Šílení (The Lunatics) (2005), directed by Jan Švankmajer

To express his frustration with life in post-communist society, Jan Švankmajer uses tried and tested techniques from his previous films along with themes from Edgar Allan Poe´s short stories “The Premature Burial” and “The Mad Psychiatrist” and the character of Marquis de Sade. The film takes places in France at the beginning of the 19th century, yet it is full of motifs from the present (motorways, electric lighting, modern medical instruments, automobiles), so that its relationship to the contemporary era would be direct and obvious.

The director has prefaced the film with his own introduction where he stands in front of the camera and talks to the viewer about what he sees as the themes of his film. Švankmajer characterises his film as a horror and says “so, this is not a work of art; art is almost completely dead now, anyway”. In the director´s view, the film´s main topic is the “ideological dispute about how to manage a lunatic asylum” – either by means of freedom, or by means of the conservative method of “control and punishment”. Švankmajer points out that there is also a third way – which “combines the most negative aspects of both systems – and that is the lunatic asylum in which we live.”

At the beginning of the film, we meet young man Jean Berlot (Pavel Liška), returning home from the funeral of his mother who had been suffering from a mental disorder. Her predicament has traumatised him so much that whenever he feels stressed out, he suffers from a nightmare in which lunatic asylum orderlies are trying to tie him up in a straitjacket. Like a somnambulist, Berlot fights them while asleep and smashes the furniture in the room where he is sleeping. It gradually turns out tha all the protagonists in the film are lunatics. It seems that Švankmajer argues that there are no sane people in this world.

While travelling, Berlot makes the acquaintance of Marquis de Sade (Jan Tříska), who, in cooperation with Dr. Murlloppe (Jaroslav Dušek) runs a lunatic asylum. They do so in a very liberal way: there is chaos and anarchy in the institution. Murlloppe is trying to cure his patients by giving them absolute freedom. Berlot is horrified by the Marquis de Sade´s heretical views. De Sade argues that God is a sadist who has deliberately created Man as an imperfect being. In de Sade´s view, God tempts Man to commit sins. Nature is a treacherous and criminal Mother. In spite of being shocked, however, Berlot remains in de Sade´s company. In the first place, he finds certain parallels with de Sade´s life in his own (de Sade has also been traumatised by the death of his mother: she had been buried alive by mistake and de Sade suffers from a mental disorder which he is trying to eradicate by having himself repeatedly buried in a coffin from which he then frees himself by hacking the coffin open with knives and axes he carries in his overcoat). Moreover, Jean Berlot fancies Charlotta, a young girl who accompanies Marquis de Sade and his servant Dominic and who participates, along with other girls, in de Sade´s sexual orgies and heretical masses which Berlot happens to witness.

In the lunatic asylum Charlotta works as an assistant to Dr. Murlloppe, the director of the institution. People say that Charlotta is Murlloppe´s daughter and also his lover. Charlotta tells Berlot that a year ago, the patients in the lunatic asylum staged a successful rebellion, overpowered the original management of the hospital, tarred them and feathered them and imprisoned them in the cellars of the building. Charlotta begs Berlot to free the imprisoned director of the institution and his orderlies.

Acting without reliable information, like the protagonists of Zelenka´s Knoflíkáři, the naive young man frees Dr. Coulmier and his men, the original managers of the institution, from the cellars. Only now does it become evident that they have been using torture as a means of therapy and they immediately bring terror back into the lunatic asylum. Jean Berlot also becomes its victim. We learn that Charlotta has had a sexual relationship with Dr. Coulmier.

Jan Švankmajer was evidently disappointed after the fall of communism to find out that people behave like lunatics when they find they are free. When freedom comes, it inevitably degenerates into unmanageable anarchy, in Švankmajer´s view. In such chaos, uninformed and shocked individuals may yearn for the return of authoritarian rule, but once the dictators again manage to seize power, a reign of terror ensues from which there is no escape. Švankmajer is unhappy with the situation in Czechoslovakia after the return of freedom, but he warns that a return to a dictatorship would be worse.

The film´s narrative, which is played in real-life situations by human actors, is regularly interrupted by short animated sequences in which various chunks of meat, animal tongues or brains move about. Here, Švankmajer uses his well-known method of contrasting dead matter (wood, nails, bones) with living biological tissues and drawing the viewer´s attention to the differences in their textures. The pieces of meat, which grotesquely slide about, function as a synechdoche of human beings and their unconstrainable “natural animality”. After the management of the lunatic asylum reintroduces “order” into the institution, we see a line of regular portions of “imprisoned” slices of meet on plastic trays, covered by clingfilm, lying on supermarket shelves.