Saturday, May 14, 2011


French Institute
May 11, 12 & 13

A rare public appearance by Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer at a screening of his films on Wednesday night was a sure sign that something special was in the offing. By the end of the evening it was clear what had drawn him out: a sophisticated synthesis of two art forms to create a riveting hybrid, an exploration of the filmmaker’s ideas and obsessions through music, movement, sound and imagery.

The core of the program was five short films by Švankmajer, ranging from lesser-known early works like Tichý týden v domě (A Quiet Week at Home) to popular pieces like Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue) and Tma, Světlo, Tma (Darkness, Light, Darkness, pictured above). French composer François Sarhan, a regular visitor to Prague and longtime Švankmajer fan, wrote what he calls a “philosophical frame” – incidental music for the films, and physical compositions linking them that employed text from Švankmajer’s “Decalogue,” his 10 rules for filmmaking.

Writing soundtrack music is not so interesting,” Sarhan said after the premiere performance. “My idea was to develop layers of music, text and sound, and use them in different positions and combinations, to create something new. The evening should be organic and didactic – in a Švankmajer way.”

That it was. A five-piece ensemble (two violins, bass clarinet, keyboard and percussion) played the incidental music, creating whimsical, eerie or absurdist atmospherics to match the visuals. The musicians also performed the decalogues, demanding physical works that called for them to pound their chests or slap each other while verbally slicing and dicing Švankmajer’s text.

Two sound effects artists added an air of hyperrealism to the films with live re-creations of grass scrunching, keys turning, doors opening and coins dropping. These were blended seamlessly with a variety of recorded sounds – traffic, birds singing, a vocal track during Možnosti dialogu.  

With the music embellishing and punctuating the parade of animated body parts, exploding food and clay couplings onscreen, the overall effect was mesmerizing. It was like an entirely new dimension had been added to the films, deepening and expanding Švankmajer’s ideas while preserving their integrity and his unique brand of surreal humor.

The program got better with successive performances, and there is talk of taking it to the Karlovy Vary film festival. It certainly deserves a larger audience. The caliber of the work is first-rate; even fans already familiar with Švankmajer’s work will find something fresh in it. And the performers were outstanding. “I was very impressed with them,” Sarhan said.

Congratulations are also in order for Didier Montaigné, the former director of the French Institute, who now runs the cultural atelier KAIROS, which produced Magnetic Fields. It’s the kind of arts event sadly lacking in Prague these days – inventive, intelligent and energizing. The common complaint is that there’s no money for original programming – which is true. But with a little imagination and a lot of hard work, it’s amazing what can be done.

For photos of the event (courtesy of Ondřej Melecký):

For more on François Sarhan:

And one of his physical compositions:

Tma, Světlo, Tma and other Švankmajer works on YouTube:

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