(CZECHOSLOVAKIA 1990 10 min)
Director / Writer Jan Svankmajer
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia could be seen purely as a polemic, a vengeful explosion of rage pent-up through decades of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. It is a polemic, an angry and spite-filled attack, and yet, in some respects, it does not feel any different to a Documentary. Not Documentary in terms of the archive footage of enraptured crowds; instead, the film is akin to putting on those sunglasses from They Live to see the true skeletal horror beneath. Svankmajer said animation was like magic and it is through that medium that those awful years live on, criminals and victims zombified through potent symbols in sad reenaction and commemoration.
The artistry, creativity and venom behind a work may make one suspicious of its verisimilitude. It may damage its credibility. However, although snook is cocked at these figures (a penchant for comedy eyeballs is indulged) it is hard to say that it contains exaggeration or falsification of political realities. Whatever the metaphorical, allegorical illustration of the political course and its impact on the people, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia is an accurate enough short history of Czechoslovakia from World War II to the end of the Cold War. It is as all dictatorships can be.
Even without subtitles the film is easy to understand : Stalin’s clay head is cut open and out of his brain a new Czech leader (Klement Gottwald, Communist President) is removed. He speaks in Stalin’s voice and, slapped on the back of the head, cries like a baby. Stalin’s representative, born of his mind. Rolling pins tumble down the steps of cobbled streets like Russian tanks, crushing cans and everything in their path. Workers are moulded and sent down a conveyor belt. At the end of the belt they are hanged, dropping splat into a bucket of clay to be remodelled at the start of the cycle. Skulls burst through the thin paper posters of Dictators. Death in human form. Mass public physical exercise is juxtaposed with old lithographs of sexual depravity. Impurity masquerading as purity. Elevation and degradation of the body.
In the end, the bust of Stalin, painted in the Czech flag, is split open and nothing new can be found inside. It’s all finished. But there is a void. Who and what will fill it? When the end comes, there is joy. There is unease and insecurity too.
Svankmajer’s films can ramble because they struggle to get hold of any semblance of power or impact from their (thus random seeming) effects. It can be the case, perversely, that his films appear to have no imagination at all – only objects. The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia has a point that helps centre and hone it into a potent force. What makes it more affecting still is the feeling of impotence : Svankmajer is retaliating when the battle is already over, shadow-boxing with a toppled foe. What he wants most is not to dance on Communism’s grave but to make those lost decades vanish into the ether.The damage wrought can never be properly avenged or undone.
Stop-motion of this kind gives the impression of people and objects that have little agency of their own. That is why it is a perfect medium for such a subject. They move jerkily from place to place in a trance. Stop-motion can be eerie because these unthinking movements are unpredictable and other in their rapid, jaggedly teleporting step. Amplified and emphasised sounds bring out disgust, rawness and humour, the extra squelch and scrape teasing the inner qualities and thoughts of inanimate objects out. One could say that sound transubstantiates these symbols into what they speak of. For ten mintues those are the victims.
Given that the film shows how images can speak louder than, and speak for, words, I think it best to say no more.