Jan 23, 2011

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia

Right from the get go, the wonderful short film The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia directed by Jan Švankmajer signifies with a title card that it is “a work of agitprop.” The short is easily the most political work I have ever seen by the stop-motion surrealist but also not without artistic merit. Although The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia is agitprop, it is ironic agitprop, utilizing the editing techniques of early Soviet agitprop auteur Dziga Vertov against the communist motherland. After all, Jan Švankmajer experienced persecution under communism, being banned from in 1972 from filmmaking and remaining virtually unknown in the West until the early 1980s. In The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, the Czech auteur audaciously lampoons Soviet Communism and celebrates its much deserved death. If surrealist Communist filmmaker Luis Buñuel had the postmortem opportunity to view the film in his grave, he would be most likely condemning The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia but at the same time admiring Švankmajer’s knack for magically sublime surrealism.

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia begins with a bust of Joseph Stalin being cut open on an operation table and from there a history of the 1948 Communist takeover of the Czech people begins. With the Communist occupation of the Czech people came a suppression of what was organically Czech kultur, hence the various stock footage of political personalities from the USSR featured throughout the short.  The only thing signifying the Czech people is when Stalin's head is painted with a Czech flag which is eventually cracked open, revealing nothing but human guts, surely symbolic of the cultural void that was left after the death of Czech communism. The communists were not too fond of individualistic personalities, being the good platitude-worshiping collectivists that they are. In fact, communists felt that art should be of a universal collectivist nature and felt traditional European art to be of a bourgeois nature, something they felt had to be destroyed. What the Communists did not realize is that art is one of the few redeeming qualities of the bourgeois as so wonderfully expressed in Hermann Hesse’s marvelous novel Steppenwolf. In The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, Švankmajer animated a production line of proletarian workers that are eventually lynched, finally falling into a bucket of clay oblivion. After all, in Communist countries, the individual is merely another product of the state, an object to be used from birth and to be disposed of at anytime, whether it be mauled in factory or killed in a war. 

Despite being a work of agitprop, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia is as innovative and artistic as Švankmajer’s greatest films. After watching the short film, I have a feeling that a lot of the dark elements that dominate the Czech auteur’s work are a result of 45 years under Communist slavery. The Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe make no lie that their countries still have not recovered from communism, an internationalist materialistic legacy without a true culturally intrinsic legacy. Dark days in the former Communist states are very much alive today as expressed in more recent Slavic films like Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film, Mladen Djordjevic's Life and Death of a Porno Gang, and György Pálfi’s Taxidermi. If The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia and more recent Slavic films are anyway an expression of the dark collective unconscious of the Slavic peoples, one can probably expect a bloody (and most likely nationalistic) revolution in the old Slavonic lands sometime in the near future. 

-Ty E

1 comment:

Seamus Guevara said...

I'm really glad i saw this now. It's priceless.