Maternal horror stories form a psychoanalytically rich genre. Exemplified by tales such as Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin’s novel and Roman Polanski’s movie), David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and Doris Lessing’s novel The Fifth Child, they most often examine the middle-class family as it’s torn apart by monstrosity made even more monstrous by shared DNA. Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s fourth feature film, Little Otik, involves multiple monstrosities — the animation of inert matter, as well as biological filiation and parental obligation.
Based on the Czech fairy tale, Otesánek, Little Otik follows a childless couple’s quest to have a baby. The Horaks are stereotypically would-be doting parents with nothing to dote on save their cat. Melancholy Bozena Horakova (Veronika Zilkova) has a single-minded drive to start a family. Her husband, Karel Horak (Jan Hartl) is haunted by images of babies. Their desire, made visible in the montage of screaming babies in the opening credits, is almost grotesque.
They begin to realize this desire when, at their weekend cottage, Karel digs up a stump and carves it into a rough humanoid shape to play a joke on his wife. Bozena surprises him with her delight, quickly powdering and swaddling the hunk of wood. Karel tries to convince her that the child is, in fact, only a stump and, when his protests fail, insists that she can’t bring the child back to their apartment, as it would appear that they’d stolen it. Bozena understands this logic, and proceeds to fake a pregnancy. After eight months, Karel finds Bozena in a kitschy Virgin Mary pose, covered with a veil, and suckling the now-animated stump. While she loves the creature, who gurgles and kicks like an ordinary baby, Karel turns away with muted disgust and a promise to varnish the child over the weekend.
Here Svankmajer literally animates the inanimate with stop-motion animation. Previously, he combined stop-motion animation with puppetry and life-action in his first three feature films, Alice (Neco z Alenky (1988), Faust (Lekce Faust 1994), and Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci slasti 1996), creating hybrid worlds of human and puppet, in which characters changed from human actors to animated dummies and back again. Long aligned with Czech surrealism, Svankmajer uses this fluidity of form to examine the human body. In Little Otik, the baby Otik is the only animated character (save for several animated visual puns): he is an anthropomorphism, an object imitating a human being.
One of the early signs of this imitation is Otik’s insatiable appetite. First the cat, and then the postman, and a social worker disappear into the room where Otik spends his days, ostensibly sleeping, but also growing astronomically. Scattered amongst his toys, the bones and viscera on his floor multiply. Otik is only an appetite, with no notion of good and bad, right and wrong. Bozena’s devotion to her son never falters. And even Karel admits that he is “their responsibility.” Yet they also realize there is something amiss: the Horaks keep their secret behind two closed, heavily locked doors.
The Stadlers, the family living across the hall from the Horaks, provide an apt foil for their deepening dysfunction. A banal vision of domesticity with little to hide, this family’s concerns are immediate and unimaginative. Mr. Stadler (Pavel Novy) spends his time drinking and watching television; in a scene which could have come straight out of Svankmajer’s previous film, Conspirators of Pleasure (about fetishes and erotic alienation), the cream filling of a chocolate dangles from Mr. Stadler’s mouth as he gazes at a pair of lips in a television commercial for the same chocolate. And Mrs. Stadler (Jaroslava Kretschmerova) spends her time in the kitchen, preparing the gluey soup that the family gathers around the table to eat everyday.
Their daughter, Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcova), becomes in the neighbors, watching the Horaks from behind half-open doors and bushes. She becomes the film’s explicit narrator when she finds the story Otesánek, a story-within-a-story depicted in animation as she reads it. Fully aware of what’s happening in the building, Alzbetka startles her baffled parents with her prescience and perceptiveness. (With her back turned while spying on the Horaks, she knows that the building’s octogenarian pedophile, whom everyone else sees as a harmless old man, is creeping up behind her. She warns him to stop before he has a heart attack.)
Alzbetka is the only character in the film who attends to her surroundings. The adults in her building, with the exception of the suspicious caretaker (Dagmar Stribrna), appear fundamentally clueless. Their dismissal of her as a child enables her spying activities and eventually, her alliance with Otik. She saves him from starving in the basement, where his parents have hidden him away. Their relationship resembles a “fairy tale,” in that it becomes a kind of insular utopia. But the film shows the dangers of fairy tales. Though Alzbetka’s father approves of her book of fairy tales over the sexually-oriented biology texts she frequently reads at the dinner table, the tale Otesánek is disturbingly violent. Her books — the biology text and the fairy tales — seem to have melded into Otik’s story, and her desire brings him back to life.
The parental anxieties expressed in Little Otik recall those felt by Dr. Frankenstein, the struggle for power over an intractable child. When the child is horrific and apparently inhuman — like Otik and Frankenstein’s Monster — these anxieties become all the more poignant, as the parent must negotiate his or her feelings for a completely foreign body. If the viewer can identify with Bozena’s and Alzbetka’s affections, it is because their allegiance to the idea of a family is so stubborn that it paradoxically becomes subversive. Svankmajer taps into the appeal of the maternal horror story. Nurtured by Bozena’s maternal dedication, Otik’s monstrosity ultimately turns the notion of family inside out.