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Notebook Primer: Polish Animation

An introduction to the wide-ranging form and intricate history of animation in Poland.
Henri de Corinth
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Holiday (Zbigniew Rybczyński, 1976)
From the establishment of the Studio Małych Form Filowych in 1947 through the years immediately following the collapse of the communist regime in the country in 1989, animation flourished in Poland as an integral part of its film industry. “All of cinema is essentially animation,” said Walerian Borowczyk in 1984, echoing Amos Vogel’s conception of cinema at large. “A roll of film is just a roll of photos; it’s the same thing if you supplant the photos with drawings.” By extension, one might make no distinction between “live-action” and animation, or between what one sees onscreen and its allegorical reflection of life experience.
This is especially true for Polish animation. To classify the genre in terms of nationality and not “culturally” or ideologically (the more vague “Soviet” implying animation made under a Soviet regime and not necessarily animation embodying a Soviet ideology) is of course arbitrary, like national borders themselves. Where for example does such classification leave the animator Władysław Starewicz, considered the father of modern animation in Poland -who was born in Moscow to ethnic Poles originally from Lithuania, then a part of the German Empire, and made films in both Moscow and Kaunas?
Voice of the Nightingale (Władysław Starewicz, 1923)
The issue then becomes what might distinguish Polish animation from that of other countries. Animation in Poland is largely the product not only of its own literary traditions—comparable to children’s literature in the United States or manga in Japan—but also that of specific sociopolitical relationships, namely what Leszek Kolakowski called “self-exile”—the displacement of a population in their own land while under foreign occupation. Throughout the early nineteenth century, Romantic literature developed its own particular strain in Poland, teeming with Catholic sensibility and an ongoing polemic against the Russian Empire, and these sensibilities would often emerge in the animation of midcentury with direct and indirect critiques of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Cineforms (Andrzej Pawłowski, 1957)
Poland’s earliest works of animation following World War II were primarily non-narrative, basing their form on either music or sound, and reminding the viewer that one is not by necessity looking at narrative or even abstraction, but at technology. Franciszka and Stefan Themerson’s The Eye and the Ear, produced in England in 1945 and featuring English-language narration, uses animation to replicate the sensations created by music, using Karol Szymanowski’s Słopiewnie (“Word Songs,” 1921) as its subject. Słopiewnie was intended to represent the events of November 1918, when Poland was liberated from over a century of political partitions between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. From this, an experiment in pure abstraction develops, taking its cue somewhat from Fantasia (1940). Animation as a de facto “genre” did not emerge until the mid 1950s, with filmmakers Andrzej Pawłowski and Mieczysław Waskowski. Pawłowski’s Tam I Tu and Kineformy (“Cineforms”) both from 1957, manipulate reflected light, creating abstracted color fields. In Waskowski’s Somnabulicy (“Somnabulists,” 1958), varieties of pigment are immersed in liquid, creating the effect of smoke or gas, and at once breaking down the elements of ‘animation’ at large (in some shots the shadows of crew members are visible). These effects are also set to ambient echoing sounds, as if from another room -clapping, footsteps, wailing, and so on.
The notion of animation that draws the viewer’s attention to the means of its own production continued throughout the early 1960s: Witold Giersz’s Czerwone i czarne (“Red and Black,” 1964), ostensibly about a hand-drawn matador and bull sharing a beer, eventually portrays the bull turning a stop-motion mirror to reveal Giersz and camera operator Jan Tkaczyk filming him. As well, by that decade a so-called “Polish School” of animation emerged among western critics, its most celebrated “students” being Walerian Borowczyk, Mirosław Kijowicz, Jan Lenica, and Daniel Szczechura. All were born in the 1920s—forming part of a generation of Slavs old enough to remember the second World War—and all came to animation in roundabout ways from diverse backgrounds. This marked a gradual shift from animation depending largely on photographic effects captured in real time to stop-motion of two-dimensional objects, and coincided stylistically with both the incorporation of graphic design and the emergence of now-celebrated Polish poster design. 
Labyrinth (Jan Lenica, 1963)
Jan Lenica’s Labyrint (“Labyrinth,” 1963) combines photographic collage by Antoni Nurzyński with dramatic fading in from and out to black, portraying a man’s misadventures in a large urban landscape cannibalized from numerous European cities, wherein he encounters chimeric creatures and is later studied, photographed, and prodded by a man-machine hybrid. Borowczyk’s Les jeux des anges (“The Games of Angels,” 1964), a French production featuring music and sound design by Bernard Parmegiani based in part on folk songs sung by Poles kept in Nazi concentration camps, portrays beheadings and a machine that exsanguinates bodies inside a dark, claustrophobic structure. Kijowicz’s Klatki (“Cages,” 1966) features a man in a jail cell citing the names of philosophers and authors through typography, only for the guard to capture them in a butterfly net.
All suggest a protagonist—either on or offscreen—trapped inside a larger institutional structure—with collage, typography, and line drawing giving physical “structure” to those institutions. These works are tempered by the early animations of Ryszard Czekała, who having studied at the National Film School at Łódź, cross-pollinated animation with a more deliberate social awareness. Through geometric “cut-out” stop-motion, Ptak (“Bird,” 1968) indirectly addresses life in Poland in the late 1960s, at one point making a visual reference to the Sovet Gospod, the silent controlling arm of the Eastern European veches (councils) of the late middle ages—here implying the Soviet control of Poland at that time. 
Sun (Julian Antonisz, 1977)
Three contemporaries emerged in the 1970s: Julian Antonisz, Jerzy Kucia, and Zbigniew Rybczyński. Kucia—referred to in Poland as the “Bresson of Polish animation”—perfected the movement of a single still image across the frame—rather than a succession of multiple images inside the frame—to create the effect of motion: the swift passing of buildings as seen from a moving train in Powrót (“Return,” 1972) and that of a concrete floor and staircases as seen from an elevator in Winda (“Elevator,” 1973). In Szlaban (“Barrier,” 1977), the use of “still” imagery is used to allegorical effect: a group of backlit, nearly-motionless figures wait at a railroad crossing. The image is a familiar one—that of restricted movement across national borders for Soviet satellite states at the time. The film is then upended in its last scene, featuring stop-motion pigeons flying chaotically in the frame. Antonisz’s films—made, in his words, bez kamery (“without camera”)—were in keeping with the “outsider” style of Borowczyk—skittish, painterly, almost crude animations of animals and the grotesque. Słońce (“Sun,” 1977) is rendered through woodcut printed directly on the filmstrip—not unlike Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), where moth body parts were applied directly to the film itself. Antonisz’s works were most often produced at animation companies at either Krakow or Warsaw, outside of the stylistic templates established by Studio Małych Form Filowych, located in Łódź (the town’s name is pronounced “woah-ch,” and has for decades been referred to by many Polish film students as “Hollyłódź”).
Tango (Zbigniew Rybczyński, 1980)
 A hallmark of Polish animation is a technique known as pixelation—the convergence of stop-motion and still photography. Arguably its greatest proponent was Zbigniew Rybczyński, who had codified it with Zupa (“Soup,” 1974) and Swieto (“Holiday,” 1976), exploiting the often repetitive gestures of the human figure such as kissing, eating, and watching television. Perhaps the most widely-seen animated Polish work is Rybczyński’s Tango (1980). The film is something of a Rube-Goldberg machine of interlocking gestures repeated on a loop: a burglar enters through an apartment window and steals a package on top of a closet, only for the package to be replaced by a man in a red coat. A woman sets a dining room table, while her husband buses the table immediately after. The film received an American Academy Award in 1981, and to date Rybczyński is the only Polish director aside from Roman Polanski to win one.
Block (Hieronim Neumann, 1982)
Arguably, no animator has conveyed everyday Polish life—particularly as it pertains to Cold War-era architecture of the Eastern Bloc—as well or with as much humor as Hieronym Neumann. His masterpiece Blok (“Block,” 1982) moves up, down and around numerous units of a panelki apartment building, observing the tenants: a criminal escaping through a window evades the police, a woman tapping on her ceiling with a broom because the man above her is making too much noise, a family placing pots on their floor to capture water leaking through the ceiling from a woman’s unit on the next floor while she does her laundry. Each unit is identical in shape and size, and while at first the viewer is struck by the monotony of the building structure, over time one also becomes aware of how each subject lives, largely through their furniture.
Portrait (Stanisław Lenartowicz, 1977)
Animation in Poland often parlayed phenomenological studies of objects and space into allegories. Stanisław Lenartowicz’s Portret (“Portrait,” 1977)—comprised almost entirely of a series of whip pans—is a film largely about props: a black marble bust, a pearl necklace, and so on. Objects are filmed in extreme closeup, starting on one object or part of an object, and panning over revealing another object or other part of an object. The hands, dress and eventually the face of a seated girl emerge, and it is later revealed that the girl is having her portrait painted, and that the viewer is meant to surveil each object—and person—in the frame, as an artist (or perhaps an oscillating surveillance camera) does. Piotr Kamler’s stop-motion Chronopolis (1982) follows a race of spacefaring giants who are also animators, as they are able to manipulate matter itself with an array of ornate machines. Much smaller, visiting astronauts are subjected to a series of “studies” by the giants, which can account allegorically for the emigre experience of several Polish filmmakers in the West—particularly France—throughout the middle of the century. In Longin Szymd’s Oficyna (“Outbuilding,” 1983) the viewer will catch the occasional glimpse of a face, a figure backlit in a window in a seemingly abandoned apartment structure, a reflection of martial law that had been declared in Poland in the early 1980s. 
Spirit of Witkacy (Kazimierz Urbański, 1989)
Kazimierz Urbański’s Witkacego wywoływanie duchów (“Spirit of Witkacy,” 1989) presents a culmination of Polish history up to that point through collage, color field, and typography. One sees collage images of fascists and communists together toasting with glasses half-full of red wine that, not coincidentally, resemble the modern Polish flag. The film’s title refers to artist and author Stanisław Witkiewicz, known as Witkacy, and offers nostalgic appeals to the country’s artistic heritage in the early twentieth century. Maciej Cwiek’s Stary zamek (“The Old Castle,” 1992), set to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, opens with a still photo collage, with movement created primarily through dissolves. A girl sits alone on a city street, having magical visions of being inside a large manor with a Christmas tree and a banquet dinner, and one might interpret these images as an optimistic (that is, capitalist) fantasy for Poland after the dissolution of communist rule.
Finally, the influence of Polish animation through the early 1990s on western animation—and western cinema at large—cannot be overstated: Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus live in the shadow of the short films of Borowczyk and Lenica. The works of the Quay Brothers—which include an adaptation of Bruno Schultz’s Street of Crocodiles- take their visual cue from numerous stop-motion animators from Starewicz to Kamler. South Park employs the same “crude” stop-motion advanced by Czekała in the 1960s. The widespread exposure of Tango in the west led to the use of pixelation in numerous music videos throughout the 1980s, including those for Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” (1985) and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (1986), and the non-stop lateral tracking and prosopopoeia in Michael Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone” (1989). The repetitive loop of Tango also served as a model for videos of Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World” (2001) and Green Day’s “Redundant” (2011).
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