DVD Review: Surviving Life

Master animator Jan Švankmajer's psychoanalytical comedy

Note: this week (23.6.11), the only new cinema release is the Jim Carrey comedy Mr. Popper’s Penguins (showtimes | IMDb), which is only playing in a Czech-dubbed version on local screens.


Přežít svůj život (Surviving Life)

Written and directed by Jan Švankmajer. Starring Václav Helšus, Klára Issová, Zuzana Kronerová, Emília Došeková, Daniela Bakerová, Pavel Nový, Jan Počepický, Jana Oľhová, Karel Brožek, Jan Švankmajer.

Beloved by animation fans worldwide though largely overlooked on his home turf, master animator Jan Švankmajer is, perhaps, best-known for his eclectic output of shorts from the mid-60s through the early-90s; my favorite: Darkness-Light-Darkness (forgive the YouTube quality, and do yourself a favor and pick up the definitive BFI collection). After Alice, his debut 1988 feature-length film, Švankmajer has continued to mix genres and styles in features (culminating in Šílení, which is, I think his best work) to the delight of fans across the globe.

Přežít svůj život (Surviving Life) came and went from Czech cinemas with little fanfare last fall, and wasn´t screened locally with English subtitles. Since then, it´s made a light splash on the festival circuit, picking up positive reviews in trades Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, among other publications.

In almost every way, Surviving Life is Švankmajer´s most accessible work, from the style of animation to the fairly straightforward (if you want it to be) narrative. Now, “accessible” isn´t something I´m looking for in a Švankmajer work, but I was generally impressed by the results here and can easily recommend the film to most audiences without reservations.

“We couldn´t raise enough cash,” a paper cutout of the director tells us as he introduces the film. “This was supposed to be a regular feature film…but we had to use a much simpler technique: paper cutout animation, like in the old kids´ TV programs.” Švankmajer goes on to explain how they were to save on transport costs, actor´s fees, and catering (because photographs don´t eat). I love his tongue-in-cheek genuineness here. In one of the DVD supplements, he concedes that they didn´t actaully save on the actors´ fees, as actors tend to want to be paid based on the size of their role, and for the use of their image. At least he saved them some time.

Anyway, the cutout animation here has been directly influenced by the Terry Gilliam Monty Python´s Flying Circus school. It´s crude, in many ways (though the sheer amount of photographs used to complete some sequences is impressive), but also genuinely appealing, with free reign for Švankmajer to throw us whatever comes into his mind: women with chicken heads, chicken with woman heads, and everything in between (also: teddy bears with raging erections, armies of toy soldiers, giant snakes and alligators roaming city streets, and leftover tongues from Šílení.)

Surviving Life tells the story of Evžen (Václav Helšus), happily married to wife Milada (Zuzana Kronerová), who has strange dreams of a woman named Eve or Emily (Klára Issová). Like Alice down the rabbit hole, he´s drawn in; he wants to dream more, not unlike the heroes of The Science of Sleep and The Good Night.

A doctor recommends Evžen see a psychoanalyst; soon, Dr. Holubová (Daniela Bakerová) is revealing the meaning behind his dreams via anima, super-ego, and Oedipus complex, and Evžen´s further dreams start to make sense. Or is she just spouting Freudian nonsense and shaping Evžen´s innocent dream world into complex mother issues?

Surviving Life can be enjoyed on both levels, as a straightforward examination of dreams or a subversive satire on Freudian theory (the latter being my preferred interpretation). Either way, a particularly memorable, even haunting, climatic scene provides a sense of closure. While the real and dream worlds blend together – at times, you won´t be able to tell them apart – the director´s usual surrealist tendencies have generally been toned down here. Purists might object, but general audiences will find this a more approachable film than usual.

Švankmajer will turn 77 later this year, but shows no signs of slowing down. Up next: an adaptation of Karel Čapek’s On the Life of a Beetle, tentatively scheduled for release in 2015.

Image Quality: 8/10

Surviving Life looks great on DVD, with sharp detail and a strong depth of field between the cutout animation and the flat backgrounds. Due to the nature of the animation, the precise quality of the image is hard to judge, but this appears to be a faithful recreation of the cinematic experience.

Live-action scenes – almost exclusively dialogue close-ups – look terrific, with a great deal of detail apparent in the actors´ faces.

Sound Quality: 9/10

A robust 5.1 Dolby Digital mix centers the dialogue while utilizing surround speakers for music, ambient sound, and effects; while the audio in the film is far from earth-shattering – your subwoofers aren´t going to be put to the test – this is a particularly great mix that serves the film well and creates a noticeable surround sound experience.

Subtitles are offered in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Czech for the hearing impaired.

Bonus Features: 9/10

Here´s a nice surprise: every last bonus feature on the disc is English-friendly, right down to the trailers; English (and Czech – but not the other languages the feature caters for) subtitles are provided on each supplement where appropriate:

  • Making Of (14:01) focuses on Švankmajer & the actors (he uses his own hands to choke lead Helšus).
  • Making Of (Technological Process) (09:59) takes a revealing (if brief) look at the animation process, from photographing the actors speaking each syllable to filming the cutouts on 35mm.
  • A Dream About a Dream (22:51) is a particularly candid behind-the-scenes featurette that focuses on Švankmajer´s interpretation of his own work and impressions by the cast & crew (“I was expecting some kind of extrovert who drinks a lot…but he keeps it all inside.”)
  • Trailers (1:09 & 2:03)
  • An Alternate Ending is pretty interesting, though wisely wasn´t used in the final film, which ends note-perfectly as is. This alternate does have a great final line, however, and I´m surprised Švankmajer didn´t fit it in elsewhere: “I am the Jabberwocky” ties in to both Švankmajer´s Alice and his 1971 short Jabberwocky, along with Terry Gilliam´s Jabberwocky.
  • Work in Progress Photography (3:34), a slideshow of BTS photography.
  • Photo Collage (0:55), a slideshow of selected photos from the feature.
  • Poster, a half-minute look at the theatrical poster.
  • Instead of an Explication, additional DVD-ROM content.


Surviving Life may not be Jan Švankmajer´s best work, but it´s easily his most accessible, and a more-than worthy addition to his oeuvre. This DVD package – with superb image & sound quality and candid, revealing (and English-subtitled!) bonus features – is a real treat, especially for international audiences. Highly recommended.

Screengrabs (click to view full resolution):


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