'Down into the Cellar': The Architectural Setting as an Embodied Topography of the Imagination in Two Films of Jan Švankmajer

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The work of the well-known Czech film maker and artist Jan Švankmajer is informed by his Surrealist preoccupation with the primary phenomena of embodiment, experience and the imagination. He believes that the apparently inanimate things and places which we encounter in the given world have a life of their own. Having witnessed certain events, and been touched by people in different psychic states, they accumulate memories which they are then able to communicate to us. He always emphasizes the most primary senses – in particular touch and hearing – above vision, and delights in obliterating the artificial boundary between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ experience, between reality and dream. Švankmajer often portrays the architectural settings in his films – the always animate world in which his stories are played out – as the echoes and extensions of his characters’ landscapes of the imagination, so that in some cases they almost become characters in their own right. In doing this, he is intuitively alluding to the presence of a latent world, in which human experience and imagination are situated. As with the topography of dream, the structure of places within the stories is often disjointed and disorientating. In his use of architecture, Švankmajer is particularly attuned to deep symbolic archetypes – the dark cavern, the tower, the theatre of the world – which are part of the latent world. The paper briefly examines Švankmajer’s thematic sources - particularly Mannerism and Surrealism – for their understanding of the mysterious and animate nature of the experiential world. It then interprets the structure of Švankmajer’s topography in two of his short films, Down To the Cellar and The Fall of the House of Usher. The paper represents a highly original interpretation of Svankmajer’s films, especially as they relate to the experience of architecture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalPapers of Surrealism
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2011
Event'Architecture and Phenomenology II' International Conference - Kyoto, Japan
Duration: 11 Jun 200915 Nov 2012


  • Surrealism
  • architecture+film
  • imagination
  • perception
  • phenomenology
  • Jan Svankmajer
  • animation


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