Jan Švankmajer’s Insects: On Meaning in Surrealist Film

by Timofei Gerber

Last year, Jan Švankmajer, the great master of surrealist cinema, returned to his roots with another stop-motion film mixed with live footage in the same vein as his classics Alice (1988) or Faust (1994). Yet, there is something that is immediately striking in Insects (2018), namely that it keeps breaking the fourth wall and working with meta-levels — First of all, there is an introduction where Švankmajer speaks directly to the audience, offering cues to how the movie is supposed to be understood. But there is more: throughout the film we also see how the practical and stop-motion effects were created; we witness various stage directions to the actors, who each talk about their dreams to the camera. Finally, as Insectsis somewhat of an adaptation of a play by the brothers Čapek, we ourselves witness an amateur theatre group working on its adaptation.

Image for post
Image for post

Sure, there’s nothing new about being “meta” in cinema, we might even perceive it as an outdated gimmick, but it is something we might not expect from a surrealist film. After all, if they are famously interested in dreams and the power of the unconscious, then ‘breaking the spell’ and showing the artificiality of it seems to be something they would rather avoid. And indeed, apart from the famous last shot of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, the meta-level is something we don’t see in films that are strictly surrealist (as opposed to merely surreal, absurd, or just weird and dream-like). Let us therefore follow this question, namely of what the function of playing with meta-levels in a surrealist film might be.

The method of interruption

In Insects, we often see the creation of the practical effects before seeing them realised. It is in that sense not like a retrospective “explanation” of how the effect was done, and more like an immediate interruption of the action that takes us by surprise. The lengthy parenthesis, where we see the whole process of creating the effect in great detail, stands in stark contrast to the instant in which it actually takes place. Such a technique of making the viewer aware that he is watching a movie is surely very old. Indeed, we can trace this method of interruption not only to surrealism as part of the “isms” of the avant-garde of the 1920’s, but to the whole aesthetic praxis of that time, as it was most famously condensed in the Brechtian term of Verfremdung (estrangement).

Image for post
Image for post

This technique was set in opposition to the common naturalist performances, whose goal was to present a realistic story that captivated the viewer, where he’d immerse himself so as to identify with the characters and relate to their fates. Estrangement was supposed to interrupt this ‘sinking’ into the diegetic world and awaken the viewer from his passivity, so that he’d become aware of his situation and to reflect not only on what is happening on stage, but also on his role in the constellation of the performance. This active viewer stands in complete opposition to the passive consumer of the play. While the latter is still supposed to judge the performance, according to the question if he had been pleased or not, the active viewer participates in the interpretation and the construction of meaning of the performance. The active viewer has not to consume, but to work.

This constellation of activity, awareness, and interpretation, becomes particularly interesting in the case of surrealism. The latter’s fascination in dreams and the processes of our unconscious is directly related to Freudian theory and its thesis that our dreams have meaning precisely because they are a result of the workings of our unconscious. The whole process of analysis, as it is conceptualised by Freud, is about the becoming-aware (Bewusstwerdung) of unconscious processes that guide our lives, and it is through the patient’s and the analysist’s activity that they become uncovered. The parallel to the method of interruption above becomes clear. But if for Freud, it is analysis that ‘interrupts’ the unconscious automatisms of our daily lives, the prime interest of surrealism is rather the dream itself. So how should we understand the relation of analysis to surrealist film? Do they somehow coincide, or is Freudian theory supposed to be the ‘blueprint’ for how these films are supposed to be understood? The latter would be redundant, a lazy game of hide-and-seek, especially since the viewer has dreams of his own that he can analyse just as well. The former wouldn’t make much sense, especially since analysis was itself supposed to be applicable to works of art, as Freud himself interpreted Oedipus and The Sandman; and the surrealist films are evidently themselves works of art, and not mere interpretations of it. So, how does Freudian theory relate to the aesthetic of surrealism? To understand that, we need to first understand the theory itself.

Image for post
Image for post

Freud’s theory of dreams

We won’t have to go in too deep here; what is of interest to us is Freud’s differentiation of the manifest dream-content and the latent dream-thoughts, and the relation between those two (cf. The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 782). The manifest dream is that which we actually experience, those weird and confusing things that we see and hear in our dreams. Freud posits that despite its appearance, the manifest dream actually has a meaning, namely that it expresses one (or several) of our repressed desires; it is a wish-fulfilment (Wunscherfüllung, cf. ibid., chapter III). Repression occurs when our inner censor, for whatever reason, doesn’t allow us to become conscious of a certain desire. This prohibition doesn’t obliterate the desire, it rather forces it to remain in the unconscious, from where it keeps urging for satisfaction. Due to the nature of our dreams, where our inner control mechanisms are more relaxed, these desires reappear again, but, as the censor is still working, they have to be expressed in a distorted form. Freud compares this to the political writer, who, so as to still be able to publish his critique, needs to find alternative ways of expressing it (cf. ibid., p. 638). Hence, he needs to invent certain strategies of disguising and expressing whatever it is that he feels that needs to be said. In the same way, when our repressed desires urge to be satisfied in their hallucinatory form — as a surrogate, because they can’t be satisfied in reality — our dreaming selves find creative ways to both express and hide them from our inner censor. The actual desire, which is ‘encrypted’ in the manifest dream, is the latent meaning behind it.

The process of ‘encrypting’ the latent meaning in manifest images, the creation of our actual dream, is what Freud calls the Traumarbeit (dream-work, cf. Introductory Lectures, lecture XI), and just like with the political writer, there are certain strategies that are used here: Displacements (Verschiebung), condensations (Verdichtung), the transformation of thoughts into visual images (Umsetzung von Gedanken in visuelle Bilder). For example, a man dreamt of putting his brother into a box (Kasten), which he then associated with cupboard (Schrank), which gives him the latent thought behind the dream, namely that his brother ought to restrict himself (sich ein-schränken) (cf. The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 862). As we can see, these displacements are often of linguistic and visual nature; they are quite adventurous and always related to the personal history of the dreamer. It is what the latter has experienced the day before (the Tagesreste) that is disguised or rearranged in such a way that the actual meaning behind the images is hidden. We hereby satisfy our inner censor andthe repressed desires, namely by creating connections between images and meanings through various acts of displacement.

At the same time, there are certain objects that appear in our dreams that have “constant translations” (Introductory Lectures, p. 3244), a fixed meaning; Freud calls them symbols (cf. ibid., lecture X). With the symbols, the connection of the (dreamt) objects to their meanings is fixed and standardised, they have nothing to do with the dreamer who is usually unaware of the connection (cf. ibid., p. 3246). Some examples for such symbols are the house for the human body, small animals and vermin for children and siblings, departures for dying (cf. ibid., p. 3247). The sources for these symbols are manifold, “from fairy tales and myths, from buffoonery and jokes, from folklore and from poetic and colloquial linguistic usage” (ibid., p. 3252). Even though the connection of some symbols is very obvious, sometimes even banal — for example every oblong object (potentially) symbolising the penis (cf. ibid. p. 3248) — it seems that their meaning is fixed by culture. This is why Ricœur calls this the culture-work (travail de culture) instead of the dream-work, which belongs to the displacements we’ve worked out above (De l’interprétation, p. 482). Those are therefore the two main methods of ‘encrypting’ our latent desires in manifest dreams: the displacements and the symbols. . .

To read the rest of Gerber’s exegesis of Insects, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/jan-svankmajers-insects-on-meaning-in-surrealist-film/

And please check out the Riot Material Gallery on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/riotmaterial/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store