With little financial pressures during the communist rule, it would seem that Eastern European countries still have a tradition of moviemaking, where there’s a certain amount of creative freedom, which is much harder to find in Western movies.
Spoilers. Although, if you know the premise, you already know the whole story. Well, except that it gets weirder than you would think. It is based on a folktale, so that should tell you quite a bit.
A couple is having a hard time conceiving. One night in the countryside, the husband decides to surprise his wife with a gift by making a crude doll out of a tree stump. The wife doesn’t get the (quite stupid) joke and her maternal instincts kick in immediately. Soon enough, the weird baby doll begins to demand to be fed.
While I’ve seen several of Jan Svankmajer’s wonderfully surreal features (and I have a collection of his shorts I’ve never gotten around to watching), this feels most like the one that crosses into horror territory. The comedy part is not that funny and is sometimes quite offensive, but there is still an element of fun here. Well, there is a recurring joke about an old man trying to molest a small girl, which doesn’t quite work and never has or at least should have. This also means that there’s several quite problematic male gaze views of a 10-year-old girl. She does get back at the man by feeding him to the titular monster in the end.
That kid does turn out to be the protagonist of the film. She’s hanging around from the beginning just watching and learning. When the parents try to abandon Otik to let it starve, she takes care of it. She always knows more than anyone else. She even understands the nature of the monster from early on, because she studies the stories. She basically becomes a serial killer, but she’s also the one who keeps the story going.
The movie is listed as an animation on IMDb, but it’s not that. Svankmajer does use stop-motion animation for his special effects, but that is only a small part of the movie. There is some animation of the folktale this is based on as it’s read by the neighbors’ kid. Still, there’s a lot less of it than in some of his earlier work, where even the actors were jsut part of the stop-motion animation.
This is also a nice vehicle for Svankmajer’s food obsession. Otik eats a lot, but so does apparently everyone else as well. Food is shown in a realistic light. We don’t get the perfectly colored glamour shots of food commercials, but instead we get the kind of closeups of food which don’t even entice me with my endless appetite. Svankmajer seems to be saying that while we tend to try to mask it, our eating habits are no less gruesome than those of the monster.
This feels like a recurring theme in his movies in general. One of the few shorts I’ve seen from him is Food, which is just three acts: breakfast, lunch and dinner. These involve regurgitating the breakfast for the next person and a lot of cannibalism. In Silence, he has a lot of shots food simply spoiling. It’s a weird antagonistic approach to something that’s keeping us alive. On the other hand, Svankmajer has stated that freedom is a big theme for him so maybe he sees the need for food as part of the reason why we lack that freedom.