CaSFFA 2021 – Athanor: The Alchemical Furnace (2020)

Concluding my trawl through the Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia’s offerings for 2021 is Athanor: The Alchemical Furnace [Alchymická pec] (2020), a documentary about the Czech surrealist animator, filmmaker and artist Jan Švankmajer. I fell in love with Švankmajer as a filmmaker from my very first encounter with his work – Darkness/Light/Darkness [Tma/Svetlo/Tma] (1989) – part of a showcase of animation from around the world which aired in Australian cinemas around 1990. It wasn’t long before SBS devoted an episode of Eat Carpet (1989-2005), their weekly showcase for short films, to a wider selection of his work – an episode which I recorded on VHS and watched repeatedly, happy to take any excuse to share his work with others.

Although this isn’t the first time anybody has thought to make a documentary film about Švankmajer and his work, this is the most personal, having been made under the aegis of Švankmajer’s own production company Athanor – which is very much one of the film’s strengths. Both of the directors have a prior creative relationship with their subject, having worked on his most recent (and likely final) film Insect [Hmyz] (2018) – an adaptation of one of Karel Čapek’s satirical plays – for which Jan Danhel was the editor and Adam Olha was a cinematographer. Danhel’s association with Švankmajer stretches back even further to the beginning of his own film career, starting as an assistant on short film Food [Jídlo] (1992) before graduating to assistant editor on his features Faust [Lekce Faust] (1994) and Conspirators of Pleasure [Spiklenci slasti] (1996). Insect took an unusual approach to its source material by including footage of the creative process which went into making the adaptation. Danhel & Olha have repeated that approach here, including early behind-the-scenes discussions of how the movie should be made and structured. Many of the interview segments are broken up by cutting between the conventional talking heads you would normally see in a documentary and shots of the camera crew filming those same segments – sometimes they even omit the more conventional segments entirely, allowing us to hear Švankmajer’s words but showing only what is going on around him while he speaks. Švankmajer himself made the decision to open the film by addressing the audience directly, telling them that in viewing the final cut he was disappointed to realise that it’s a parade of old people, due to the lack of any extant footage depicting either him or his wife in their youth. In an attempt to provide this vital injection of the youth which drove their creative process – a youth neither of them ever lost from their inner being – he holds up a small black & white photo of the two of them back in the day, bringing it out twice in the hopes that the audience can take that image with them for the succeeding two hours.

Key aspects of Švankmajer’s creative process and artistic decisions are explored through the course of the film, with Danhel & Olha incorporating those same techniques into the finished piece. Early on Švankmajer talks about his preference for close-ups rather than long shots. By peppering his films with extreme close-ups on insignificant details, he aims to kickstart the audience’s creative engagement with his works, encouraging them to think about what the focus on those details means in the context of the completed work. Long shots for him are a creative dead-end – they only really work if they are consciously composed for a specific effect, which draws attention to their artificial nature. Any attempt to use long shots without this conscious intent is meaningless as the image will be empty of any content or affect. His love for close-ups ties into the most significant aspect of his films and of his artistic output in general – his love of the texture and sensation of physical objects. As film is an audiovisual medium, he takes a great deal of care to invest his films with a strong tactile quality – the selection of objects, editing choices, sound design, music and of course the visuals themselves all have a purpose in creating a final experience which comes as close as possible to evoking real physical sensations.

Although “surreal” is often overused and misapplied as an adjective, Švankmajer self-identifies specifically as a Surrealist and there is plenty of discussion among his artistic associates about what this actually means. Švankmajer views surrealism as collectivist in nature – while art is an expression of an individual’s unique internal vision, surrealism is a collaborative creative activity which unites those individual expressions to create something new which could not have otherwise existed. It has no political content because it’s an exploration of inner conflicts rather than a critique of external processes – an approach which generates suspicion in authoritarian regimes whose failure to understand makes them suspect that it must be hiding something. Švankmajer expresses discomfort with receiving awards for his art – not just because he thinks that art shouldn’t be subject to that sort of qualitative judgement, but because he generally has the impression that he’s being honoured for somebody else’s inaccurate perception of his achievements. He makes an interesting comparison between his experience of Kabuki and Japanese perceptions of his work. As he puts it, western societies often view Kabuki as exotic, mysterious and inexplicable – but this is simply because they lack the cultural context to understand the specific meanings that particular gestures convey to a Japanese audience. He finds that this specificity of meaning gets in the way of his Japanese fans, who expect to find a specific network of hidden meanings that simply isn’t there. Whether this characterisation of the Japanese as having a “collectivist” imagination is valid is not something on which I feel confident to comment, but the comparison does effectively express his wider point.

The film also devotes time to two of his key associates and their very different importance to his work. Jaromír Kallista, Švankmajer’s business partner in Athanor and the producer of all of his work since 1988, has played a vital role in allowing Švankmajer to make his films and in taking care of his creative legacy – but, perhaps unsurprisingly for such a grounded individual, doesn’t really get Švankmajer as an artist. Early in the film they have an impassioned discussion about the conflict between creative and commercial urges. Kallista expresses the opinion that many of Švankmajer’s works are too long and could stand to be trimmed to better suit the (ill-defined) needs of audiences. Švankmajer, of course, disagrees vehemently – while he agrees that many films are too long, he counters that some films need to be long and that there is not one redundant second in any of his work. He questions the notion of the “average viewer”, stating that there is no such thing and any attempt to change his work to suit each individual’s taste would result in an empty mess. But while Kallista doesn’t seem particularly suited to understanding Švankmajer’s perspective, he clearly sees value in the promotion and preservation of Švankmajer’s work. His suggestion that Švankmajer would be content to watch his films once after completion and then stick them in a cupboard comes across as plausible, highlighting the importance of Kallista’s role in bringing his work to the world.

The most important figure of all is of course Švankmajer’s wife, artist and writer Eva Švankmajerová, who he identifies as the heart of his work. Although she was unable to participate in Athanor due to her death from breast cancer in 2005 – a death which impacted Švankmajer deeply – her presence permeates the film. Danhel & Olha have done their best to plug the gap, sourcing interview, on-set and home movie footage from the early 2000s and showcasing many examples of her paintings. However there is only so much material to work with and as a consequence much of her presence in the film comes courtesy of Švankmajer’s personal recollections. She was the extrovert to his introvert, the one who forged their social and business connections – including the connection with Kallista – and was responsible for creating a warm atmosphere on set. Although she worked with him on many of his films, it was always on her own creative terms. He only called on her expertise to fill the gaps for which she was best suited and she maintained a healthy artistic output in her own right. The last section of the film is devoted to her physical absence and lingering presence, with her workspace left untouched and her seat kept unoccupied at all social occasions. After discussing Švankmajer’s brief institutionalisation in the wake of her death – an experience that was uncomfortable close to material in his just-completed film Lunacy [Šílení] (2005) – the film closes on a note of silliness with a characteristically cheeky nod to his animation style.

Although primarily of interest to fans of his work, Athanor: The Alchemical Furnace should be accessible to any Švankmajer novices and provides enough examples of his work – both on film and in physical media – to be an effective primer. For Švankmajer aficionados it’s essential viewing.

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