Jan Švankmajer • Director
“I like to open up the creative process to improvisation for as long as possible”
- Cineuropa talked to legendary Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer about misanthropy, censorship and his latest film, Insect, world-premiering at Rotterdam
Czech filmmaking legend and influential animator, Jan Švankmajer, returns to the International Film Festival Rotterdam to present the world premiere of his most recent film, Insect [+see also:
interview: Jan Švankmajer
film profile], which is also due to be his last. An amateur theatre company attempts to put on a performance of From the Life of Insects, serving as a pretext for “a witty, fantastical satire on theatre, film, dreams and everything that makes humans human.” Cineuropa talked to the director about Insect, misanthropy and the censorship that comes with capitalism.
Cineuropa: Why did you decide to use the play From the Life of the Insects by the Čapek brothers in your latest film, Insect? You also mentioned Franz Kafka in relation to the film...
Jan Švankmajer: I used the blueprint of the second act of their play, The Predators, to tell a story about amateur actors rehearsing a play. It’s not an adaptation of From the Life of the Insects. I mentioned Franz Kafka mainly in terms of grasping the film imaginatively, contrary to the allegorical image conjured up by the Čapek brothers. Metamorphosis occurs in the film when an actor embodies his or her character perfectly. I think the Čapek brothers’ juvenile misanthropy is usable. They were attacked by critics at the time because of it, and they re-wrote the ending under pressure, eventually opting for a more optimistic outcome. I play on their meagreness in the film.
You said From the Life of the Insects is a misanthropic play and that your script deepens said misanthropy. Does it directly relate to the allegory of humans as insects?
Misanthropy is still relevant to the evolution of mankind. The comparison of humans to insects wasn’t original when the Čapek brothers wrote the play, I’m afraid. The comparison is obvious enough.
Insect is a hybrid the, live-action, animation and film-about-film genres. Why did you decide to incorporate film-about-film?
It’s a film that uses aspects of the live-action, animation and film-about-film genres as a means of expression. Creating a certain subversive totality that demonstrates the state of civilisation. The film’s final form came to life in the editing room. I like to open up the creative process to improvisation for as long as possible. I also wrote the script itself in a similar fashion. The same way that automatic texts originate without any rationality or moral control. It’s only by using that technique that big artists avoid the messianic temptation to rectify, warn, improve or cultivate humanity. It’s a no-go. Read Freud.
You said that censorship during the Czechoslovak totalitarian regime led you to be more inventive and to think symbolically. How do you feel about working in a democratic regime with freedom of expression?
I prefer to view it as censorship forcing me to be inventive, express my feelings and protest covertly, and thus maybe also imaginatively. Many scripts never came to fruition anyway. It’s handy now. Insect was rejected for ideological reasons in the ‘70s. Of course, capitalism handles censorship fairly weakly in comparison to Stalinism. It doesn’t forbid you from doing anything, per se, it just prevents you from getting funding for your project. If you look at my filmography, you’ll see that we’re only making feature films every five or six years. That’s not because we’re artistically “impotent,” but rather because it takes five to six years to get financing for a new project. And it’s getting harder. Civilisation needs mass culture to entertain the masses before they’re shooed back into the production line. And advertising is necessary to push people towards greater consumerism. If advertising failed to function, and people stopped consuming unnecessary goods, civilisation would collapse. And we don’t want that combination.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.