... aka: Ossuary, The
In the late 1200s, an abbot was sent to The Holy Land and returned with some earth taken from the exact location where it's reputed that Jesus was crucified. The earth was then scattered at a burial site located next to a monastery located in Kutná Hora, Sedlec in what is now Czechia. Because of that notoriety, it became the desired final resting place for many. Seeing how both a major war and the Black Death were both right around the corner, that many really was many. We're talking tens and tens of thousands; enough to where the cemetery had to be greatly expanded to accommodate all of the corpses coming in. Over a century later, a large Gothic church was build in the center of the cemetery and a lot of skeletons that had to be exhumed in the process. The bones were initially just collected and stacked. In 1870, woodcarver and carpenter František Rint was given the task of doing something with these bones. Instead of re-burying them, he decided to construct elaborate statues out of them, which were then put on display in the basement chapel ossuary of the church. It is said that the bones of at least 40,000 people or as many as 70,000 people were used in these creations!
Though this sounds (and looks) like something right out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, some see this as a beautiful, even calming, place to visit. As a result, the Sedlec Ossuary has become a top tourist destination in the Czech Republic. It attracts both thrill-seekers with morbid curiosity and the very devout and religious and both of these groups get an entirely different experience out of the place.
As we get a good look at the place, we hear the voice of a cranky and bizarrely money-centered female tour guide throughout as she gives a lecture of the place to young students, and learn a bit about the place's history. The guide claims that 70,000 skeletons were used and 30,000 people were buried there in just one year due to the plague and Hussite / Bohemian Wars. And we learn that Rint, his wife and his two children spent a whopping 10 years down there boring holes in bones and stringing them together to create their, as-she-calls-them "horrific art" sculptures... which sounds like a horror story all its own. I'd be interested in knowing more about how those kids turned out!
The guide also repeatedly threatens the students and lets them know they will be fined 50 crown apiece for touching any of the bones. Apparently, some poorly-behaved schoolchildren took it upon themselves to write their names and other messages in ballpoint pen on the skulls when no one was looking. She also claims that college students had come there and stolen bones as souvenirs.
Since some things never change, just a few years ago the chapel had to institute a new rule that selfies and other photographs could no longer be taken there without permission. According to a 2019 article on Kafkadesk, "The Sedlec Ossuary has unsurprisingly become one of the most Instagrammable places in the Czech Republic, a fame with rather unsavory consequences: tourists removing bones from their display, touching them despite obvious signs forbidding them to, or even putting sunglasses or hats on skulls for their quick snapshots."
Naturally, the main draw of this 10-minute piece is the ossuary itself, which is a truly fascinating place with a fascinating history. The bone sculptures, including a giant chandelier and a coat of arms, really are impressive pieces of macabre, ornate art. The constructor was even kind enough to leave his own "signature" behind plus the date of construction... all spelled out in bones! Svankmajer, who's best-known for his later (usually very good) stop-motion films, could have just let the place do the talking for him but decides to liven things up with lots of jerky camera movements, pans, pivots, out of focus shots, zooms and flash editing. Though that may annoy viewers just wanting to take a long lingering look at the place, he does smartly use both medium and close-up shots so we can get both a good look at the pieces as a whole and closer inspection so we can see just how intricate the designs actually are.
There are several versions of the film out there; one with the tour guide voice-over (which is available subtitled in English), another featuring a man reciting a poem but with only music added once we enter the chapel of bones and yet another with just music and nothing else. This is available on a number of Svankmajer box sets, including "Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films" from BFI and "Jan Svankmajer: The Ossuary and Other Tales" from Kimstim.