TV REVIEWS : Brooding Cartoons From Jan Svankmajer

The eerie films of the Czech artist Jan Svankmajer, airing tonight on “Alive From Off Center” (KCET Channel 28 at 11), are utterly unlike the cartoon series that American audiences associate with the word animation .

There are no talking mice, no slapstick comedy, no sticks of dynamite and no merchandise characters. A self-proclaimed surrealist and student of dreams, Svankmajer mixes animation and live-action techniques to create brooding, suggestive works that can be interpreted on many levels.

In the striking “Light Darkness Light,” which also screened recently at the Nuart Theatre, a pair of delicate clay hands assembles an anatomically accurate human body out of miscellaneous parts. Upon completion, the figure realizes that its home has become a cramped prison--a compelling allegory of conditions in the newly freed Eastern Bloc.

Similar political overtones give “Punch and Judy” an unsettling power. The hands of an unknown master manipulate Punch and Harlequin puppets in an escalating battle that ultimately destroys both participants. The hands set up a bier with funeral candles, then withdraw, presumably to seek other victims. Svankmajer worked as a puppeteer before he became a filmmaker, and he skillfully uses gestures and body language to imbue these rather stiff figures with a sense of life.


As its title suggests, “The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia,” subtitled “a work of agitprop,” is a political cartoon in motion: Svankmajer juxtaposes portraits of postwar Czech political leaders with often compelling images of birth and death. American viewers who aren’t familiar with the faces and reputations of these politicians will have trouble following the film.

Despite these limitations, this installment of “Alive From Off Center” offers viewers a rare look at an intriguing and highly individual talent.