The Ossuary and Other Tales: Jan Svankmajer


If you have a real interest in animation, sooner or later you need to make the acquaintance of the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, one of the last true surrealists working in the cinema. There are several DVDs collecting his short films, but this newest one, from a Brooklyn-based outfit called Kim Stim, may be the most rewarding. The title film is a 10-minute black-and-white documentary shot in Czechoslovakia’s forbidding Sedlec Monastery Ossuary, which contains the skeletal remains of some 40,000 people. Amazingly, the mountains of bones were sorted and rearranged as sculpture by a live-in artist at the end of the 19th Century. “The Ossuary” is not animated, but Svankmajer’s approach to the material includes graceful camera moves, surprising jump cuts, and an occasional rapid-fire montage that brings his subject to visual life. His great, wry humor is evident in another short, “Historia Naturae (Suita),” which illustrates the food chain in a series of vignettes, set to jazzy music, that involve anatomy and mastication. But the funniest, and most recognizably capital-S surreal short here has to be the clay-animated masterpiece “Darkness Light Darkness,” a comedy about the human body — the hand with eyeballs and the butterfly made of ears are only the beginning.

Originally published in the White Plains Times, October 13, 2006

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