Little Otik
review by Eddie Cockrell, 28 December 2001

No less an arbiter of tastes in both movies and all things Czech Milos Forman once put forth the equation that Disney plus Buńuel equaled Švankmajer, and that’s as good a place as any to start with Prague-based Jan Švankmajer’s fourth feature, the startling and exhilaratingly imaginative Little Otik. For it is this very blend of a deceptively family-friendly fairy tale with the shrewd and often grotesque brand of Surrealism on which Švankmajer’s staked his career that gives Little Otik its power, an odd and singular intersection of the familiar and the terrifying.

Desperate for a child, Karel Horák (Jan Hartl) fantasizes they're sold on the street like the cherished Christmas carp as his despondent wife Božena (Veronika Žilková), shut up in their city flat, sinks slowly into glassy-eyed depression. On a whim, he presents her with a cleverly hewn tree stump from the garden of their rural cottage, only to watch in nervous horror as her desperate longing wills the root to life.

Soon the appetite of what Božena has dubbed Otík grows to include cabbages, postmen and anything or anyone unfortunate enough to wander into its path. Meanwhile, precocious neighbor child Alžbĕtka Štádlerová (distinctively spooky newcomer Kristina Adamcová) has been reading up on the tragic ending of the original fairytale, and realizes it's up to her to elude her comically doting parents (Jaroslava Kretschmerová, Pavel Nový -- the latter a star of Švankmajer’s previous film, 1997’s Conspirators of Pleasure) and save Otík -- if she can.

Although considered by some to be inappropriate in these cautious times, the truly memorable fairy tales have always been those endowed with peculiar and unsettling blends of whimsy and gore. Such is the case with Little Otik, which continues the move towards live action begun by Švankmajer in Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci slasti, 1996). As always, there's an exhiliarating technical precision to Švankmajer's craft, a working method born of exquisite patience in the service of a boundless imagination. At once mischievous and cautionary, Little Otik is a bravura display of inspired artistry, Švankmajer's most accessible and charming feature to date (the two others are 1987’s Alice and 1994’s Faust—note the amount of time between features, a tribute to the painstaking work that goes into his stop-motion technique).

A card-carrying member of the Czechoslovak Surrealist Group since 1969 (it was founded in 1934), Švankmajer began his work at the tail end of 1968’s Prague Spring and survived a rift in the organization caused by its members’ level of commitment: those who saw it as an artistic orientation drifted away to other pursuits or emigrated, while Švankmajer committed to the true power of the imagination as a lifestyle.

"There is no Surrealist aesthetic," he once explained, "it’s a psychology, a view of the world, which poses new questions about freedom, eroticism, the subconscious, and which attracts a certain type of people… It’s tried to return art, which has become representational, aesthetic, commercial, to its level of magic ritual." Understandably, the director practiced that lifestyle largely underground for the better part of two decades, emerging from behind the Iron Curtain with his imaginative vision and determined work ethic intact.

Seen in this light, the attraction of Karel Jaromír Erben’s cherished fairy tale seems obvious. In fact, the latter reels of Little Otik are punctuated by significant passages from the actual Otesánek fairy tale, animated by Švankmajer’s long-time wife and partner Eva Švankmajerova, herself an established author and the costume designer of record for the film. Though the 127-minute running time may look daunting on the page, by the time Alžbĕtka’s research into the classic story begins to unfold there’s a momentum and inevitability to the proceedings as solid as Otik itself. This is buttressed by the film’s rich and complex textual references to Surrealistic principles, most notably in Švankmajer’s ongoing fascination with the textural possibilities of Czech cuisine. And although the film preceded the worldwide publicity afforded recent developments in the mapping of the human genome, such an analysis provides its own peculiar and frightening rewards.

For more information on the substantial world of all things Švankmajer (including the opportunity to purchase NTSC, PAL and SECAM video collections of his groundbreaking short films), visit Michael Brooke’s dazzlingly detailed but slightly outdated Alchemist of the Surreal website at All three of his previous features are also available in the United States, either on video or region 1 DVD.

For the record, the name "Otík" means, literally, "Little Otto." The film’s original title is a playful and universally understood diminuation of the Czech, meaning "that which has been chiseled." The decision by American distributor Zeitgeist Films to go with an English language variant (note the lack of the accent mark over the "i") is probably prudent—although, when it comes right down to it, Otesánek is far catchier, a snappy title for a movie that represents nothing less than an entire lifestyle.

Written and
Directed by:

Jan Švankmajer

 Jan Hartl
Veronika Žilková
Kristina Adamcová
Jaroslava Kretschmerová
Pavel Nový

N R - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.




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