Two magicians, Mr. Schwarzwald and Mr. Edgar, try to outdo each other in performing elaborate magic tricks, leading to a violent ending.
During the title sequence, the cast and crew are seen backstage preparing for their performance. The play depicts two mime-like magicians (who are portrayed by both costumed actors and Kuroko style puppets) named Mr. Edgar and Mr. Schwarzwald, trying to outdo each other by performing various stage tricks for the pleasure of an unseen audience. After each act, the two performers congratulate each other with a handshake. However, as tensions rise, the handshakes become less friendly and even violent. For his first trick, Edgar skins a fish by placing it inside his papier mache head; Schwarzwald one ups him by making a dog puppet perform various tricks on a tightrope; Edgar in turn grows several arms and begins playing various instruments simultaneously; Schwarzwald imitates this trick by growing several heads and juggling them; and Edgar causes several chairs to come alive and perform tricks at the crack of a whip. For the magicians’ last trick, Edgar and Schwarzwald make themselves disappear by tearing each other to pieces.
This early film by renowned animators the Quay Brothers is structured as a series of little lessons in perception, taught by a puppet simulacrum of Jan Svankmajer, whose head is an opened book, to a doll whose head the master empties of dross and refills with a similar open book. Each of the nine segments or chapters “refers variously to the importance of objects in Svankmajer’s work, their transformation and bizarre combination through specifically cinematic techniques, the extraordinary power of the camera to ‘make strange’, the influence of Surrealism on Svankmajer’s work, and the subversive and radical role of humor. Taken out of the context of the original Visions television documentary on Svankmajer, for which they served as illustration/commentary, these vignettes might at first sight seem a trifle bewildering. They ideally need to be viewed more than once before they begin to work effectively as quirky introductions to the Svankmajer universe. Then, however, they emerge as surprisingly charming and delightful excursions into this astonishing (and often deeply disturbing) directors work.” –Julian Petley