Wizards of Łódź: Polish animation 1958 -1980

Nate Dorr

Across the Warsaw Pact, something was happening. De-Stalinization was instituted in 1956, which quickly, in the permissive 1960s, allowed heavy state funding for the arts (freeing filmmakers from concerns of commercial viability) to combine with outspoken political conversation and avant-garde theory. In Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in particular, the period from de-Stalinization until August 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in response to talk of democratic elections, an end to the Prague Spring and the beginning of the harsh censorship of Normalization — this period saw an unparalleled boom in filmmaking in Eastern Europe easily rivaling that of the French New Wave at the time.

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, House (Dom), 1958

The Czechoslovak New Wave is a discussion — many discussions — all of its own, but today, I'm most interested in Polish film, in particular Polish animation, which remained extremely influential (perhaps because animation received less scrutiny from censors) throughout the 70s and until martial law was declared against the Polish workers' Solidarity movement at the end of 1981.

Progressive trends in post-Stalinist Polish animation seem to be rooted in early work from Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk in the 1950s, culminating in a series of works together, like the surreal, dissociative “House”, above, and the beautiful, disturbing nightmare cities of their independent work in the early 1960s, both depending heavily on cut-paper stop-motion techniques that suggest Terry Gilliam two decades later (he acknowledges the influence). Lenica's “Labyrinth”, for instance, is an astonishingly political product of Communist rule, and illustrates the level of freedom allowed filmmakers at the time.

Jan Lenica, Labyrinth, 1963

In the same year, Borowczyk, having emigrated to France like many other Polish filmmakers of the era (Andrzej Zulawksi, Roman Polanski, Lenica himself) made the even more ambiguous, haunting “The Games of Angels”, which has a certain similarity of mood, but an even darker vision suggesting the “factories” of the holocaust.

Walerian Borowczyk, The Games of Angels (Les Jeux des Anges), 1964

Other Borowzyk work of the period included collaboration with Chris Marker of “La Jetee” fame, and the eerie reverse stop-motion of “Renaissance” wherein a destroyed room attempts to reassemble itself.

Walerian Borowczyk & Chris
Marker, Les Astronauts, 1959

Walerian Borowczyk, Renaissance, 1963

Soon, however, Borowczyk would switch to primarily live-action features, turning his surrealism to emphasizing weird erotic tension in films like Goto, the Island of Love and The Beast (for anyone demanding a “Beauty in the Beast” with explicit Beast sex, an audience that proved extremely limited judging from critical reception). Back in Poland though, the same year that Borowczyk turned to live action for Goto, haunted stop-motion allegory was still going strong back in Poland.

Stefan Schabenbeck, Stairs (Schody), 1968

While “Stairs” seems startlingly pointed in its potential for political critique, it was a last gasp of the age. Later Schabenbeck work, even that which he himself did not see as political, were suppressed by censors and he was refused permission to travel to a screening of his work in Annecy, France. Finally, he emigrated to West Germany and took work with German Sesame Street, an echo of his first animation.

Stefan Schabenbeck, Everything is a Number (Wszystko jest liczba), 1967

In the summer of '68, the Polish army aided in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, whose liberalization had finally pushed the political climate too far. Across the Warsaw Pact political motives in the arts came under drastically greater scrutiny. Perhaps this is why animated radicalism in the 1970s became more densely coded into formal innovation, from Julian Jozef Antonisz's non-camera films (scratched directly into the film with machines he devised himself), to the closely-observed bucolic unease of Jerzy Kucia, to the wild visual play of early Zbigniew Rybczyński.

Zbigniew Rybczyński, Soup (Zupa), 1974

Jerzy Kucia, The Ring (Krag), 1978

Julian Jozef Antonisz, A highly committed film (Ostry film zaangazowany), 1979

Antonisz's oeuvre was particularly bizarre and memorable, incorporating a variety of styles from messy drawings to fake newsreel footage, manic music composed by Antonisz, and often the stumbling, untrained voiceover of an elderly women Antonisz recruited from a rest home (even non-Polish speakers can occasionally hear her bafflement at the scripts he handed her and apparently recorded unrehearsed) . Unfortunately little of his work has been translated, but it can often be appreciated on a purely sensory level.

Julian Jozef Antonisz, How a Sausage Dog Works, 1971

Julian Jozef Antonisz, A film about office art (Film o sztuce biurowej), 1975

From looser free-experimentation like “Soup”, Rybczyński honed his technique to a precision instrument for work like “Tango”. By printing frames of film, then painstakingly cutting and re-collaging them over months of effort, Rybczyński was able to re-assemble the Polish family as dense interlock of isolated repetitive action, as funny as it is faintly unsettling.

Zbigniew Rybczyński, Tango, 1980

When “Tango” received the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1983, Rybczyński
stepped out for a cigarette and missed the award — the bouncers didn't
recognize him and wouldn't allow him back inside (perhaps an
unsurprising plight for an animator, the often hidden face behind the work).
Afterwards, though, he chose not return to Poland, moving to LA and producing
dozens of music videos in a variety of techniques, including an all time favorite of mine for the Art of Noise.

Zbigniew Rybczyński, Close (to the Edit), 1984

Honestly, this just scratches the surface, as evidenced by a list of 40 notable Polish animators (compiled by an Eastern European animation authority in China of all places). Another excellent source of information (and far better transfers) are several fantastic recent boxed sets available for only about 10 USD each from Poland. I hope this just serves to spark your interest.

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