Doc of the Day: The Ossuary Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Ossuary

Posted in Days of Docs by - September 16, 2012

Why not visit the Sedlec Ossuary? It’s cool and not at all horrifying!

Dir. Jan Svankmajer, 1970, 10 min, Viewed via MUBI

The Sedlec Ossuary is a chapel situated beneath a cemetery in an old, tucked-away part of the Czech Republic. It would be perfectly pleasant and homey if it weren’t for the bones of tens of thousands of people used as decoration. Yes, you read that correctly. See, since some dirt from Golgotha was spread on the cemetery back in the thirteenth century, the church has been an extremely popular place for burial. Eventually, there were so many bones that the people in charge figured, hey, why not do something creative with them. So in 1870 a woodcarver was hired to turn the many, many bones available into ornamentation.

He certainly was… enthusiastic about his work. Stacks of skulls cover walls. There are chandeliers made out of femurs. An osteo coat of arms, even. It’d all be impressive if it weren’t so terrifying. To celebrate 100 years of the least pleasant tourist trap ever, the Czechoslovakian government commissioned filmmaker Jan Svankmajer to make a documentary about the Ossuary. They were rather displeased with the result.

I can see why. This is far from a cheerful documentary. But then again, I’m not sure what they were expecting, given Svankmajer’s track record. He built a career on bizarre, often unnerving movies, often utilizing the creepiest stop motion animation imaginable. It’s a shame that the government repressed the film, since it’s pretty great.

The film consists of ten minutes of quick-cutting shots of the Ossuary. Overlaid is the rambling of a tour guide explaining its history. The dissonance between the macabre images on display and the toneless, businesslike narration only adds to the Ossuary’s chilling effect. There’s no plot to speak of, and the point is left by Svankmajer for us to decide. The Ossuary is the abyss; what do you see when you behold it?

I see death. I see that the Czech are bugnuts insane. I see that Jan Svankmajer is a genius of tone. This is a mood piece more than anything else, a terrifically involving one. The Ossuary is history literally buried, and it tells tens of thousands of tales. Now, all those stories are compressed into one place, and have been sculpted into something ornamental and strangely beautiful. Does it mean anything? Or is it just that death has become so inconvenient here that it might as well be made aesthetically functional? Or does that fact itself hold a meaning?

The Ossuary is a haunting little film. It’s worms its way into your stomach and lays venomous eggs there to gnaw at your soul (if I’m not sleeping well tonight, you aren’t either). It’s creepy and unforgettable and awesome. Have you watched any of Svankmajer’s work before? You totally should. Start here.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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