need to provide answers to the events. Dragging the story out to offer some sense of closure, the eventual revelations about the man’s repressed memories take some of the shine off the glorious nonsense that the director’s pieced together – an irrational plot forced to fit a rational structure.

Narrative problems aside, though, the explosion of sheer imagination is astonishing, bringing to mind the work of Terry Gilliam during his Monty Python days (Gilliam has long recognised Švankmajer as an influence). Even at the age of 76, the Czech director’s eye for composition is striking. It’s enough to make you wish Gilliam were still working in stop-motion today.

A distinctive tableau of dreams and reality, Surviving Life loses its impact by bringing itself down to earth. But while its fancies are in full flight, this collage of people and photos is simply mesmerising stuff.

Ivan Radford