Don Juan (Don Sajn)

Czechoslovakia, 1969, colour, mono, 31 mins

Krátký Film (Prague)

Written, designed and directed by Jan Svankmajer

Based on traditional Czech puppet plays

Script editors: Václav Borovicka and K Marsálek

Produced by Josef Soukup

 Photography by Svatopluk Maly

Edited by Milada Sádková

Music by Zdenek Liska

Cast: Vítezslav Kuschmitz, Josef Podsedník,

Miroslava Volková, Miroslav Krajník

Spoken commentary: Frantisek Filipovsky;


Maria and Filip are in love but Maria's father has promised her hand to Filip's profligate brother Don Juan. Maria arranges to meet Filip with her father in her garden at nine o'clock. Don Juan overhears this conversation and, not being able to pay for a wedding, asks his jester to beg his rich father for 400 pieces of gold, supposedly to pay doctor's bills. The jester meets Juan's father but gives the real reason for his request. The father gives him ten pennies to buy two ropes to hang both Don Juan and himself. Don Juan kills his father and takes the gold, then goes to the garden and pretends to be his brother Filip. He threatens to kill Maria if she does not return his love. Maria's father intercedes and is killed by Don Juan, promising as he dies to haunt him forever. Finding Maria crying over her father's body, Filip sets out to kill his brother. Hiding in the forest, where he plans to become a hero, Don Juan meets and kills his brother. He asks the jester to find a well so that he can quench his thirst after the fight. The jester climbs a tree and espies the ghost of Maria's father; approaching him, Don Juan's hand burns in the ghost's grasp. The ghost foretells that Juan will be damned at midnight. Don Juan sends the jester off and then asks children to take an example from his fate and not to commit awful crimes. The devil awaits him in hell.


The long European tradition of the marionette which has unfortunately not survived in Western Europe remains strong in the Eastern bloc countries - the old Bohemia. Puppetry has been studied by many major figures of the European tradition - von Kleist, Goethe, Sand, E.Gordon Craig, Jarry, Piscator and the Bauhaus. Jan Svankmajer studied in the marionette facility of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 1954-8. Before Alice, Don Juan was his longest film and it remains perhaps his most difficult, although it is arguably also his most haunting, with a greater emotional depth than much of his other work. This is largely a consequence of the successful blending of Svankmajer's film techniques with a traditional marionette tale.

It is based on the Don Juan story, which was a favourite of the puppet repertory of the early eighteenth century. The plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe were central to this tradition, the Faustus tragedy in particular being enormously popular. The opening sequence of Don Juan is characteristic of Svankmajer's style: a hand-held camera enters an old house, proceeding through corridors to the underbelly of a theatre with its grinding mechanisms, pulleys, ropes and trapdoors. Along a wall, stand the life-size marionettes awaiting the beginning of the play and their part in it. And yet, as the film dictates, they are already part of the film-'play' and thus already 'human' in their uncanny stillness. Their almost magical potential for life paradoxically conjures the sensation of death prior to their theatrical lives which will end in death.

Svankmajer has always played on this dual expressiveness of the puppet as a primitive icon, a quality that a live actor can rarely achieve, though such as Artaud dreamed of it. When they appear, their strings are false ones, not attached to a puppeteer but hanging down from a raised platform. A further twist is in store. As Maria and Filip speak on stage of their love, the camera draws back to reveal Don Juan watching the performance from the gallery. Thus the theatrical space is immediately subverted. The theatre itself becomes part of the plot and, fascinatingly, filmic space is conjoined to that of the theatre.

Through the humanising tendency of film (close-ups, etc.), this imposed aesthetic has the effect of bringing out the tragic quality of the original. Svankmajer's use of intertitles for the most mundane parts of the soundtrack is also a distancing trick which, while counterposing a modernist sensibility to the traditional story, at the same time makes it more serious as a film. This reflexive strategy is not a particularly new one in marionette theatre. According to Henryk Jurkowski in his excellent book, Aspects of the Puppet Theatre, Samuel Foote's performance of "The Primitive Puppet Show" at the Haymarket in 1773 used the idea of the play-within-the-play. At the end of the puppet performance, actors dressed as constables came on stage and arrested both Foote and his puppets! Svankmajer's mixing of actors and puppets (the characters in Don Juan alternate between being played by puppets and actors dressed as puppets) is also traditional although the camera allows him to move to exterior locations for particular sequences.

There seems little of the surrealist spirit in Don Juan. What there is represents a search for a purity espoused in the history of puppetry (earlier this century, Edward Gordon Craig's notion of the über-marionette was motivated by his desire for a theatre undeformed by the actor's ego). Svankmajer's own use of puppets and anti-psychological acting (e.g. the silent-Hollywood comic style in The Flat) is in keeping with this view. Sentimentality is denied by the sheer 'objectness' of the marionette, with the figures in this case made to mimic the early eighteenth-century models, the paint imprecise, the wood chipped and flaked by time and use. Don Juan is perhaps the clearest expression of Svankmajer's aesthetic, normally so well disguised by the sheer variety of his styles and techniques.

[Michael O'Pray, Monthly Film Bulletin no.658, November 1988, pp.344-345]


1970: Main Prize, Kromeriz
1970: Ministry of Culture Award


[Unusually for Svankmajer, Don Juan is in Czech, so subtitles will be required if you don't speak the language. The BFI theatrical print is subtitled, the Krátký Film videotape isn't]

Theatrical: British Film Institute (UK)

PAL Video: Krátký Film (Czech Republic)

Previous Film: The Ossuary
Next Film: Jabberwocky.

Themes: Literary Adaptations, Politics, Puppets, Sexuality.
People: Vaclav Borovicka, Zdenek Liska, Svatopluk Malý, Milada Sádková, Josef Soukup.
Interviews: Petr Král.

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Images © Krátký Film, 1970
Synopsis & Commentary Text © British Film Institute, 1988
Page Design © Michael Brooke, 1998
This page was last updated on 1 April 1998
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