Jan Svankmajer’s Genius Revealed in Documentary ‘Alchemical Furnace’

Will Tizard
·4-min read

The wondrous, sometimes bizarre work of the celebrated Czech animator and surrealist Jan Svankmajer has inspired admirers far and wide for two generations, from Terry Gilliam to the Brothers Quay. A new doc, “Alchemical Furnace,” about the maestro’s processes and inspirations played at the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival, made by two close colleagues of the 86-year-old artist.

Svankmajer, whose roots lie in the revolutionary Laterna Magika theater of the 60s, is studied around the world for his use of handheld 16mm cameras, a wood shop and freezers full of meat to create films such as 1988’s loose interpretation of the Lewis Carroll fairy-tale “Alice,” the 1996 tribute to carnal obsession “Conspirators of Pleasure” and the 2000 fairy-tale of an insatiable demon baby “Otesanek.” His last film, 2018’s “Insect,” casts a host of Czech stars in a theater production that becomes terminally infested.

Cinematographer and director Adam Olha and editor Jan Danhel share with Variety the insights they gleaned while filming “Alchemical Furnace.”

You chose the image of the athanor, an alchemist’s furnace used in the Middle Ages, for your film title. Can you talk a bit about why you felt that suits a film about Svankmajer?

Olha: Svankmajer created most of his work together with his wife Eva Svankmajerova and Jaromir Kallista, his producer. Their film company is called Athanor. We didn’t want to film a traditional portrait because for us the creative process of their collaboration was more interesting.

Danhel: The athanor is an alchemical furnace that allows – through imagination – the alchemist to meld opposites. In this case it breaks down the wildness of reality through imagination: The alchemist cannot leave his fire otherwise the Magnum Opus will fail.

Svankmajer is notoriously shy about interviews – how did you manage to get him on board for this film and did he place any conditions on you?

Olha: It came quite naturally as Jan Danhel and I were part of the team on his last feature film “Insects.” Jan has been always extremely collaborative and he gave us total freedom during the shoot, which took three years: He actually saw the film for the first time when it was already finished.

Danhel: We had to proceed by observing, as if we were approaching a wild and shy animal…otherwise we had absolute freedom.

What did you learn about his processes and inspirations in the course of filming?

Olha: That the creative process is more important than the “final artefact” and this is not just in filming but in whatever other discipline. I also learned that inspiration is a process of research rather than waiting for the appearance of an idea. And last but not least that during creation one shouldn’t be afraid of drawing inspiration from humble and unusual things.

Danhel: That his creativity doesn’t come from momentary ideas but rather springs from fears or obsessions, often linked to childhood. Thanks to those strong connections, once at work he can easily open up to improvisation.

Why do you think this man who’s never had much of a budget and makes every prop by hand has had such a global influence over so many animators?

Olha: Svankmajer’s filmmaking is deeply rooted in psychoanalysis and somehow his language is capable of drawing on our deepest obsession and this is what makes his work so universal.

Danhel: I think Svankmajer’s works has to do with surrealist thinking and he privileges the creative process over the final results of it. And this kind of thinking is like a river that runs throughout human culture and everybody can bathe in it.

Is Svankmajer a patron saint of all things Czech in some way?

Olha: Jan’s art has indeed being shaped in the Bohemian culture and so has his craft. Nevertheless I think that during his artistic life he built over this background a much wider universe.

Danhel: I think it isn’t connected to “Czechness” but rather to the animist experience. Also, inanimate objects that have been touched by the people can speak and he can reveal those stories through animation or through a significant detail.

Why do you think Svankmajer never gave in to digital technology? Does it have anything to do with his devotion to remaining child-like – so he can play with physical objects, stop-motion cameras…?

Olha: For Svankmajer, “animation” comes directly from “animism”: For him objects that have been touched possess a memory and this is what he calls “touched reality.” This material dimension is extremely important to him and of course CGI and other digital techniques are, in this sense, sterile.

Danhel: A shot on film stock is unique and cannot be made the same way twice and this limitation is actually an advantage. All collaborators have to focus on this unique act and this concentration of energy transforms a simple recording into a miracle.

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