15 February 2004

Jan Svankmajer, Faust, and Surrealism

I've wanted to see some of Jan Svankmajer's films for a while now, since I have liked the bizarre works of the Brothers Quay, who claim him as an influence. But I live in rural New Hampshire, and the video rental places around me don't have many international films. Finally, I joined Netflix, and one of the first DVDs I rented was Svankmajer's Faust. (Why start with that and not another? Because I find the Faust story to be filled with possibilities and was curious what Svankmajer would do with it.)

Svankmajer's Faust is a magnificent film, one which mixes live action with claymation and human actors with marionettes (sometimes even human actors inside marionettes). There are many elements of the film I could praise, from the remarkable lack of dialogue in the beginning scenes to the brilliant and disturbing imaginative vision of it all, but what most held my thoughts after seeing the film was the way Svankmajer uses techniques of surrealism to explore the contours of reality.

Svankmajer has said:
There's a lot of misunderstanding about surrealism. People still see it through the prism of certain works of art, by Dali for example; they look at it superficially in terms of aesthetics. But there is no surrealist aesthetics; it's a psychology, a view of the world, which poses new questions about freedom, eroticism, the subconscious, and which attracts a certain sort of people -- subversive types. It offers an alternative to the ideology offered by most modern societies, and it's a great adventure; it's tried to return art, which has become representational, aesthetic, commercial, to its level of magic ritual. And that's why I consider myself a surrealist. If art has any purpose, I think it's to liberate... both the artist and the spectator. And if it doesn't liberate, it's just a commodity, an aesthetic game.
Surrealism can be a kind of art-for-art's-sake, but it doesn't need to be, nor is it necessarily at its strongest when it is. For me, surrealism is more interesting when it is used in an epistemological way, when it becomes a lens through which to accumulate knowledge and understanding of reality, which is itself too vast to be known or described by the reductive techniques of any art which calls itself "realism".

What Svankmajer does is meld realism and surrealism. The first half or so of the film has odd, surrealistic events happen within a realistic context, the context of late twentieth century Prague. The response of the protagonist, however, is distinctly unrealistic: he is intrigued by such things as fruit rotting suddenly before his eyes, but he takes it in stride. Opening an empty egg (which he discovered in a loaf of bread) brings on night and a storm, an event which would cause the protagonists of many stories to fall to the floor in abject terror. Not our everyman Faust. He turns on a light. Similarly, he wanders through the city, following obscure clues, until he finds himself in a theatre, where he laconically puts on a costume and make-up and wanders toward the stage. Why does he do this? How does he know what is expected of him? What, in the words of die-hard Method actors, is his motivation? We don't know, nor will it ever be openly explained to us.

As the film progresses, it gets stranger and stranger, veering for a while into scenes of pure surrealism, mixing moments on stage with moments in realistic settings where marionettes run free of their puppet masters and the head of Mephisto builds itself from clay into an image of Faust's own face. In the end, Faust returns to the starkest sort of realism with Faust getting hit by a car while running across the street. Some filmmakers would have ended here, letting us see that perhaps the character was deluded or insane, that he couldn't escape reality. This was my first impression, but it only lasted seconds, because an old man who had been part of some of the more surrealistic scenes then entered and, in a moment which exquisitely reminds us of an earlier scene, runs off with Faust's severed leg. And when the police open the driver's side door, they discover the car has no driver.

Svankmar's story has political resonances, which he has pointed out:
There's no great difference between a totalitarian system, which we lived through in the '70s and '80s, and a capitalist society. The manipulations are the same, it's just the methods that differ. So the film is about the degradations of our time, and Faust is manipulated like a puppet.
Here, Svankmajer shows that his surrealism is one which functions similarly to allegory and parable -- it's a different approach to the actual experiences of life. It is not mimetic, but rather expressive, in that it expresses what it feels like to live in certain situations and environments, and it uses fantastic elements to explore the ambiguous and complex forces which play on people, cultures, political structures, and even physical landscapes. By using suggestive imagery it achieves more than it would through didactic statement, because it allows multiple layers of meanings, offers no clear interpretation, and lets viewers apply the imagery to their perception of reality without dictating how they must do so. Even though, in the end, Faust becomes more and more of a puppet, Svankmajer does not provide us with any clear (allegorical) explanation of who the puppet masters are. By providing images, situations, and characters without naming the particulars controlling and motivating those images, situations, and characters, Svankmajer creates art rather than simplistic agitprop.

What this oh-so-serious discussion has neglected to express, though, is that watching Faust is not only thought-provoking, but it is fun, it is pleasurable. (Gross and even frightening at some points, but that just adds to the pleasure.) You could watch the film without any knowledge of the last thirty years or so of Eastern European history, and you would still find much of the imagery breathtaking, and, if you were of such a bent, you might even relate it to whatever reality you know.

Some viewers, I'm sure, find Svankmajer's work all too imaginative, his images too free of explanation or realistic motivation, his narrative too obscure, and they aren't able to enjoy the film purely for its visual qualities because they don't find pleasure in anything which eschews cause and effect, narrative tension, etc. That's not a perspective which can be argued with -- we like what we like -- but for those of us who do not require a tight plot and "psychologically rich" characters in the works we read and view, Faust is a treasure trove. I can't wait to work my way through Svankmajer's other films -- if they are of the visual, intellectual, and artistic richness of Faust, I will welcome them into the little corner of the universe I call my own reality.