The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar

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.

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Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar standing on the theatre stage. Mr Schwarzwald is the character sitting on the left and Mr. Edgar is the character standing on the right.

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.

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The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936), by Salvador Dali is a famous humanoid figure. The painting is homage to the theories of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The figure represents the human mind and the drawers its secrets and thoughts that only psychoanalysts can open.
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Initiation (1946), by Kurt Seligmann is a painting that contains his famous draped complex humanoid “cyclonic forms”.
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Vortumnus (Vertumno) (1590-1) by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  The portrait depicts Rudolf II , the Holy Roman Emperor. The portraits by Arcimboldo are compositions of fruit, vegetables, flowers, animals and books.

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.

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The dead beetle is shown after the final “polite” hand shake of the characters; perhaps to show that their violent and inconsiderate acts resulted in the death of this fragile beetle. The death of the beetle can be considered as a collateral damage of the war between these two gentlemen.

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.

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Mr. Edgar and Mr. Schwarzwald congratulate each other.
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Mr. Schwarzwald is performing his trick.
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Mr. Edgar is performing his more complex and impressive trick reaching towards the end of the film.
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Mr. Schwarzwald while is congratulating Mr. Edgar torns off his arm.
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Mr. Edgar and Mr. Schwarzwald attack aggressively each other.
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At the end of the film they shake their hands again.

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.

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Textures of destruction and aggressiveness.
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Textures of destruction and aggressiveness.

 

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]

Jan Švankmajer

“Others confuse Surrealism with absurdity. […] Above all, Surrealism is not art. It is a certain spiritual path, […] is a journey into the depths of the soul, like alchemy and psychoanalysis. Unlike both of these, however, it is not an individual journey but a collective adventure.”

Jan Švankmajer

(Hames, 2008, p.102)

Short biography

Jan Švankmajer is a Czech filmmaker and artist whose films include mix clay and other stop motion techniques, pixilation, puppetry and live-action, and his artwork consists of installations, and collages. Švankmajer has been an advocate of Surrealism for decades, and his films are some of the best examples of surreal films in the history of cinema. Švankmajer’s work has greatly influenced famous filmmakers like the Brothers Quay, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. His work has become famous worldwide during the 80’s, despite the fact that Švankmajer has been making films since the 60’s. The Communist Regime that existed at Czechoslovakia at that time censored his work and a few of his films were banned due to their political messages and notions against Stanilism.

Švankmajer was born in 1934, making him a witness to different political regimes that affected the course of Czechoslovakia’s history such as, pre- war and post-war democracy, Stalinism, Nazi occupation, the Prague Spring of 1968 and Soviet invasion, the post-1989 democracy and finally the division between the Republics of Czech and Slovakia in 1993. The constant changes of the political state in Czechoslovakia influenced Švankmajer’s work and are reflected mostly in his political films like Zahrada (The Garden, 1968),  Tichý týden v dome (A Quiet Week in the House, 1969) and Konec stalinismu v Cechách (The Death of Stanilism in Bohemia”, 1991).

Švankmajer studied at the College of Applied Arts in Prague and later he specialised in puppetry by moving to the Department of Puppetry at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts. He worked in Emil Radok’s film Doktor Faust (Doctor Faust, 1958), and Radok’s work was a great influence to him. Later he worked at Prague’s Semafor Theatre and he founded the Theatre of Masks. He then moved on to the Laterna Magika multimedia theatre, where he renewed his association with Radok who was Laterna Magika’s first artistic director. Theatricality is characteristic in Švankmajer’s work, and especially in his early work like Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar, 1968).

Švankmajer’s early work was greatly influenced by mannerism however, he moved from mannerism to surrealism because of the work of theoretician Vratislav Effenberger. The influence of surrealism on his work is first observed in his film Zahrada (The Garden, 1968). In 1970 Švankmajer joined the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group. The Surrealist Group was established in 1934 and contributed greatly to the growth of Surrealism in Europe, Paris and Prague were the centres of Surrealism. Artists from Prague and Paris would collaborate and arrange exhibitions in both cities until the suppression of the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group by the Communist Regime after the end of the Second World War. Even though, the work of Surrealists was abolished by Stanilism, the Surrealists kept working and arranging secret meetings allowing Surrealism to endure the restricting, suffocating and controlling nature of Communism. In 1972 the Communist authorities banned Švankmajer from creating films for seven years and later his work was closely monitored and censored. Nevertheless, Švankmajer continued working in the film industry and on his own personal artwork, installations and collages focusing on his projects about tactilism.

By the end of the 80’s his reputation grew, especially in Europe, and after the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 and the return of the liberal democracy in Czechoslovakia, Švankmajer’s work was no longer censored and were no limitations to its thematologies. Since then, he worked on numerous short films and directed many feature films like Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996) and Otesánek (Little Otik, 2001) that contain live action and animation. He also arranged exhibitions of his work displaying installations, artworks, puppets and props from his films.

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Zahrada (The Garden, 1968), directed by Jan Švankmajer.

 

List of references

Bertrand, S. and Leclerc, M. (2001). Les Chimeres des Švankmajer. [DVD]. France: 24 Images.

Hames, P. (ed.) (2008). The cinema of Jan Švankmajer. 2nd edn. London: Wallflower press.

Švankmajer, J. (2001). Interview by Ales Kisil. Czech TV Interview. Czech Television. [Television]

Griffiths, K., Quay, S. and Quay, T. (1984). The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer: Prague’s Alchemist of Film. [DVD] BFI.

Švankmajer, J. (1967). The Garden. [DVD]. Czechoslovakia: Krátký Film.