Bright Lights Film Journal

It’s Alive! Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik (Otesánek)

If only “little” Otik had stayed that way!

Despite its tortured history, Eastern Europe, but particularly Czechoslovakia, has managed to produce an almost uninterrupted flow of the world’s great animation over the past few decades. This is due to consistent state support for the format, a long folkloric tradition, and individual artists like Jan Svankmajer who manage to get state funding for projects that would induce seizures in knock-kneed American grant committees.

Svankmajer, who mines some of the same black-comic territory as the Brothers Quay, started working with stop-animation shorts in the 1960s but has turned increasingly to features that mingle live action with startling animation effects. His reputation was made with the masterful Alice (1987), based on the Lewis Carroll classic; Faust (1994) ; and the fetish classic Conspirators of Pleasure (1996). With his latest feature, Little Otik (2001), Svankmajer is poised to move out of the ghetto tag of animator and take his place as a cinema visionary who happens to use animation in his films.

Little Otik is based on a Czech fairy tale about a childless couple who adopt a tree stump that looks like a baby. As usual with fairy tales, any deviation from normal behavior triggers disaster – in this case the stump comes to life, grows huge, and starts murdering and eating everybody and everything in its path. Svankmajer, who’s credited with story, screenplay, and direction, uses this narrative as a springboard for a genre-busting masterpiece about the perils of parenthood and what can happen to those who don’t leave well enough alone with the status quo nature has determined.

One of Svankmajer’s great strengths is in visualizing an unpredictable, maddeningly persistent impinging of a kind of demonic world into prosaic reality. This is evident from the opening scene of Little Otik, where human babies are swept up in nets like fish, weighed at an outdoor market, and wrapped in newspaper to be taken home for purposes not yet clear – adoption? consumption? Elsewhere we see an infant inside a watermelon. It’s soon apparent that hallucinated babies, filtered through a cracked worldview, are the obsession of Bozena Horak (Veronika Zilkova), whose barrenness is the tragedy of her life. As a joke, her husband Karel (Jan Hartl) brings her a tree stump that he’s carved into what vaguely resembles a baby. To his shock, she falls completely under the spell of this inanimate creature, powdering and diapering it, kissing and hugging it, and defending it from Karel’s attempts to end the joke and “kill” the “baby.” Svankmajer takes the trope to heights of absurdity as Bozena concocts an elaborate fiction around her pregnancy, stuffing nine pillows of different size to stick under her blouse each month (each pillow has a huge number on the front). This craziness is of course encouraged by the neighborhood busybodies, who attribute all the curiosities attendant upon this “birth” – nobody witnessed it, nobody sees the baby – to Bozena’s eccentricities and the charming confusions of first-time motherhood.

Svankmajer is never shy about visualizing the barely imaginable, and per the fairy tale, when the wooden child comes to life, the director ratchets up Bozena’s insanity and the audience’s discomfort level by having it suck her nipple, gurgle, and in one memorable sequence that portends disaster, try to suck the hair out of her head. (Typical of the mindlessly doting mother being skewered here, she interprets this as a fashion matter: li’l Otik is suggesting she cut her hair.) As the creature grows out of its pram to frightening proportions, its demands increase. Homely-ironic images of what looks like hundreds of baby bottles filled and waiting contrast with the monster’s ruthless destruction, via a big ugly maw, of anyone who comes near it.

Material like this is so extreme it’s nearly impossible to carry off, but the film encourages us to suspend disbelief partly by anchoring the narrative in humdrum characters (played straight by the actors) and their depressingly realistic daily lives. The apartment house where the Horaks live (and where they hide the “kid”) is filled with minutely observed, creepy-comic subplots: nosy 10-year-old neighbor brat Alzbetka’s detective work that uncovers what’s really going on and makes her an accomplice to Otik; a decrepit, nearsighted pervert whose lust for Alzbetka is used against him by the canny little girl; and the Horaks themselves, who alternately refer to Otik as “son!” and “that monster” and seem helpless in the face of their unlikely parental impulses to stop its reign of terror.

Bozena’s, and occasionally her weary husband’s, embrace of the monster occasions some of Little Otik‘s most powerful sequences. One of these is a distressingly real scene of “child abuse” when Karel grabs the wooden baby, still small then, and repeatedly smashes it against a table as Bozena screams in anguish, “Give me my baby!” In a brilliant stroke, Otik’s voice remains that of a gurgling, pathetic infant when it’s wreaking major havoc, giving the film a surprising pathos.

The film is also capable of charm, though it’s far from unalloyed. In a dreamy sequence, Alzbetka reads the fairy tale on which the film is based, and the screen is filled with fanciful folk art showing the pathetic couple, their adoption of the stump, and its progress from fake-baby enriching their empty lives to towering monster devouring them.

While there’s more screen time devoted to “real people” in the film than in some of his past work, Svankmajer doesn’t stint on the visually outré. The old pervert’s horniness for Alzbetka is visualized in a hilariously weird close-up of his crotch, where the buttons pop and a hand creeps out. But the director saves his best chops for Otik, a cooing, crying mess of branches and rotting teeth. One of the lures of Little Otik is its expert balancing act between the grotesque, the comic, and the pathetic. Like the best art, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the film. And as another monster on the cultural landscape would say, that’s a good thing.