Czeck Republic, 2000
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Zeitgeist Video DVD
Karel, a father ridden with impotence and guilt, sees babies everywhere—below his apartment, in a city street, a vendor nets them out of a tub and sells them to eager parents. Before dinner, he halves a watermelon, and a child is inside. Upon the frightening sight, Karel is quick to mend the watermelon, in fear that his wife, Bozena, will share his vision and despair. She is more eager for a child than he is. It is implied that the couple have been attempting to conceive a child for some time, as each has visions that manifest their parental woes: the father, as stated, will see babies frequently in his periphery; the mother sews nine circular pillows, each corresponds with a month of pregnancy, and each is placed accordingly during the appropriate tenure. These parental delusions are magnified when Karel, in jest, brings home a root formation that resembles a hideous child. Otik, they call it. Bozena meets the height of impulsive, maternal clinging, and begins to mother the formation, dressing it in waddling, breastfeeding it, and changing its diapers; each act necessitated by the mother’s forceful imagination.
At the end of Bozena’s ninth month of feigned pregnancy — a gesture that temporarily soothes her anguish and generates hype among her neighbors — and victim to the great desire fashioned by their self-serving (and, as it will be told, harming) scheme, Otik becomes a child. He is animated; his cries summon food, which the hopeless and frightened parents are able to provide in increasing difficulty. After a routine trip to the grocery, they come home and find their pet cat missing. Otik has grown noticeably, and his cries for food become more persistent.
Little Otik draws from Czechoslovakian fairy tale Otesánek, in which a couple procures a root-child who proceeds to devour and grow in frightening proportion. It is emblematic of unjustified human creation: a child fashioned by the hand of man in unnatural circumstances that promises a curse (in the story, the parents are two of Otik’s many meals). It is suggested that Otik’s conception is a sin, yet the desperation that procured him is human. Little Otik comprises themes of creative/parental responsibility seen in Pinocchio, Frankenstein, Rosemary’s Baby, and even Eraserhead.
Otesánek attracted Czechoslovakian animator Eva Svankemajerová, who intended to animate it in the late seventies. The project was finally brought to fruition in her husband Jan Svankmejer’s Little Otik. The result is a collaboration that highlights Eva’s animation, interspersed the film. In this manner, Little Otik is told in parallel narratives; the source fiction (read in the film by a young girl, a neighbor) forebodes the fate of the current action.
Jan Svankmajer is known primarily for his work in stop-motion animation, though he is also experienced in puppetry and theatre (and, of course, film). Little Otik, as with his recent works Alice and Faust, combines and benefits from these elements in sum.
There is an inherent humor to the premise (several scenes elicit unforeseen laughter), though there is a concrete desperation at the heart of Little Otik. The central family, cursed (literally) with impotence, manifests a child with sheer desire. It is a sympathetic action, and also the basis for the film’s comedy.
A more accessible theme used in the film is that of consumption. Svankmajer frequents close-ups of bowls of soup and chewing mouths — actions necessary to growth, yet, as with Otik, are opportunities for gluttony. Otik’s hurdle is that he must eat, often ingesting anything around him. In a later scene, Bozanek has prepared dozens of bottles of frothed milk, and feeds them by the armful.
Finally, Little Otik is a heedlessly inventive film that comprises several infrequent techniques. It boasts a keen dissimilarity to the body of contemporary film (as do most works that boast the European quirk) and a flash of innovation and passion. Little Otik is effortlessly original and endearing.