This feature-length profile of Jan Švankmajer, the endlessly influential Czech Surrealist filmmaker and animator, opens with a piece to camera from the man himself. Lamenting that the film we’re about to see shows only old people, he produces a photo of himself and his late wife Eva Švankmajerova in their youth, “optimistically looking to the future, and foolish.”
The irony is that Švankmajer, now well into his eighties, often cuts the most youthful figure in Alchemical Furnace. The fly-on-the-wall documentary was shot around the production of his 2018 feature Insects and a few overseas trips that followed. Insects was supposed to be the director’s swansong, but here we find him having second thoughts — “I’m not saying that I won’t make another short film” — and generally discussing his art with an energy and clarity of thought that show few signs of waning.
Alchemical Furnace was made by editor Jan Danhel and cinematographer-director Adam Olha, both of whom also worked on Insects; the normally media-shy Švankmajer gave them considerable access to his work and home, which they use well. Their film is not a straight account of its subject’s long career nor an attempt to explicate his work. Instead, they embed themselves in his life, patiently revealing to us some of the objects and ideas that have shaped his filmmaking.