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‘Scenes From the Surreal’ (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 31, 1991

Czechoslovak filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, subject of a week-long retrospective at the Biograph, is a master of magical surrealism. Melding clay animation, live action and stop-animation techniques, Svankmajer constructs startling scenarios inspired by his childhood and his dreams. Childhood is where ideas and fears take shape, never to leave us; dreams are where they not only survive, but thrive. In Svankmajer's universe -- where surrealism is a matter of philosophy, not aesthetics -- that proves to be a very unsettling breeding ground of visions.

Take "Darkness Light Darkness," already seen here as part of the International Animation Festival. Like a god or Sam Cooke, Svankmajer constructs a man out of clay; actually, the man constructs himself in astonishingly inventive ways, all within the confines of a small room that gets smaller as the man fills out. Eventually, he is fully realized, but inelegantly trapped in the room. This seven-minute film, made last year, is a potent allegory of life in Eastern Europe and reflects a political commitment evident in all of Svankmajer's films, most particularly "Death of Stalinism." "Death" is a cathartic survey of Czechoslovakian history following World War II, 40 years of oppression and betrayal summarized in 10 minutes of dizzying images.

A third Svankjamer work is "Virile Games," a soccer match that Monty Python fans will especially enjoy. Using cutouts and clay figures, the filmmaker explores sports hooliganism by basing the score on the number of players killed. The players, who look very much like the one live fan watching them on television from behind a phalanx of beer bottles, are eliminated in ways that are at times funny, cruel and almost always absurdly violent (particularly when the game spills into the fan's living room).

Svankmajer is also the subject of a 30- minute BBC documentary that explains his roots in the '30s surrealist movement and his stature in the Prague cultural community, examines his startling technique and shows in unsparing detail the slaughter of a pig and its disenbowlment for effects in "Stalinism." Several other films are excerpted, including one, "Dimensions of Dialogue," that you'll want to see more of.

The Biograph anthology is capped by "The Way Things Go," an astonishing tribute to Rube Goldberg by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. This could well be the most exciting film of the summer, not because of special effects, but because of 30 minutes of continuous cause and effect. A suspended and unwinding trash bag sets a tire into motion and from there on, the filmmakers go chain-reaction crazy with fire, water, foam, popping corks, balloons, sparks, tires, balls, cylinders and enough examples of balance, gravity, momentum, inertia and chemical reactions to turn an unsuspecting viewer into a Mr. Wizard wannabe. The beautifully photographed film is all one take (though it looks as if there might have been a little cheating here and there) and the contraption reportedly measured more than 100 feet. In any case, there's more tension and suspense here than in any of Hollywood's summer blockbusters -- the fire effects are almost as good as "Backdraft's," but on a considerably smaller budget. You'll hold your breath more than once watching this slow dazzler, just waiting for the expected to happen, and then you'll realize that's just one more reaction created by the filmmakers. Maybe they could develop a road show?

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