BREAKFAST: After eating breakfast, a man is transformed into an elaborate dumb-waiter-style breakfast dispenser - and the same fate befalls the man who obtains breakfast from him. LUNCH: ... See full summary »
One of the inscriptions on the wall reads 'RULDOLPH II', reference to the sixteenth century Holy Roman Empire and King of Bohemia who was considered a passionate patron of the arts while he lived in Prague. In his service as court portraitist was Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a key source of inspiration for Svankmajer's films. See more »
A suffocating and sardonic short-form satire from vankmajer
My first experience of Czech animator and filmmaker Jan vankmajer's unusual cinematic world came via the more traditionally structured film Little Otik (2000). In that film we had the notion of a wooden puppet-like figure being brought to life in a more psychological reinterpretation of the world of Pinocchio, as well as various Eastern European folktales; with Svankmajer's usually startling imagination held back by some literally wooden performances and a rather flat visual presentation. With that, his most recent film in mind, we come to the film in question; with Byt, or The Flat (1968), standing as Svankmajer's earliest experiment in live-action film-making, and one that continues a number of themes and motifs developed in his previous work, in particular The Last Trick (1964) and The Garden (1968).
Even with this in mind, Byt is an entirely different kind of film from what we might normally expect to see from vankmajer, with the live action elements driving the story, while the more broadly recognisable aspects of stop-motion animation are utilised as mere special effects. Regardless, the story here is truly fascinating; with vankmajer creating an extraordinary work of pure, cinematic imagination that not only impresses and excels on the level of pure entertainment, but also offers deeper themes and interpretations presented as highly intelligent satire. It also shows vankmajer tapping into the territory of his fellow countryman and contemporary Roman Polanski, and in particular, Polanski's cinema of confinement. In this respect you could draw obvious parallels with a film such as Repulsion (1965), not to mention the more recognisable psychological themes presented in other Polanski works, such as Knife in the Water (1962) and Cul-de-sac (1966).
You could also argue that there was something of cross-reference of influences going on here, with vankmajer taking influence from Repulsion whilst Polanski would take certain elements from this film and apply them to his later flawed masterwork, The Tenant (1976). However, whereas Polanski's work was intended to terrorise the audience, both on a playful and entirely devastating level, the sense of suffocating claustrophobia and mocking surrealism presented by vankmajer here is somewhat sardonic; intended to entertain as well as provoke, and clearly offering something of a political comment on the state of post-Second World War Europe. The fact that the film features an appearance from fellow filmmaker Juraj Herz is also interesting, with Herz creating one of the greatest films of the Czech New Wave, The Cremator (1968). As with that particular film, Byt makes obvious references to the treatment of the Jews both before and during the Holocaust, and the general sense of fear and paranoia that was immediately recognisable to European filmmakers of vankmajer's generation.
There are of course deeper themes and issues expressed in the film than this, but your understanding and interpretation of them can easily come secondary to your enjoyment of vankmajer's great style and lasting atmosphere. The film could also be seen as something on an influence on Sam Raimi's classic no-budget shocker The Evil Dead (1983), with the idea of a character confined to a single location that reacts against him in a way that is both horrifying and surreal. This similarity is also illustrated by the use of stop-motion animation alongside elements of live action, something that may have also been an influence to Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto on imaginative and expressionistic films like Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988) and Tokyo Fist (1995).
Despite misgivings from certain vankmajer devotees who feel that the over-reliance on live action animations is ineffective, this film for me ranks amongst the very best of the filmmaker's short-form, experimental works. The mood and style created by vankmajer here is extraordinary, with the filmmaker creating a range of emotions from terror to confusion and even slapstick comedy. In this respect, he is aided by the great performance from Ivan Kraus as the man trapped in this confusing psychological space, and by the subtle use of metaphor and symbolism that seems to suggest so much, without offering any kind of easy answers.
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