Alice (1988), Jan Švankmajer’s Masterwork

Jan Šankmajer, for those who don’t know, is a Czech surrealist who was prominent in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s revolutionising the animation world through his stop-motion work. Filmmakers from Terry Gilliam, to Lord & Miller have taken influence from Šankmajer, although the most obvious influence of his style can be seen in anything the Brother’s Quay have made. My introduction to Šankmajer was through Alice, which I bought second-hand on blu-ray due to my love for Lewis Carrol’s original novels, Alice in Wonderland & Alice Through the Looking Glass, and my affinity for all things surreal. While I enjoy the 1951 animated adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that Walt Disney produced, it was my favourite Disney film growing up. It felt very disconnected from Carrol’s story and turned it into a more traditional “fairy tale” rather than capturing the dream-like nonsense of the original prose.

For me, this is what Šankmajer captures so well in his interpretation of Carrol’s story. In an interview Šankmajer himself said that “my Alice could not be an adaptation of Carrol’s, it is an interpretation of it fermented by my own childhood, with all its particular obsessions and anxieties”, and this shines through brilliantly. From the very start of the film Šankmajer plays with the audience’s expectations, with Kristýna Kohoutová, who plays the titular heroine, instructing the audience that they are about to watch a film and that they must shut their eyes “otherwise you won’t see anything”, while this works both as a subversive surrealist premonition of what’s to come, it also signifies the dream-like qualities that are about to come, obviously Šankmajer does not want the audience to literally shut their eyes (especially as the film is sparse with dialogue and music) but rather to enter a dream-like state in which the film can truly be appreciated. 

The film is predominantly made with stop-motion animation, but with Kristýna Kohoutová in live-action blending into the scenes with a jilted juxtaposition. Outside of Kohoutová, the characters are all made up of puppets made of various items, while some are more traditional than others; the White Rabbit being a taxidermied rabbit, the Mad Hatter being a traditional Czech puppet, and the Queen of Hearts and her court being cut-out of cards themselves. While others veer into the more odd or downright creepy; like the Fish & Frog Footmen, the animals skulls with big bulging eyes, or the caterpillar made with a sock. This variety of puppets should hopefully highlight both the surrealist nature of the film, but also the resourcefulness of Šankmajer taking ideas from regular domestic items and transforming them into something unique and unsettling. 

Similarly the blending of Kohoutová and the animation is superb, I’ve seen this film multiple times and there are still scenes where I cannot for the life of me figure out how they managed to pull off the effects. Moments like Kohoutová shrinking into a small porcelain doll when she eats the tarts, or growing so that she dominates the claustrophobic space are clear in their execution, but still highlight the tremendous production design that went into the film, but some moments like her crawling into a desk draw still baffle me on rewatch. Similarly Kohoutová’s presence in the film adds a certain postmodern charm, with her not only opening the film with the premonition talked about above, but throughout the film any words that aren’t dialogue, so things like “said the White Rabbit” or “Alice thought to herself”, are presented with an extreme close-up of her lips and teeth. Not only does this add to the idea she presents that we are watching a film, but it also creates an uncanny feeling as the audience is forced to see her lips and teeth in repetition throughout the film, this feeling is greatly helped by her voice, which despite being only a child, carries an ethereal tone to it that only enhance the uncanny feeling of these moments.

Despite Šankmajer claiming that his interpretation of Alice in Wonderland was capturing the amoral dream aspect of Carrol’s story, what’s interesting is how extremely political it remains. Šankmajer had been in trouble with the law prior to his first feature film, with several of his short films being banned for seemingly no reason, although it clearly stems from the government of the time taking issue with Šankmajer’s surrealist connections and work. He was also banned from making films entirely for stretches of time firstly from 1973 to 1980, and again for 3 years following Dimensions of Dialogue, all of this leading to the production of Alice to be conducted under the guise of making an audio-visual exhibition entitled The Demystification of Time and Space. Due to this it’s easy to read into scenes as criticisms of the Government, the prevalence of desks and the hard time Alice has opening them, almost all of them having their knob being pulled off before Alice finds another way to open them, as a comment on the bureaucracy and frustrating red-tape of the government. Similarly Alice’s encounter with The Mad Hatter and the March Hare can be seen as a comment on class, with the Mad Hatter, representing the higher classes, declaring that he wants a new cup and moving over one seat, leaving the March Hare with the dregs of his last cup of tea while he has a fresh clean cup, as a comment on the manipulative nature of the class structure. This idea is only enhanced by the fact that the March Hare takes the long way around the table each time they move seats, showing the complacency and acceptance of the working classes of this manipulation despite its absurdity. The fact that this sequence descends into a dizzying repetition of images and sounds, corroborating this idea while also disorientating the audience as it happens. 

The reason I chose to write about this film this week was because I was lucky enough to discover that my local independent cinema was playing it as part of an Alice in Wonderland themed event. It was one of those films, due to its obscurity, that I believed I would never get the chance to see on the big screen, I knew I would write about it one day for this site as I’ve got my trusty BFI Blu-Ray of it, but watching Šankmajer’s animation unfold at the cinema and experiencing the surrealist twists and turns of the film on the big screen was a truly transcendental experience. It remains a gorgeous and repulsive film, with some of the imagery feeling nightmarish, while still capturing a sense of fantasy that still feels so unique. 

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