April 18, 2002

Cornell Cinema

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A strange blend of live-action and stop-motion animation, Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer offers up a troubling story about the dark and overwhelmingly negative side effects of human desire in his latest film, Little Otik

Otik is the story of the Horaks, a middle class couple living in Prague who come to learn that they are incapable of having children. Infertility exists in both Karl and his wife Bozena, leaving the two with no chance of conceiving. As a result of this discovery, Karl purchases a country home for his wife where the couple can escape the noise and trouble of the bustling city of Prague on the weekends. His attempt at assuaging his wife’s troubled mind all but fail, however, and the two begin to grow apart.

But one afternoon shortly after purchasing the vacation home, Karl unearths a tree stump that looks remarkably like an infant. In a moment of inspiration, he polishes the stump and cleans it, trimming down the roots so that the piece of wood comes to look like a newborn. He then offers the carving to Bozena and is taken aback when she immediately takes to the stump, powdering its wooden bottom and dressing it in infant’s clothing.

Shocked by his wife’s behavior toward their new stump/son, Karl returns to their flat in Prague to finish out the work week, leaving his wife in the countryside. When he returns just days later he finds that much is changed. His wife no longer has dark bags under her eyes, and the piece of wood appears to be suckling her breast. In shock and dismay, Karl takes his wife and his now-living stump/son back to Prague.

It is never made clear how the stump comes to life, but afterwards, Karl’s attempts to get rid of the baby are rejected by his wife who has come to refer to the hunk of wood as “our son” and later, simply as Otik (after Karl’s father).

With congratulatory toasts from friends and neighbors, all seems well for the new family of three. Things swiftly take a turn for the worse, though, once the wooden child is brought back to Prague. He is a loud and obnoxious baby, with dirty roots acting as hands and a twisted hole in his head that serves as both an eye socket and as a mouth.

It isn’t long before the Horaks discover that their little Otik has quite an appetite, eating everything from soups and porridge, to the family cat. And as he grows, the young Otik gains an appetite for larger things, like sides of beef, tripe, and human flesh. Much like the voracious Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors the baby soon demands more sustenance than his caretakers can provide.

Things only get worse for the Horaks when their neighbor’s daughter, Alzbetka gets curious. As an avid young reader, Alzbetka comes across a folk tale recounting the story of a stump-baby who eats his parents out of house and home before eventually eating friends and neighbors. Noting the similarities between this story and her neighbors, Alzbetka decides to investigate the newest addition to the Horak family. What follows is a horrific sequence of maulings and betrayals that keep the viewer on the edge of his seat up until the film’s grimy ending sequence.

Despite the dark nature of the film, however, Scankmajer draws his audience’s attention away from the morbidity of the plot by focusing on the relationships between fairly ordinary people who are dealing with extraordinary circumstances. And for the all too ordinary Horaks, this particular situation soon becomes one they can’t handle.

Though the film is subtitled and has a running time of over two hours, Little Otik is a modern triumph of Czech cinema that at once highlights the storytelling tradition of Eastern Europe while simultaneously giving the audience a glimpse of a modern, metropolitan Prague.

Archived article by Nate Brown