Jan Švankmajer adapting a play by the Čapek brothers: this combination alone suggests that Insects must be an extraordinary project. Based on Karel and Josef Capek’s Pictures from the Insects’ Life (1922), filmmaker and artist Švankmajer has created a surreal comedy, which is pieced together by scenes from the actual film and behind-the-scenes insights. It starts with a ‘Preface’ by Švankmajer, who questions why films shouldn’t have an introduction by their authors if books do. It’s a simple yet innovative entrance and shows the director’s humorous approach to filmmaking from the start: he has to retake his introduction several times in a ‘behind-the-scenes’-‘behind-the-scenes’ multi-layered approach. At the ripe age of 84, Švankmajer clearly hasn’t lost any of his brilliant approach to film-making, which he’s excelled in since the 1960s as a member of the Czechoslovak Surrealist Group.
After the preface’s finally been caught on camera, we move right into the film. There’s Mr Cricket, the director (Jaromír Dulava), who’s the most passionate about bringing the Čapeks’ play to life. It’s only too bad that his crew doesn’t quite feel the same. His wife Ružena (Mrs Cricket, played by Kamila Magálova) is much more interested in flirting with ‘Sabre Wasp’ Václav (Jan Budar). Borovička (Jirí Lábus), the ‘Dung Beetle’, loves acting, but he has difficulties reading and couldn’t learn his lines because he’s had to work in the garden. Jituška the ‘Larva’ (Ivana Uhlírová) dispassionately reads her lines in an over-the-top ballerina costume, much more focused on her knitting project than the play. And then there’s the ‘Parasite’ Kopriva (Norbert Lichy), who makes the most inappropriate advances on Jituška, sleeps, or drinks beer and eats. It’s a chaotic crew, and Mr Cricket has his hands full trying to control them and making the rehearsal a successful one. Taking the play much more seriously than the others, he’s even brought in a glass case with insects so that the actors and actresses can see whom they’re supposed to be playing. One by one, these creatures come to life, turning the rehearsal into mayhem. Borovička’s soon chased by an oversized dung ball, while Mr Cricket’s legs are stuck in an anthill, and Jituška’s nearly driven to insanity with Kopriva drinking his beer, regardless of the big bug swimming in it.
Each time a scene reaches a height of tension, it’s interrupted by a glance behind the scenes, revealing special effects, the director’s instructions, or the painstakingly detailed process of creating stop-motion-animation sequences, as Borovička sees himself as a dung beetle in the mirror. Initially, these scenes interrupt the flow of the film, but after a while the two perspectives merge organically – up to a point where we become confused about what’s fiction and what’s reality as Švankmajer’s surrealist imagery takes over…
The Čapeks’ original play, written in the 1920s, was as an allegorical comment on the First Czechoslovak Republic, focusing on anthropomorphised insects, whose lives slowly descend into a militaristic society. Little of this critical social commentary’s visible in Insects. Instead, Švankmajer lets his characters slip into chaos, before providing a disturbing yet also kind of happy ending. At the same time, the montage of ‘documentary’ and the ‘actual film’ scenes seem to comment on Švankmajer’s artistic practice, especially his short trick films: one by one, individual pictures are pieced together to become a whole – much like Insects itself. We see the director at work and the work he produces at the same time until the lines between the two have become blurred.
Insects contains everything a good film should contain: complex characters, humour, an unexpected plot twist, beautiful imagery – and a sense that we’re being let into the secret of film making. Švankmajer’s showing off his many talents, jumbled together into one enticing masterpiece. Yet even though the film contains so much, with two storylines, characters that play multiple roles, and surrealist sequences, it’s transmitted to us with deceptive simplicity. Using Pictures from the Insects’ Life as a point of departure, Švankmajer makes the play his own without failing to give credit to the Čapek brothers’ original. Passed on from one generation of great Czech cultural figures to the next, Insects is an extraordinary film not to be missed.