Jan Svankmajer: Dark tales, light touch

In Jan Svankmajer's rich, sensual world, anything's possible, as long as you feel it. Ryan Gilbey meets a Surreal master
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My meeting with the Surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer begins in fittingly surreal fashion. We all take our seats in the bar of a London hotel – Svankmajer, his wife Eva, the translator and I. Then we start talking. Or rather, some of us do. Svankmajer and the translator are exchanging pleasantries in Czechoslovakian when they start excitedly gesturing and babbling. I glance over at Eva. She is a serene woman who appears to be smiling at the walls. Perhaps she is thinking of a joke someone told her. Time passes. They are still chatting. I begin to suspect that this is a classic Surrealist trick designed to test my mettle: if I break, I will be deemed an unworthy interviewer, and Svankmajer will smear my tape recorder with cream cheese. I look again at the inscrutable Eva, but her eyes seem only to say: nice wallpaper. She's giving nothing away.

As it happens, it is a Surrealist thing. "We just discovered that we are members of the same Surrealist group in Prague," the translator explains. "Are there many Surrealist groups in Prague, then?" I ask, trying to ascertain how this rates on the coincidence-o-meter. Svankmajer looks alarmed. "There are Surrealist groups everywhere," he says, as if addressing an idiot child. "In Spain, in South America, in Sweden, in France. There is even one in Leeds."

Jan Svankmajer is a slight, kindly looking fellow with white, candyfloss hair that is growing sweetly shaggy around the ears. You might describe him as resembling an absent-minded botany professor, but when he seizes on a question his eyes narrow, his mouth tightens, and his mind is clearly anything but absent. He celebrated his 67th birthday last month, but you would expect him to be hundreds of years old by now: his disquieting brand of animation, which finds in the banal props of everyday life an itchy, oozing restlessness, seems to have been with us forever. In fact, he broke away from theatre to make his first short, The Last Trick, in 1964, and took the short film as his preferred medium until the feature-length Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, in 1988. Since then, he has made three other movies – the disappointing Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), a witty comedy about polymorphous perversity, and the new Little Otik.

This latest film is his most formally conventional work. Models and marionettes do not, for once, outnumber the human performers. The cast even has dialogue, a luxury in a Jan Svankmajer film. Not that he is going soft. "I don't make any distinction between a prop, a puppet, a camera and an actor," he claims. "There is no hierarchy there."

The picture takes the chilling folk tale Otesánek ("Rough-hewn Baby") – about a monstrous, insatiable infant carved from a tree trunk – and twists it to accommodate new connotations. "The original story was designed to teach children not to be greedy," says Svankmajer, "but I saw in it something contemporary. The parents are rebelling against nature, and that has tragic consequences. It's the same tradition as Faust or Adam and Eve: it's a myth that our entire civilisation is still struggling with."

He first encountered Otesánek in the mid-1980s. "I put the idea in my subconscious mind, then from time to time I looked in to see if it was ready. If not, I put it back for a little longer. When you're creating, you mustn't push." For a time during filming, Eva stopped talking to him. She had watched the scenes that he had shot of a housewife ladling out slop at supper-time, and became convinced that this was a crack about her own cooking. "And there were plenty more such things," she says ruefully. I try to imagine a domestic spat in a Surrealist household. Perhaps they throw haddock at each other, instead of saucepans like the rest of us.

Thanks to its chomping cannibal baby, in whose mouth is crammed a bulging eyeball, an Alsatian's tongue and a full set of teeth, Little Otik is as comfortingly uncomfortable as anything that Svankmajer has done. But even those viewers who find his abrasive visions repulsive to the eye must concede that he has been a dominating influence – without him, the films of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg would surely not be quite so sticky and gloopy. In 1989, he even made some shorts for MTV, including the one-minute Meat Love, which depicted two slabs of raw steaks dancing and frolicking in flour together. It must have looked revolutionary, sandwiched between The Bangles and T'Pau. Even the sensory saturation of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's recent hit Amélie owes something to Svankmajer's mission to make it possible to taste, smell and, most importantly, touch the images on screen.

His interest in challenging the two-dimensional texture of cinema dates back to 1972. "I was banned by the authorities from making films for eight years," says Svankmajer. "So instead I built tactile sculptures, which were as far away from film as I could get. When I was eventually allowed to shoot again, I introduced that tactile element into my films." You can see it in Alice – carpet tacks secreted in marmalade, nails jutting out of a crusty roll – and it's there, too, in Little Otik. During the new film's most tender scene, in which the mother powders her baby's curled wooden penis and tugs the sleeves of his cardigan over the jagged tendrils that pass for hands, you experience tingling sensations in your own fingertips.

"This is because the senses are interlinked," Svankmajer explains. "You can hear in colours; you can use one sense to stimulate another. Touch is important to me, because it's the least corrupted of all the senses. In modern life, hearing, seeing and taste have been perverted. Smell has been destroyed. The only pure, virginal sense that remains is touch. It's also the only one that hasn't been catered for by the arts. It hasn't been aestheticised. I see it as an unexplored plain; I believe there is buried treasure there."

His endless digging for that treasure has found him exploring not only film and sculpture, but also language, in a series of tactile poems, the best of which should be read aloud for full skin-crawling effect. "Diluted Touch", from 1989, is particularly vivid: "Remember winter/ cold glue/ unbutton roll up your sleeve/ sandy path/ like dripping/ gone cold/ greasy..." And, from 1978's "Lunch-Victim": "Five pairs of wooden spoons/ On one pair glue dried juniper berries/ on a second pair glue bread crumbs/ on a third salt/ on a fourth pair glue calf-hide..." Svankmajer's work, regardless of the medium, uses sensory stimulation as a testament to being alive. To not feel, to not touch, is to be dead, which explains the origin of that striking scene in Food (1992), when a diner in a restaurant tucks into his own left hand – garnish, sauce and all.

When I ask Svankmajer about his earliest tactile memory, he bristles happily, clearly experiencing it all over again. "As a child I spent some time in hospital with a disease. When I was healing, the skin was coming loose, and I remember peeling it off very slowly, strip by strip." Currently heading his top 10 favourite tactile sensations is animal hair. "I love dogs," he beams. "I love touching them, stroking them. I love the feel of the fur under my fingers. But the animal has to be alive." Of course it does. Jan Svankmajer is in town. Lock up your dogs.

'Little Otik' is released 25 October 2001