Who is Jan Svankmajer? [And What's With His Claim That We're All a Bit Sadistic?]

This post is the EIGHTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

In August 2016, I had the opportunity to interview Czech animation king and Surrealist film director Jan Svankmajer at his summer house outside Prague. The questions stemmed from a Masters thesis that I wrote on Svankmajer’s work in 2012 (available here). Enjoy his thoughtful answers, below.

Jan Svankmajer in his study, August 2016.

Jan Svankmajer in his study, August 2016.

1. Do you believe that childhood is malevolent?

I do not think that childhood is malevolent, though it could be said that childhood is “cruel”—at least from the adults’ point of view. Children stand outside of “good and evil.” They have not been domesticated yet. Unaware of morality or its lack, they are innocent—even as they tear the wings off of flies.

2. What is special about children that makes them more sensitive to magic, surrealism, terror, imagination, etc.?

Neurologists have determined that mankind’s instincts—the lizard brain—have not changed much since the Neolithic Age. Despite the pragmatism and rationality of civilized life, man’s tendency is toward the irrational (even the magical). There is no ‘homo economicus;’ rather, civilization is at odds with human nature, and that is why it cannot end well. Evolution occurs too slowly for people to keep up with civilization as it changes. The preschool-aged child is protected from this contradiction. Just as children are exempt from morality, so, too, are they immune to those habits of civilization like logic (the principle of reality). They live by the principle of pleasure—which has its source in the imagination.

3. How do you think the intrauterine (prenatal) experience influences the people we become?

Surrealism concerns itself with mental morphology, or how the preschool-aged child’s milieu/surroundings influence the formation of his interior life. As Freudians, Surrealists place the greatest importance on the first three years of life, and much less on the intrauterine experience. That said, I do not want to claim that the prenatal experience has no influence—but I am afraid we would be veering too much into the realm of speculation. Who could retain any relevant memories from the prenatal state?
A Surrealist sculpture by Jan Svankmajer.

A Surrealist sculpture by Jan Svankmajer.

4. What color is your imagination?

Brown—puzzuola to be more precise. When I was five, my family (my father, mother, and two older sisters) moved to Vrsovice (a district in Prague). One of my earliest memories is of painting the kitchen floor brown in my family’s new house. I’ve never forgotten it.

5. From where do sexual fetishes originate? Phobias?

According to Freud, fetishes and phobias arise during the pre-genital phase of psychosexual development—probably in the sadistic-anal phase. Phobias are therefore relics of childhood. They are rationally unsuppressable, because having once accepted them emotionally, phobias and fetishes live in our emotional cores. For the same reason, they are the strongest sources of individual creative output.

6. What are your dreams like?

Colorful and usually related to persecution. I was growing up at the time of World War II, during the German occupation. At night I used to be haunted by recurring dreams in which I was being chased by soldiers and I had to escape through gardens and yards in a block of houses. (I reference those dreams in my film Surviving Life—and they still come back in different variations.)
The Sedlec Ossuary, which inspired one of Jan Svankmajer's short films.

The Sedlec Ossuary, which inspired one of Jan Svankmajer's short films.

7. In what ways are men manipulated like puppets?

When I compare people to puppets controlled via wires and strings, of course I mean it metaphorically/symbolically. In reality, those wires or strings can be, for example, advertisements, populist politicians, religion, mass media, laws, the police, etc. Civilization is based on manipulation. How else would the minority be successful in controlling the majority? We live in a manipulated democracy—as Noam Chomsky remarked.

8. What value is there in isolating objects from their original contexts (e.g. feet dancing by themselves?)

Comte de Lautréamont, the predecessor of Surrealists, wrote this sentence: “As beautiful as the meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Real poetry begins when we take reality out of its natural surroundings and put it into an inadequate context. Only then does it excel in its forced/constrained/unnatural beauty, which Surrealists love so much.

9. How are fear, dream, and eroticism related?

Fear, dream, eroticism—and I would also add childhood—are our imaginative values. They are the most significant and the most intense sources of imaginative (magical) creation/output.

10. Why the emphasis on the tactile in an audio-visual medium?

Sight and hearing have been ‘spoiled’ by an audio-visual-heavy society. I think that just the ‘primitivistic’ touch could bring some fresh authenticity to creation.
Meeting my animation idol, Jan Svankmajer, August 2016.

Meeting my animation idol, Jan Svankmajer, August 2016.

11. Are we all a little bit sadistic? Narcissistic? Masochistic?

Yes, we are. At least Freud says so. According to him, as children we are poly-perverted, and remain so to a certain extent into adulthood—some people more, some people less.

12. How do you feel about technology?

Even though computer animation made new techniques possible in animated films, I still have objections to it and whenever possible I do not use it. I miss the tactile dimension that gets lost in digital animation. Computers works in ‘non touched’ reality, which I believe deprives animation of one important emotional level.

13. Can you pinpoint the loss of your childhood innocence?

I cannot, because I view my childhood as not being over yet. I consider it to be an unfinished chapter of my life. I am infantile. I have never closed the door on my childhood and I am still having a dialogue with it. I do not understand how I can be getting away with it in this civilization of adults.