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The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, Prague’s Alchemist of Film

The Quay Brothers
The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer
UK 1984 / 14’

Jan Švankmajer is a Czech film director, alchemic of surreal, master of stop-motion animation. The Quays willingly admit his influence on their art (stressing, however, that their actual initiation is due to animations by Starewicza and Borowczyka). As one of the subtitles says, in The Cabinet, the 16th and 20th centuries co-exist – Rudolphian Prague cohabits here with Czechoslovakia of the 1980s, Wertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) neighbours the colourful neon signs of Tuzex (a network of foreign currency shops), the Staropramen brewery and “Rudé právo” (Czechoslovakian communist daily). The title character himself is an animated puppet version of The Librarian, one of the most famous portraits by Arcimboldo. The film was made as a series of animated sequences opening particular parts of a one-hour documentary about Švankmajer. The Quays used music by Zdenek Liška (1922-1983), who frequently collaborated with the maker of Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci slasti). The film salute by the Quays does not mimic the aesthetics of Švankmajer’s films – instead, those who love the brothers’ art will find a range of familiar motives in The Cabinet. A careful Polish viewer may notice the logo of Polish Pewex on the bag from which Švankmajer takes the “found objects”.

Jakub Mikurda

Bracia Quay

Twins, born in 1947. They studied in Philadelphia and continued their education at the Royal College of Art in London, where in the 1970s they directed their first short films. In the 1980s, they made commercials (for Honeywell, Walkers Crisps, and Dulux Wood Protection), music videos (the most famous one - for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer), and animations which made them popular – The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, Street of Crocodiles. In 1995, their first feature film premiered: Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life, winner of the Bronze Horse in Stockholm and the jury’s award at the Fantasporto festival. Another full-length live acting film by the brothers is The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes. Their art is inspired by literature, especially by prose by Bruno Schulz and lately - Stanisław Lem.

Cast & Crew

director The Quay Brothers
screenplay The Quay Brothers
cinematography The Quay Brothers
music Zdeněk Liška
producer Keith Griffiths
production Atelier Koninck
language English
colouration colour