There are ten billion insects per square kilometre in Prague. And on the rest of the Earth’s surface.

Regarding the screening of the film "Hmyz" (Insect) by Jan Švankmajer

Jan Švankmajer
Joan Baixas

The credit titles of this film are interwoven with a mass of heaving insects, wing casings, abdomens, wings and legs that move and pile up like a live boiling brown soup. Mud, slime, live sludge.

Three Russian dolls:

  • an actor playing an actor in the role of a beetle.
  • a director who acts and plays the role of a director directing an actor/beetle who plays as director of other actors.
  • Švankmajer’s insect-actors eat the talking insects of the Čapek brothers, who then eat Starewitch’s animated insects, and all those insects are related to Kafka’s beetle: «One morning, after a restless night’s sleep, Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed to find that he had turned into a monstrous insect».

And these actors can’t use the Stanislavski method because they play beetles and beetles have no memory. (Or do they?)

Švankmajer, in dialogue with Starewitch, tells him: you turn beetles into actors, I turn actors into beetles.

There are ten billion insects per square kilometre in Prague. And on the rest of the earth’s surface.

Mr. Švankmajer says that, if a writer can start a book with an introduction to his readers (key for them to understanding the work), why shouldn’t a film director do the same? He then explains himself by saying that there is nothing to be explained. That is what is called surrealism in books; they should use another word that makes people laugh more.

Everything is shown as it is, such as the movement of a beetle trapped in a shoe box with hundreds of other beetles, all constantly squirming inside that same box.

Buzzing, crawling beetles piled up in a tight space, buzzing, clinging to the window. Only a piece of transparent glass prevents them from invading: a threatening vision, leftover angst from a nightmare, a metaphor?

Humanoid beetles, beetle-like humans.

They’re all puppets apart from him. Of every being that appears in the film, Mr. Švankmajer appears to be the only one with insight, who is reasonable and has any common sense, and he says...


Did you catch that on film?

Yes, it’s all there.

OK, that’s all OK then

But, he didn’t say «sound!», this doesn’t make sense.

If none of this makes any sense, how do you expect me to specifically take this into account?

Peals of laughter on the film set, «none of this makes any sense» seems to be the filming team’s key expression, they’re having fun.

The Insect Play (1924), by the Čapek brothers, wasn’t intended to be a political satire.

And why did the Čapek brothers have to give their piece a happy ending? Nobody was forcing them to.

They wanted to please the audience.

Scarabaeus laticollis or dung beetle, happy ending to a pessimistic piece.

And what’s the story about? I don’t know, I penned it instinctively, all in one go, like automatic writing, that’s all. No...

with no… rationale…

or morals….


With no rational or moral control…


This is the only way to prevent great artists’ messianic temptation to convert, improve, avert, refine humanity. This can’t work, just read Freud.

«The only good answer to the cruelty of life is the scorn of imagination», as a decadent Czech poet would say.

Who’ll tell me who I am?

Do you want to know the end version that I’ve chosen for our film, whether it’s upbeat or depressing?

A director should serve the author, or authors in this case. So they want to change the end? What  am I supposed to do? After all, it’s the great Čapek brothers, isn’t it?

Once we’ve clarified this point we can move on to the actor’s work.

A dung beetle: the earth explodes! I’m born, the great adventure starts here!

Love (for his wife, a dung beetle), our capital is our ball of rubbish, our ball of gold, our world, our joy and our happiness…

Forget about Stanislavski, just read the words and forget about feelings.

Minute 26:52, stop thinking for me.

… our little property, our nest, our house, our little residence...

ha ha…

I’m directing it like an animation film or puppet show: very short shots, minimum camera movement, stylised acting with no psychology, as if their heads and arms are controlled with strings. 

Basically, it’s a cannibal’s cold look.

People don’t like this piece of Švankmajer’s. I’m sure that he doesn’t want it to be liked. He attracts, hoodwinks, deceives, absorbs and makes you laugh, but he doesn’t want to please you.

Švankmajer has discarded his Arcimboldo style, he’s old now, he enjoys changing ... straitjackets.

... it’s good to have something, be the owner of some small possession, a lifetime dream...

The eyes are two white circles painted onto sunglasses, as if it’s all recently done, and improvised, as it is.

Throwing a knife, nailing a knife… have you any idea how to do it? No, I didn’t think so.

Kitsch and pop and grotesque and punk, dadaism and freakism.

… you can’t walk on the street any more, they’ve removed the it’s-safe-to-cross green man at traffic lights…

The audience enjoys theatre being like real life.

Great art is based on details, perfectly executed details.

... I have lots of dreams, very boring ones, I dream about going to buy shoes or fetching milk or jumping out of the window. All in black and white, of course...

… sometimes I wake up from a dream and I’m in another dream…

Cuts have a magical function in film. You’re here, you cut – and you’re somewhere else. Only dreams have that same magic.

Rehearsal’s over, it’s time to go home.

I’ve already said it.

A key to understanding.

Joan Baixas

4 January 2019