“Now you will see a film made for children … perhaps!”
Jan Švankmajer’s “Alice” opens more than one world into a lost childhood past, especially if you’re British and you’re old enough to remember when the late-night schedules of the fledgling Channel 4 were dominated by weird experimental art films, bizarre foreign animations, obscure documentaries and World Cinema classics. Watching the exquisite 1988 mix of puppet animation and live-action that is “Alice” again today, instantly transports us back to that lost era -- the grotesque stop-motion White Rabbit of the film leading both the viewer and the young, curious, determinedly adventurous, and very real Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) into a time portal that takes us on a trip back into that uniquely strange, surreal world called Czechoslovakian animation. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s no one else did stop-motion puppet animation quite like the Czechs: disturbing and offbeat and filled with obscure political allegory that was deliberately hard to interpret, these films were filled with outlandish imagery,and with twisted makeshift animated figures that must have lodged imperishably in the imaginations of countless bewildered kids back when they habitually used to show this stuff as part of children’s afternoon programming. Prague-born Švankmajer is one of the foremost exponents of animation and puppetry in the film world and has had a clear influence on, for instance, the Brothers Quay, although his work frequently had to struggle with censorship during the Communist era and his films were often banned altogether by the authorities. “Alice” was made with the aid of foreign finance from Western European countries by exploiting a loop-hole in the strict rules governing the commission of foreign co-productions (which were usually arranged through the state-sanctioned Czech Central Committee); Channel 4 provided forty per cent of the monies and eventually screened the finished piece in both a serialised version for children (of course!) shown at lunch times, and in a screened-after-midnight feature length version. Not that there was much difference in the content of these two incarnations, mind, aside from the omission in the serial version of a sequence in which Alice scoops a handful of apricot jam from a jar being cranked upwards on a vertical conveyer-belt housed in a musty underground cellar, only to find it literally spiked … with drawing pins!
“Alice” displays all Jan Švankmajer’s obsessions in a concise eighty-five minute bric-a-brac compendium of the macabre and the weird; a cabinet of curiosities brought to life and filtered through the proto-Surrealism of Lewis Carroll’s logic-confounding tale, “Alice in Wonderland”. Eschewing the fairy tale morality that dominates and normalises most adaptations of the story, Švankmajer instead emphasises the story’s dream-like resistance to rational interpretation. Like David Lynch, especially with his early works “The Grandmother” and “Eraserhead”, Švankmajer creates hyperreal imagery out of found objects misappropriated for use in strange, displaced environments that are filled with uncanny and vaguely upsetting distortions of the familiar. The images are often accompanied by exaggerated sounds on the audio and together they provide a stimulus to the unconscious background world of meaning encountered in the dreaming life. ‘My Alice could not be an adaptation of Carroll’s,’ Švankmajer is quoted saying in an interview found inside the disc’s accompanying booklet, ‘it is an interpretation of it fermented by my own childhood, with all its particular obsessions and anxieties.’ The director is able to create a unique cinematic world that is at once charmingly evocative of childhood’s playfulness and its wonder when faced with the discovery of the surrounding world, but which is also redolent of the casual cruelties and the nightmares that are as crucial and as ineluctable a part of the child’s felt experience as any other.
The film begins on the banks of a stream in a sunlit glade full of birdsong, the perfectly cast young Kristýna Kohoutová gazing defiantly at the camera and out of the screen as she mischievously tosses stones into the babbling waters and introduces us to her dream-life with the sentence that starts this review. The scene shifts abruptly to a cluttered nursery room full of sightless, discoloured china dolls arranged artfully to reproduce the preceding scene, heaps of tiny stones (which Alice now tosses into a cup of translucent tea) and antiquated display cases filled with mouldy-looking taxidermy specimens. One of these comes to life and extracts a giant pair of scissors from a drawer concealed in the leaf covered floor of its glass cage, dons a vivid scarlet velvet-and-gold jacket with accompanying hat and a ruff, smashes the display case and hops off screen and into another drawer, this one located inside a school desk in a ploughed field. This is the White Rabbit of Carroll’s original tale. Not all the characters in “Alice in Wonderland” appear in this film version, but the most important of those that do is this odd, snaggle-toothed, moth-eaten, boggle-eyed taxidermy “thing”, which is perpetually hopping off to who-knows- where after urgently consulting a pocket watch it keeps concealed in a hole in its chest, from which leaks a trail of sawdust stuffing which has to first be enthusiastically licked from the surface of the watch before the Rabbit can see what time it actually is. Its recurring cry of ‘I’m late, I’m late!’ is voiced by Alice herself, emphasising the idea that she is in control of this unpredictable daydream, even if unconsciously so. Each time an animated character is given a line of dialogue, Švankmajer cuts to a shot of Alice’s lips reciting it -- with out-of-synch dubbing if you’re watching the English language version!
Alice follows the rabbit through a bewildering array of portals located inside old school desks and table drawers, tunnels are discovered by falling inside and down buckets, or womb-like labyrinths are accessed through a big pile of autumnal leaves heaped up in a bare nursery room. Motifs are repeated until they become rhythmic visual counterpoints: the rabbit looks at his watch and hops away whenever Alice pleads ‘Oh sir, please wait!’ and each time she encounters yet another symbolic locked desk drawer, she tugs the wooden handle only for it to come away in her hand, causing her to go sprawling across the room every time. There are numerous bottles of ink that cause her to become larger (always bumping her head on the ceiling in the process), and cookies that make her tiny and turn her into a creepy-looking animated china doll version of herself. Strange creatures inhabit this succession of surreal spaces: weird mashed together specimens made of bone and wood, broken bird skulls and cloth joined together attempt to wage war on Alice – who’s trapped inside a dolls house at one point while the skeletal creatures led by the White Rabbit lay siege outside; when Alice’s tears flood the bare-boarded room with its different sized doors and its miniature brass key, a determined vole dressed as a bellboy makes a raft in the flood and sets up camp on her head, but it gets short shrift when it snips off a lock of her hair for its kindling, and starts a fire for its cooking pot on top of Alice’s head! She shakes it off and much later in the film, while exploring some dank, peeling corridors, Alice finds the vole creature again – now dead after being caught in the spring mechanism of a mousetrap while attempting to grasp a mouldy crumb of cheese in its tiny paw! This mixing of charming humour with a surreal strain of harsh cruelty is a constant throughout.
Švankmajer’s love of puppet theatre and antique cabinets of curiosities informs the intricate production design of the film: a painted miniature proscenium arch houses the Red Queen and her jousting playing card cohorts, and the Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party (the Mad Hatter, here, is a carved wooden Czech theatre puppet with visible strings) features a grotesque, crudely stitched together wind-up March Hare smearing old watches with lard in a darkened room! The images of grotesque fascination (which Alice gazes upon with equal parts curiosity and wonder throughout) get more outlandish as the film progresses: a bulbous-headed frog footman delivers Alice’s invitation to meet the Queen, and then cavorts around the room flattening buzzing bluebottles with an obscenely over-large tongue that looks like a giant slab of raw sausage meat; a room full of sock-snakes drill little circular holes in a set of wooden floorboards and Alice’s socks attempt to slide off her ankles to join them in sympathy; a piglet dressed in babies clothes mewls like a disturbed human child and fluttering, feathery starlings carry off a miniature cot; and a sock caterpillar addresses Alice with a huge pair of gnashing dentures and beads for eyes.
The hugely inventive production design and the film’s dark humour turns the experience into an eighty-five minutes that’s filled with bizarre delights and creepy surrealism, and particular praise has to go to the lone young human star, Kristýna Kohoutová, who really captures the bored defiance, the essential innocence and the curiosity of the young Alice. This is a masterpiece of imagination that breaks down the walls between childhood fantasy and adult horror but can be seen, enjoyed and understood on different levels by both groups of viewers.
This duel-disc edition from the BFI includes a wonderful high definition transfer with splendid rich colours and lots of fine detail that lends Švankmajer’s careworn, stitched-together world of junk and old toys and materials that bustle with movement and life an even more compelling lustre. The mono 2.0 audio reproduces the film’s vivid sound design beautifully and both the Czech track with removable English subtitles and the English dub track are included. The Blu-ray and DVD discs feature a number of Alice in Wonderland-related short films as extras. An early British silent film from the Edwardian era captures ghostly images in worn away nitrate in a nine minute film made in 1903. The DVD edition also includes an eight minute silent movie advertisement for Cadbury’s chocolate made in 1921: “Elsie and the Brown Bunny” features an Alice-like character being taken on a trip by the Brown Bunny (‘I’m from Bournville - where the chocolate comes from!’) to visit the Cadbury chocolate factory and the surrounding model village that was built to house the factory workers by the Quaker Cadbury family in the late Victorian era. “Alice in Label Land” is a twelve minute information film made by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1974. Full of the era’s usual funky music cues and cheery primary coloured animation, the film features a wide-eyed animated Alice in a film that was made with the intention of informing the public of the rules governing the labelling of food stuffs. Two music videos made by The Brothers Quay echo the Alice theme of the main feature in their characteristically jittery, rusted, cobwebby-noir style. The two films were shot to accompany the music of the Michigan-based experimental outfit fronted by Warren Defever -- His Name is Alive.
Finally, an excellent booklet filled with in-depth essays, interviews, reviews, biographies and information provides well-researched and exhaustive context for those new to the world of this distinctive and idiosyncratic filmmaker. This is another great release from the BFI to be stood alongside their existing set of Jan Švankmajer’s complete short films, already available.