Last year, Jan Švankmajer, the great master of surrealist cinema, returned to his roots with another stop-motion film mixed with live footage in the same vein as his classics Alice (1988) and Faust (1994). Yet there is something that is immediately striking in Insects (2018), namely that it keeps breaking the fourth wall and working with meta-levels. There is, first, an introduction where Švankmajer speaks directly to the audience, offering cues to how the movie is supposed to be understood. Then, throughout the film we see how the practical and stop-motion effects were created; we witness various stage directions to the actors, who each talk about their dreams to the camera. Finally, as Insects is somewhat of an adaptation of a play by the brothers Čapek, we ourselves witness an amateur theatre group working on its adaptation.
Sure, there’s nothing new about being “meta” in cinema, we might even perceive it as an outdated gimmick, but it is something we might not expect from a surrealist film. After all, if they are famously interested in dreams and the power of the unconscious, then ‘breaking the spell’ and showing the artificiality of it seems to be something they would rather avoid. And indeed, apart from the famous last shot of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, the meta-level is something we don’t see in films that are strictly surrealist (as opposed to merely surreal, absurd, or just weird and dream-like). Let us therefore follow this question, namely of what the function of playing with meta-levels in a surrealist film might be.
The method of interruption
In Insects, we often see the creation of the practical effects before seeing them realised. It is in that sense not like a retrospective “explanation” of how the effect was done, and more like an immediate interruption of the action that takes us by surprise. The lengthy parenthesis, where we see the whole process of creating the effect in great detail, stands in stark contrast to the instant in which it actually takes place. Such a technique of making the viewer aware that he is watching a movie is surely very old. Indeed, we can trace this method of interruption not only to surrealism as part of the “isms” of the avant-garde of the 1920’s, but to the whole aesthetic praxis of that time, as it was most famously condensed in the Brechtian term of Verfremdung (estrangement).
This technique was set in opposition to the common naturalist performances, whose goal was to present a realistic story that captivated the viewer, where he’d immerse himself so as to identify with the characters and relate to their fates. Estrangement was supposed to interrupt this ‘sinking’ into the diegetic world and awaken the viewer from his passivity, so that he’d become aware of his situation and to reflect not only on what is happening on stage, but also on his role in the constellation of the performance. This active viewer stands in complete opposition to the passive consumer of the play. While the latter is still supposed to judge the performance, according to the question if he had been pleased or not, the active viewer participates in the interpretation and the construction of meaning of the performance. The active viewer has not to consume, but to work.
This constellation of activity, awareness, and interpretation, becomes particularly interesting in the case of surrealism. The latter’s fascination in dreams and the processes of our unconscious is directly related to Freudian theory and its thesis that our dreams have meaning precisely because they are a result of the workings of our unconscious. The whole process of analysis, as it is conceptualised by Freud, is about the becoming-aware (Bewusstwerdung) of unconscious processes that guide our lives, and it is through the patient’s and the analysist’s activity that they become uncovered. The parallel to the method of interruption above becomes clear. But if for Freud, it is analysis that ‘interrupts’ the unconscious automatisms of our daily lives, the prime interest of surrealism is rather the dream itself. So how should we understand the relation of analysis to surrealist film? Do they somehow coincide, or is Freudian theory supposed to be the ‘blueprint’ for how these films are supposed to be understood? The latter would be redundant, a lazy game of hide-and-seek, especially since the viewer has dreams of his own that he can analyse just as well. The former wouldn’t make much sense, especially since analysis was itself supposed to be applicable to works of art, as Freud himself interpreted Oedipus and The Sandman; and the surrealist films are evidently themselves works of art, and not mere interpretations of it. So, how does Freudian theory relate to the aesthetic of surrealism? To understand that, we need to first understand the theory itself.
Freud’s theory of dreams
We won’t have to go in too deep here; what is of interest to us is Freud’s differentiation of the manifest dream-content and the latent dream-thoughts, and the relation between those two (cf. The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 782). The manifest dream is that which we actually experience, those weird and confusing things that we see and hear in our dreams. Freud posits that despite its appearance, the manifest dream actually has a meaning, namely that it expresses one (or several) of our repressed desires; it is a wish-fulfilment (Wunscherfüllung, cf. ibid., chapter III). Repression occurs when our inner censor, for whatever reason, doesn’t allow us to become conscious of a certain desire. This prohibition doesn’t obliterate the desire, it rather forces it to remain in the unconscious, from where it keeps urging for satisfaction. Due to the nature of our dreams, where our inner control mechanisms are more relaxed, these desires reappear again, but, as the censor is still working, they have to be expressed in a distorted form. Freud compares this to the political writer, who, so as to still be able to publish his critique, needs to find alternative ways of expressing it (cf. ibid., p. 638). Hence, he needs to invent certain strategies of disguising and expressing whatever it is that he feels that needs to be said. In the same way, when our repressed desires urge to be satisfied in their hallucinatory form—as a surrogate, because they can’t be satisfied in reality—our dreaming selves find creative ways to both express and hide them from our inner censor. The actual desire, which is ‘encrypted’ in the manifest dream, is the latent meaning behind it.
The process of ‘encrypting’ the latent meaning in manifest images, the creation of our actual dream, is what Freud calls the Traumarbeit (dream-work, cf. Introductory Lectures, lecture XI), and just like with the political writer, there are certain strategies that are used here: Displacements (Verschiebung), condensations (Verdichtung), the transformation of thoughts into visual images (Umsetzung von Gedanken in visuelle Bilder). For example, a man dreamt of putting his brother into a box (Kasten), which he then associated with cupboard (Schrank), which gives him the latent thought behind the dream, namely that his brother ought to restrict himself (sich ein-schränken) (cf. The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 862). As we can see, these displacements are often of linguistic and visual nature; they are quite adventurous and always related to the personal history of the dreamer. It is what the latter has experienced the day before (the Tagesreste) that is disguised or rearranged in such a way that the actual meaning behind the images is hidden. We hereby satisfy our inner censor andthe repressed desires, namely by creating connections between images and meanings through various acts of displacement.
At the same time, there are certain objects that appear in our dreams that have “constant translations” (Introductory Lectures, p. 3244), a fixed meaning; Freud calls them symbols (cf. ibid., lecture X). With the symbols, the connection of the (dreamt) objects to their meanings is fixed and standardised, they have nothing to do with the dreamer who is usually unaware of the connection (cf. ibid., p. 3246). Some examples for such symbols are the house for the human body, small animals and vermin for children and siblings, departures for dying (cf. ibid., p. 3247). The sources for these symbols are manifold, “from fairy tales and myths, from buffoonery and jokes, from folklore and from poetic and colloquial linguistic usage” (ibid., p. 3252). Even though the connection of some symbols is very obvious, sometimes even banal—for example every oblong object (potentially) symbolising the penis (cf. ibid. p. 3248)—it seems that their meaning is fixed by culture. This is why Ricœur calls this the culture-work (travail de culture) instead of the dream-work, which belongs to the displacements we’ve worked out above (De l’interprétation, p. 482). Those are therefore the two main methods of ‘encrypting’ our latent desires in manifest dreams: the displacements and the symbols.
The opposite way, the ‘decryption’ of the latent text behind the manifest weirdness, is “the work of interpretation” as part of the analytic process (cf. Introductory Lectures, p. 3262). While the analyst can only decipher the displacements by finding out more about the patient’s personal story—because these distortions are personal—he can understand the meaning of the symbols without asking, because they are typified and stereotyped. This can apply to whole typical dreams, like the dream of flying. As the creative aspect of dreams is in the ‘encryption’—even though Freud’s interpretations are often very original and sharp, their intention is to rediscover something that has been ‘hidden’ in the first place—we might already see that surrealism will be more interested in the former process. But if, again, surrealism is merely about hiding such latent content in direct depictions of dreams, the creative aspect gets lost once again. After all, the interest of Freudian interpretation is to resolve certain issues that the patient is suffering from, or to uncover certain desires that a society or artist is unaware of. But if an artist purposely starts hiding such contents in his work, it is all reduced to a repetitive game of hide-and-seek. How can surrealist film therefore refer to the dynamics that Freudian analysis has uncovered without becoming redundant? To answer that, we should have a closer look at the two films that are probably the only strictly surrealist films of the classical era, the works by Buñuel and Dali: Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930).
We will immediately notice that these movies are weird. Are they mere depictions of manifest dreams after all? The beginning of Un Chien Andalou seems to confirm this suspicion. Here, we have two ‘images’ as experienced in a dream: The cloud passing in front of the full moon, the razor cutting the eye. There is an obvious visual analogy between the two, so are they a manifest and a latent dream accordingly? But not only is there the problem that they are both evidently manifest, it is also quite unclear, what it would mean that the passing cloud ‘decrypts’ or ‘encrypts’ the cutting of the eye. Additionally, we don’t have a patient who’d tell us their ‘backstory’, which is needed to contextualise any displacement. We aren’t getting very far here.
Enchanted by the striking (and very famous) images, we forgot that the movie begins with a title card: Il était une fois– Once upon a time. Surely, there is no more stereotyped beginning to any literary genre as this one, and it stands in a stark contrast to the following scene. If the displacements above, with the razor and the cloud, didn’t get us far, then maybe this usage of a genre cliché might get us further. Here, we can recognise the other aspect of the ‘decryption’ of dreams, namely symbols. After all, those were also images or objects with a fixed meaning, just like Once upon a timeis. This connection to genre clichés is even more obvious in L’Age d’Or, which begins as a documentary on scorpions and later includes documentary footage about Rome. Additionally, there is a sequence in a cottage that evokes bandit movies, a scene in a restaurant that evokes the genre of the romance film. But why is the symbol, the cliché connected to genre in surrealist film? We can understand genres, especially in light of their usage in these two films, as types of production within the film industry, where certain sets of standardised images, phrases and storylines are produced; in short, clichés. Considering that film is inherently part of an industry, and that it is meant to be viewed by a large audience, and, lastly, that it is itself a collective product, we can see the reason for this connection here.
Even though we could identify displacements and symbols in these surrealist films, they didn’t really help us in ‘decrypting’ their meanings. What seems to be the issue here, is that both elements seem themselves to be weirdly displaced here: Instead of the doubling of the manifest and latent text, we have two manifest images that form an analogy, while the cliché of the fairy tale, which, read as a symbol, would have a fixed meaning, doesn’t lead to an actual fairy tale at all. Adding Once upon a time at the beginning of the film didn’t help us to understand it. The cliché seems to be suspended, just like the displacements are; they are no longer tools, but, one might say, displaced tools, means of pure production.
We can see the shift more clearly if we remind ourselves that the analytic interpretation of dreams works with given displacements and symbols, i.e. actual dreams, while the surrealist film is actively producing them in an aesthetic process. In that sense we might say that what interests surrealist film is not the latent meaning, the subliminal desires of the film industry, of culture, or of the director — in short, it is not an art that interprets or is meant to be interpreted — but it is interested in the actual production of displacements and clichés itself. This is no less ‘political’. After all, the film industry is keen on monopolising the production of images, and to simplify the process, it does so through a standardised production process (genres) and the production of standardised images (clichés). Repeating the same formulae allows for an easier prediction of the economic success of a film and to a more efficient production. There are obviously outliers, but the majority of films that are produced still relies almost exclusively on clichés, and it is for that reason that they can be easily consumed by the viewer: There is nothing to interpret there, because all meanings have been fixed. The reappropriation of the activity of displacement, which is essentially the creative act of giving meaning to images, means therefore breaking the industrial monopoly of the production of meanings. We all dream, which means that we are all able to give meanings to objects and images.
The creative aspect of the dream is the Traumarbeit, the ‘encryption’ of the latent desire in new ways of expressions, metaphors, metonymies, allusions, disguises. We are at our most creative not when we try to directly attain satisfaction, but where we hide our desires from the (inner or outer) ‘authorities’, even though the ersatzsatisfactions are never as good as the actual ones. In surrealist film, this creation of new displacements, of new ways of giving meanings to objects and images, becomes an aesthetic technique, which itself displaces the technique of analysis. The production of displacements is no longer about ‘encrypting’ a hidden content, but about the creative act that comes along with it; at the same time, it is no longer the viewer’s job to ‘decipher’ such a content, but rather to participate in this creative act himself, the creation of new displacements and symbols (what Ricœur called the “prospective symbols,” cf. De l’interprétation, p. 486). After all, in our dreams, we all show this creative ability of creating new meanings, of displacing, condensing and disguising our latent desires in new images, and the task is to ‘transport’ this ability into our daily lives.
In that sense, the outlook of this technique is to go beyond the area of aesthetic production, and to become an active cultural praxis that would result in an active culture. Instead of accepting the claim of the cultural industry to the monopoly of meaning production, where the meanings of images and narratives are fixed, the active culture that surrealist film sought would ‘democratise’ this process. Here, we might revisit the beginning of Un Chien Andalou and see that the constellation of the eye and the cut alludes to the filmic process, forming an analogy with the camera-eye and the cut of the montage—and of course it is Buñuel himself who makes the cut. It is through a cut that the human eye is displaced with an animal eye, and through a cut that the moon/cloud is displaced by the eye/razor. The process of filmic montage is itself one of perpetual displacement, with the capacity of bringing different images and associations together through cutting. The praxis of film becomes itself a celebration of displacement, of the creation of new ways of connecting meanings to images.
But why this partisanship against the cliché, why the proliferation of displacements? For this, we have to remember that what is displaced in dreams, are desires. As we have seen, we have two ways of (indirectly) expressing them in our dreams: The displacements and the symbols. But the desire that is expressed in the typical dreams, like the dream of flying, is itself stereotyped, it is an ‘anonymous’ desire that is shared by many people. This is why these dreams can be interpreted without talking to the patient. The more a dream relies on symbols, the more typified the desire itself becomes. On the other hand, by using the creative energies of displacement, desire itself is liberated and personalised. The political writer constantly needs to find new metaphors to evade the censor; but what the censor wants is not to limit what can be said, but what can be desired. Just the same, the primary interest of Freudian analysis is not understanding the dream, but to remove the inner resistances (Widerstände) that suppress the patient’s desires (cf. ibid., p. 398f.), and, as Freud himself says, therapy means often working against the inner censor.
We can see the relation between psychoanalysis and surrealism more clearly now. As the basic mechanism of our unconscious is displacement, it is clear that the surrealist technique forms an analogy with it. But, in our unconscious, these displacements are primarily limitative, in as far as the direct satisfaction of desire becomes impossible and a replacement needs to be found. The technique of surrealism is, on the other hand, all about freeing up desires through displacements; and it is in that sense not limitative but liberating. But the surrealist technique also forms an analogy with analysis. While repression is all about hindering desires from becoming conscious, surrealism and analysis are both interested in bringing to light, in becoming aware of these processes; and they both do it, as we have seen, with an anti-authoritarian gesture. Yet, while, for example, the technique of automatic writing is meant to create something lasting, a piece of art, therapeutic free association is about resolving an unconscious conflict. In contrast to the reconstructive analysis, surrealism is productive. Productivity is, after all, nothing but the liberation of desire, of Eros, the breaking of the cliché, the reappropriation of the production of meaning.
Insects once more
Let us return, after this long deviation, to Švankmajer’s work. It is striking that we can see this production of displacements in his stop-motion oeuvre as well, which we can now understand as a material displacement. Various materials gain new meanings through their ‘vivification’ and condensation with other materials or objects in the stop-motion process, as we can see it happening in a film like Alice. But does the same apply to the use of meta-levels in Insects?
The meta ‘commentary’ interrupts the action and offers a specific interpretation of what is happening. Showing the way a certain practical effect has been done is analogous to the anatomic dissection, where an image is indeed ‘analysed’ (in the etymological meaning of the word). But this creation of new levels doesn’t fix a specific meaning to the one that is ‘commented on’, but rather multiplies the meanings that come along with it. The ‘commentary’ itself is a new image that needs to be interpreted, but to do so, new images need to be produced that once again need to be commented on. In a certain sense, then, the meta-level is a displacement of the image ‘below’; it is itself a displaced image with a displaced meaning. Instead of ‘digging down’ through the images until the latent, original meaning is found, Insects creates more and more connections until it is no longer clear, what the ‘original’ text was in the first place: Is it the play by the brothers Čapek that the movie adapts? Is it the movie Insects itself? But is Švankmajer’s introduction part of the movie, or is it already ‘meta’? We need to see the introduction, where Švankmajer tells us that the movie is meaningless, in its double ambivalence. On the one hand, this statement is itself a displacement, a trap to feign naivety; but it is also true because the surrealist film is not to be interpreted or analysed, ‘decrypted’ until we find its true meaning; it is about the creation of new meanings through displacements. The displacements in Insects are manifold—from the director Švankmajer to the director of the theatre group, from the pregnant character Mrs. Cricket to the pregnant actress etc. etc. — but noticing them won’t bring us closer to any ‘hidden’ meaning; it is more like participating in a creative game. A game that couldn’t be further from the repetitive one of hide-and-seek, as we are hereby invited to continue the productive process by multiplying these displacements ourselves, by creating new meanings in our daily lives, not only in our dreams. It is only with our activity that the technique of surrealism can become a cultural praxis, and it is only through such an active culture that our desire can be liberated.
The Freud references are from Ivan Smith’s digital edition of the Complete Works (2011) that can be easily found on the internet.
Ricœur, Paul. De l’interprétation. Essai sur Freud, Paris 1965.
Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies at the University of Zurich. He is also a co-editor of Epoché (ἐποχή) magazine.