Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.
Stepsisters disfigure their feet so they fit into glass slippers. A witch fattens up children she intends to eat. A mermaid dies of a broken heart and turns into seafoam. Classic European fairy tales in their purest form are dark. Yet making the lot of them more presentable for broader audiences today is neither difficult nor unheard of. A real challenge would be scrubbing something like Otesánek, a Czech fairy tale and the basis for Jan Švankmajer’s 2000 film of the same name. This unique story about family is at its best when absolutely undiluted and outré.
Otesánek, also known as Little Otík and Greedy Guts, begins with Karel Horák (Jan Hartl) and Božena Horáková (Veronika Žilková) receiving unfortunate news at the doctor’s office. For medical reasons, the couple is unable to naturally conceive. Božena is distraught until her husband shows her something he found at their country house; a tree stump vaguely resembling a human baby. What Karel did not count on was Božena genuinely treating the stump as if it was a real baby. She even fakes a pregnancy for the next couple of months before going into “labor.” To Karel’s further surprise, the baby, later named Otík, has come to life and is hungry. Very hungry. As the Horáks struggle to sate their newborn’s voracious appetite, the neighbors’ prying daughter Alžbětka (Kristina Adamcová) looks to expose the truth about Otík.
From the very beginning, it is obvious Little Otík is going to be both heavy and surreal. As his wife has her heart broken back in the doctor’s office, Karel imagines women as well as himself lining up outside and buying babies from a vendor as if they were the fresh catch of the day. Along with infertility is a recurring reference to pedophilia. Alžbětka fears for her safety every time her elderly and licentious neighbor Mr. Žlábek (Zdeněk Kozák) comes around. Her panic manifests as a running visual gag; a hand emerges from Mr. Žlábek’s pants upon sight of Alžbětka.
Švankmajer’s film touches on serious topics not always openly discussed even by today’s standards. Little Otík might come across as a glib treatment of these subjects, but it is really the opposite. Švankmajer is doing here what traditional fairy tales did so well. Like in his other fantasy film Něco z Alenky, he uses extreme narrative devices — including over-the-top, stop-motion imagery — to emphasize the moral lessons and symbolism at hand. Suffice it to say, there was not a lot of coddling when these fairy tales originated. People in those days died young and the stakes were very high. Švankmajer echoes the same urgency and no doubt resorts to aggressive storytelling to avoid misinterpretation.
Even before Otík is born, the theme of hunger is present and forceful. Most importantly is Božena’s baby fever that was more severe than Karel realized. Otherwise he might have thought it misguided to show his wife a baby-shaped tree stump while in her fragile state. She instead goes the opposite direction and gets carried away, to put it lightly. As for Karel, he wants to please Božena even if it is at his and everyone else’s detriment. “That’s the way it turns out when you try to make someone happy.” This flippant statement is as close to an epiphany as Karel comes when recognizing the imbalance in his relationship. He goes all out to gladden Božena, yet she never considers his feelings all that much.
Alžbětka is as starved for someone to care about as Božena is. She is precocious, friendless, and thirsting for knowledge. She does not get along with children her age because she is smarter, and she is lonely because she is the only child in her apartment building. Alžbětka is almost always reading a book despite the fact her father František (Pavel Nový) is an ignorant man who does not like his daughter learning about anything he deems inappropriate. The truth of the matter is František cannot comprehend what Alžbětka studies or anything beyond a TV advertisement, so his natural reaction is to admonish and dismiss. Although he notably refrains when he finds his daughter with a book on fairy tales, something he likely thinks is more suitable for girls. Alžbětka naturally knows this and uses the book jacket to conceal what she really wants to read.
For Alžbětka and Božena, family comes first no matter what. Once Otík is born and his ravenous hankering for anything bigger than a breadbox comes to light, Božena buries her head in the sand and facilitates her son’s desires. Even when the family cat, the mail carrier, and a social worker are all gobbled up, Božena still refuses to do the right thing because she is consumed by her own hunger. Alžbětka adopts a similar behavior when she finds Otík in the basement after nosing around the Horáks’ business for so long. She knows he is dangerous but still wants to feed and protect him like a mother would. As for Alžbětka’s mother Paní (Jaroslava Kretschmerová), she overextends her maternal duties by locking herself and her family inside the apartment after so many mysterious disappearances occur in the building. Of course this is a far and less harmful cry from her daughter and Mrs. Horáková’s weirdly tender acts of motherhood.
As it was foretold Otík grows larger with every thing and person he eats. There is no stopping him. The theme of nature versus nurture is now overshadowed by a more pressing one; what happens when people defy fate and the natural order of life. Karel and Božena, both guilty of infantilism, challenge their biological shortcomings and suffer the consequences. The balance must be restored in the end, but the younger folks are not up to the task. Only the older and wise caretaker Mrs. Správcová (Dagmar Stříbrná) can do what must be done after watching everyone else fail. They say it takes a village to raise a child.
Little Otík stares sharply at the urges and cravings that swallow parts of society. Its oddball approach is not for everyone, but for the hungrier viewers who stay the gruesome course, they are rewarded with a metaphorical feast.