Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar) was written and directed by Jan Švankmajer and was released in 1964. The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar was the first film of Švankmajer and even though he was not a member of the Surrealists’ Group then the film does have some surreal values to it.
The film is characterised intensely by theatricality; Švankmajer was greatly influenced by Emil Radok’s work since he worked on his film Doktor Faust (Doctor Faust, 1958). Emil Radok was the co-creator of Laterna Magika, the first multimedia theatre of the world which is still operational. The creators of Laterna Magika focused on telling stories by combining live performance and multimedia projection, mixing film with theatre. The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar takes place on a theatre stage where two performers do their tricks while the audience which is never seen is clapping. The two actors are filmed from the same perspective throughout the film as the viewer of the film takes the place of the audience of the theatre.
Themes in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar
In his first film The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar, the concept of the man as a mechanical system is greatly conveyed. This theme was greatly developed and used in Švankmajer’s later film Don Šajn (Don Juan, 1970) in which the actors were dressed as huge theatre puppets. In The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar the actors exist as puppets and mechanical beings; the imagery of cogs, gears and machinery enhance the idea of the mechanical man.
Since the beginning of the movement of Surrealism, Surrealists have been studying the theme of a man as a machine and treated mannequins and humanoids as surrealist objects. Many Surrealists experimented by constructing humanoid figures; they altered and transformed the human body into an assemblage of human flesh and objects. Even though, Švankmajer was not proclaimed a Surrealist until 1970 the use of this theme does show his inclination into Surrealism; perhaps his ideas derived from the work of painter Arcimboldo. Arcimboldo is often considered as the first Surrealist painter, although he created his artwork hundreds of years before the creation of the Surrealist movement.
Throughout the film there are close up shots of a beetle crawling on the heads of the main characters, however at the end of the film the beetle is dead. The use of the beetle against the made up heads of the characters comes as an antithesis, enhancing the difference between life and machine. The use of the beetle removes any humanity from the characters emphasizing their mechanical nature. At the end of the film the beetle is shown dead underlining the fragility of life as well as, the destructive mania of the characters.
Decay, self-destruction, and disintegration are very common themes in Švankmajer’s films; items, natural elements and characters in his films decompose spontaneously or destroy one another through acts of violence and aggression. These themes imply one of the basic characteristics of human nature, the tendency people have for self-destruction and the termination of others.
Throughout The last trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar the two characters antagonise each other competing who will perform the best trick. At the end of each trick they congratulate each other by shaking their hands like two polite gentlemen. Since the “puppets” lack facial expressions, all of their feelings are expressed through body language and hand gestures. As the film continues, their tension, ambition and jealousy grow. Their hatred and hostility is obvious through the intense shaking of their hands. Their tricks become more complex and impressive. By the end of the film their feelings evolve into violence. While they are shaking their hands at the end of the last trick of Mr. Edgar, Mr. Schwarzwald pulls Mr. Edgar’s arm so hard that it is torn off his body. Then they viciously attack each other, removing each other’s limbs. At the end of the film only their two arms remain solid; they shake their hands politely enhancing the sense of irony. The “polite” hand shake becomes very ironic and funny since it is so antithetic to their true nature and intention: to destroy one another. Their handshake becomes a diachronic symbol representing the actions of people everyday everywhere on this planet; people are acting differently than they are originally thinking and intending to do covering their true intentions and plans.
Breaking the rules in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar
Jan Švankmajer as a Surrealist filmmaker does not follow the conventional rules of filmmaking. Like Luis Buñuel before him, narrative in Švankmajer’s film is indifferent and unique. As it is mentioned in the beginning of this article Švankmajer became familiar with Surrealism years after the creation of this film. However, The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar is a good example of how Švankmajer breaks the filmmaking rules.
During the title credits at the beginning of the film, Švankmajer reveals his two actors before they put on their costumes, breaking the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall is prohibited in filmmaking since it distracts the viewer and throws him out of the illusion of the film, making him return to his reality. However, in this film it works as an ironic twist since it becomes a paradox, showing the actors putting on their costumes and later they are revealed as puppets. By putting on their masks they become symbols representing every person. This action has a greater impact on the viewer that is watching the film. Instead of attaching the actors’ faces to the characters, by using costumes they are detached resulting in the characters becoming faceless symbols thus, the characters become immortal symbols.
He breaks the rules regarding the traditional structure of storytelling (three act structure) and creates his own way of presenting an idea; his films do not present stories but ideas and themes. In this case the film is divided into parts; each part is a trick by one of the characters. The film gradually evolves showing the stress and antagonism of the characters growing.
One of the most important tools Švankmajer is using to tell a story and express his ideas is editing. The editing in his films varies since in each film is used differently. The pace of the editing in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar is used in such a way to express the characters’ feelings. The fast editing at the end of the film and the rapid juxtaposition of the violent imagery in which the characters attack each other, enhances their aggressive behaviour, creating feelings of anxiety and panic to the viewer. The intense close ups of textures of frayed clothes and the amputation of the limbs of the characters expose the cruelty, aggression and violence of the characters. The textures become symbols of jealousy and their mania of destroying each other that eventually lead to their self-destruction.
LIST OF REFERENCES
Arcimboldo, G. (1590 -1). Vortumnus (Vertumno). Oil painting.
Bertrand, S. and Leclerc, M. (2001). Les Chimeres des Švankmajer. [DVD]. France: 24 Images.
Dali, S. (1936). The Anthropomorphic Cabinet. Oil on wood.
Descharnes, R. and Neret, G. (2016). DALI: The Paintings. London: Taschen.
Griffiths, K., Quay, S. and Quay, T. (1984). The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer: Prague’s Alchemist of Film. [DVD] BFI.
Hames, P. (ed.) (2008). The cinema of Jan Švankmajer. 2nd edn. London: Wallflower press.
Seligmann, K. (1946). Initiation.
Svankmajer, J. (1964). The Last Trick Mr. Schwarzwald and Mr. Edgar. [DVD]. Czechoslovakia: Krátký Film (Prague)
Švankmajer, J. (2001). Interview by Ales Kisil. Czech TV Interview. Czech Television. [Television]