GFF 2012: Surrealism/Politics: Animations from Oberhausen

Surrealism/Politics, a programme of eight award-winning animations, dating from 1964 to 1997, is one of the many highlights of this year's <b>Glasgow Short Film Festival</b>. The Skinny takes you into this world of the surreal

Preview by Helen Wright | 02 Feb 2012
  • Hobby

When the surrealist movement first opened its floodgates to the subconscious in the 1920s, communism was still a respectable cause for lefty artists. André Breton and co believed that loosing their imaginations on the world could help free the proletariat from tyranny. Fast forward to post-WWII and the brutality of Sovietism combined with the decimation of a second World War triggers a more jaded approach. Where earlier artistic dreamscapes sought to free the human spirit, restrictions on liberty are the connecting thread in GSFF’s selection of animated surrealist shorts dating from the 60s through to the 90s.

The triple traumas of Nazism, Communism and Capitalism feature heavily in the programme’s imaginary realms. Walerian Borowczyk’s Les Jeux des Anges begins with the sound of a train rolling ominously through blackness. In its destination of grey rooms and metal pipes, headless angels slump or flap helplessly in concrete chimneys, while organ music on the soundtrack is joined by chants originating from concentration camps in Nazi occupied Poland. Schwarz-Weiss-Rot (Helmut Herbst) and The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (Jan Švankmajer) both make fun of superficial shifts in power in their directors’ places of birth. Herbst’s film depicts a society of jittery clockwork toys that march first to the tune of the Kaiser, whose black, white and red flag is appropriated by the swastika before being incorporated as the colours of a right-leaning newspaper conglomerate. Švankmajer, meanwhile, reinterprets Czechoslovakia‘s submission to the USSR as a succession of statues, portraits and clay figures. Stalin’s bust is sliced open on the operating table and gives birth to Klement Gottwald, that nation’s first communist president and committed perpetrator of purges.

Soviet Russia itself is represented by Knopka, about the banality of bureaucratic evil. Its hero finds that every button he presses – be it the off-switch on his alarm clock or a lover’s nipple – releases nuclear hell. Fészek is a sand animation made by Ferenc Cakó from Hungary, another country that endured Fascism, Communism, and finally a harsh transition to liberal economics which crippled many of its citizens. Cakó uses his medium to suggest different ideologies slipping into each other in an ever-moving mess of human interaction. One besuited man is surreptitiously replaced by a larger one, who in turn is squashed by a giant functionary too big for the screen, in front of whom microphones spring up in demagogic anticipation.

With less obvious context but also implying curtailment of freedom, Daniel Szczechura’s Hobby features a woman who takes a break from her knitting to snare hapless winged men and deposit them in oversized birdcages. Zbigniew Rýbczynski’s Tango is an impressive feat of animated choreography, in which a single tiny room is overtaken by multiplying characters, each going about their repetitive daily affairs, unaware they are being crushed together in a bland bedsit.

Several of these films employ surrealism’s traditional naked female motif. A cage shaped like the lower half of a woman’s body, recalling René Magritte’s La Representation, appears in Hobby. A stockinged nude pops up with appropriate incongruity in Les Jeux des Anges. As a kind of twisted recompense, the only work by a female director stars a fully clothed woman who is missing a face. Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus takes a Freudian approach to the titular foodstuff as it alternates between fecal and sexual stand-in. The tasty vegetable allegedly denotes prosperity in dreams, and a boulevard lined with sex toy, gun, and doll stores hints as to Pitt’s subliminal thoughts on US consumerism.

Brought to Glasgow courtesy of Oberhausen’s short film archive, this is a magnificently hypnagogic collection that will keep viewers very much awake to the political realities of 20th century western history.

+ Three other politicised happenings at GFF

  1. The Muppets (5 Feb, 4.30pm, GFT) – Fox News apparently got the hump because The Muppets’ baddie is an oil tycoon named Tex Richman (“Is liberal Hollywood using class warfare to brainwash our kids?”). Watch Kermit and friends do battle against the forces of right-wing corporate America
  2. Bill Douglas: Panel 4 (12 Feb, 3pm, CCA) – Ignoring industrial demands in favour of genuine artistic expression, as celebrated in Bill Douglas: Panel 4, is a most worthy political act. Wouldn’t it be nice if certain film policy review panels felt the same?
  3. The Forgotten Space (17 Feb, 11am, GFT) – Made by anti-capitalist photographer Allan Sekula and cinema academician Noël Burch, this looks to be a visually intriguing essay on the inhumanity of the global shipping trade

Surreal/Political: Animations from Oberhausen takes place 9 Feb, 7.30pm at the CCA, Glasgow

Oberhausen archivist Carsten Spicher will be in attendance to introduce the screening and discuss the films