Few film makers are as incredible as the mighty Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer. Like so many people of my generation, I was first aware of him in the early 90s, when Channel 4 screened his singular adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, abbreviated to simply Alice Alice, created in 1988, was a revelation. Beautiful, disturbing and bizarre, it seemed to tap into childhood phantasmagoria like no-one else.
Freudian, brutal and really pretty bleak, the story follows young Alice, portrayed by Kristyna Kohoutova, who is wide-eyed and innocent, but a bit of a brat. She follows the trend of children in cinema who are painted in defiantly unsentimental terms. Like Truffaut or Wenders, childhood isn’t Disney-fied or cutesie. Lessons aren’t learned, and there’s no happy or reassuring resolution. Locked in a battle with an extremely creepy White Rabbit, she’s pushed, prodded and has rocks thrown at her, before the inevitable face-off with the Queen of Hearts.
Unlike other adaptations, Svankmajer dispensed with some of the best-loved characters. There’s no Tweedledum and Tweedledee here, no Cheshire Cat, and the animals are partially dead, skulls with bits and pieces added to them, like museum pieces gone rogue. Indeed, taxidermy is Svankmajer’s chosen form of puppetry, and there’s a lot of the ‘yuk’ factor that characterises so much of his work, like the Frog Footman and his long, phallic tongue, meat that slips in and out of pots, and a Caterpillar comprised of an old sock and dentures.
It’s surely no coincidence that the Mad Hatter, posing his absurd series of rhetorical riddles, looks like Svankmajer himself, as much of his imagery is surely ripe for analysis.
With all of the non-linear logic of a fever dream, it emerges like a long – suppressed memory, suffused with obstacles and enemies, but a hero who can hold her own, even when the circumstances are hallucinatory and eerie.
Svankmajer went onto make more “adult” films, but this is a perfect jumping- off point into his strange and wildly inventive world within a world.