A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Animation
Poets of imagery and comedians, puppet and stop motion masters, illustrators and experts of 3D technology – Poland boasts an impressive array of well-respected and accomplished animators. Here is a (short) guide to Polish animation.
The Polish school of animation quickly spread to different continents after World War II. Creators like Lenica, Borowczyk, Szczechura, Kucia, Giersz, Rybczyński and Dumała won prestigious awards at world festivals and brought Polish animation into the spotlight. An important and faithful group of animated fans started to follow Polish animation. The genre became a Polish cultural ambassador, a role previously reserved for the Polish Film School, the Grotowski theatre and the Polish School of Posters.
60s – the Golden Age of Polish animation | Witold Giersz – colours | Mirosław Kijowicz – philosopher of moving images | Daniel Szczechura – The Mrożek of animation | Stefan Schabenbeck – everything is a number |
It's hard to believe that Polish animation is only seventy years old. Before World War II, animated cinema was practically unknown in Poland and only a handful of people were active in the field. One of them was...
Władysław Starewicz (born in 1882) was the spiritual guide of Polish animation. He was an amateur entomologist, a caricaturist and a film-maker. He was a leading world figure in puppet animation. Despite living in Russia and later France, he called himself a Polish artist.
His first animated film was created in 1910 in Kaunas (Lithuania) – The Battle of the Stag Beetles. His intention was to film real animals to make a nature film but the creatures were scared off by the camera lights. Instead, he used puppet animation to create an insect battle scene.
Animated beetles also starred in his first animated puppet film – The Beautiful Lukanida (1911) and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). In the former they played Greek mythological figures – Helen and Paris, while in the latter the beetles were unfaithful lovers.
Starewicz's most successful works are The Ant and the Grasshopper (1912) – an adaptation of a fairytale by Ivan Krylov that, thanks to a record 140 copies, was seen by viewers all over Europe and America, and The Tale of the Fox (1930) – the world’s first full-length puppet animation. His entire artistic output is a collection of 70 films, including a dozen or so features – a record-breaking figure at the time.
It is not the impressive numbers that are most important fact about the director’s achievements. It is the fabulous, sparkling cinematography that lets us watch the funny melodrama of beetles, the adventures of a rat driving a car, a dog visiting an underwater world, an elephant’s flight over a town, and the vivid dreams of numerous characters. – Iwona Hałgas for Culture.pl
1930 marked a breakthrough in the history of Polish cinema of the avant garde. That year Stefan and Franciszek Themerson shot the first Polish avant garde animated film; Pharmacy. It was unique in that it made use of lighting effects instead of illustrations or objects – Marcin Giżycki, from the book Polish Animated Film.
Pre-World War II Polish cinematography was dominated by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. They illustrated, wrote, and created graphic art works and films. Their creative output paved the way for Polish experimental cinema. Many of their works were educational and instructional videos, unconventional and somewhat deviant.
The Adventure of a Good Citizen (1937) is a surrealist work of the grotesque genre ironically commenting on social conformism. Calling Mr. Smith, another one of their films is an experimental propaganda film. But their best known creation is The Eye and the Ear (1945-46) which analyses four songs that Karol Szymanowski composed to the Julian Tuwim poem Słopiewnie, and is considered a monumental achievement in Polish experimental animation.
In the post-World War II period, Zenon Wasilewski emerged as the pioneer of animated films. The film Unlucky Boxer, a political satire of Hitler in which the dictator is a boxer who loses a fight against planet Earth and ends up a skeleton, brought him into the spotlight.
But Wasilewski is best remembered for the animated puppet film In the Time of King Krakus (1947). This first such animated film in the history of Polish animation is also the most important animated film of the era. It was new and original because the puppets had facial expressions, an effect achieved with plasticine-filled holes in the corners of the puppets eyes and lips.
After that success, Wasilewski continued to make animated films for children. Due to political censorship during communist times, he was limited in his creativity.
The film industry was affected by the political thaw of 1956. So, by the late 50s, political circumstances no longer held back animators from following through with their ideas and projects. The two most essential names of the period are Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. In 1957 they made the film Once Upon a Time about a blot of ink which comes to life and takes off on an exciting adventure. The film used the cut-out technique, was fully improvised and showed a new direction in Polish animation. The film was disconnected from the classical narrative and was meant for adults.
Henceforth, Lenica and Borowczyk were admired innovators of the Polish animation community. Their next work, House, in 1958 features an Art Nouveau town house which became witness to different, loosely connected stories. It was awarded at the International Competition of Experimental Films in Brussels. This was when the world found out that behind the Iron Curtain, a lot was going on in the animated film industry. For Borowczyk and Lenica personally, House meant two things: a ticket to the West and the end of their collaboration.
They went their separate ways. Borowczyk made one more film in Poland – School. The pacifistic and anti-establishment work tells the story of a soldier undergoing training. From then on, the artist settled and worked in France. In Paris, together with Chris Marker he made The Astronauts, a tribute to George Mélièse. It's a humorous, slapstick film using animated photography. After several years in animation, Borowczyk took a different path. He began making artistic erotic cinema. His most famous works are Beast (1975) and Immoral Tales (1974).
Jan Lenica on the other hand was connected with both France and Poland. In Poland he made New Janko the Musician "a pastiche of Henryk Sienkiewicz's short story of the same name", wrote Marcin Giżycki, "its spirit is evocative of Mrożek's The Wedding in Atomice. Its style reminds of a folk art paper cutting, it showed a cosmic village of tomorrow, a fulfilled utopia."
I have always liked to move at the periphery of art, at the crossing of genres. [...] I have enjoyed [...] combining elements which were seemingly distant, if not quite foreign, blurring the borders between adjacent areas, transplanting noble qualities to "lower" genres, in other words – quiet diversion.
Lenica tried to show that social norms are coercive and institutions that restrict violence and therefore infringe the liberty of the individual. To those ends he used surrealism, the grotesque, and motifs from Ionesco and Kafka. In the beginning he drew upon the cut-out technique but later moved on to features, cartoons and a mix of these techniques and animated photography. His films The Labyrinth, Rhinoceros and King Ubu made him famous in Europe and the world.
Critic Marcin Giżycki rightly pointed out that there are two periods in the history of animated films: pre- and post Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. The Polish animation industry would not be the same without their input, and they greatly influenced future generations of animators.
The works of Daniel Szczechura (Conflict in 1960) and Mirosław Kijowicz (Arlekin in 1960) are a testament to the post-Lenica and Borowczyk era. In the 60s, artists continued the masters' legacy by also addressing their films to adult audiences and challenging them intellectually and on an aesthetic level. Nevertheless, animated films for children continued to be made.
Witold Giersz is by far the most challenging Polish animator to describe. His artistic output is huge and he has been active since the 60s. Over the years he has employed different techniques. Giersz has authored cartoons for kids, educational films and independent artistic projects.
Giersz started out traditionally, in the spirit of Disney, and even as a mature artist in his authorial films or series, he would sometimes return to the line drawing technique. However his fourth movie The Neon Epigram already heralded the changes that were to occur in the authorial approach to animated films. – wrote Jan Strękowski for Culture.pl
In Neon Epigram Giersz used colours for the first time. In Little Western, his next film, touted a masterpiece, he substituted ordinary drawings with soft, "spreading" patches of colour painted directly on celluloid with which he animated each frame himself. He would come back to this technique throughout the 60s. For example in Red & Black (1963) – the whimsical story of two coloured stains which turn into a bull and a bullfighter – or Ladies and Gentlemen (1964) and Horse (1967).
For many years, Giersz was the most prolific animator in Poland. And although he ceased making films in the 90s, in 2013, following seventeen years of leave, he made a comeback. The long-awaited Signum is a reference to the Lascaux cave paintings and the film itself is a tribute to the first masters of painting. Instead of using computer technology the director went back to the fundamentals – he used natural pigments, clay and charcoal, and replaced the canvas with stones and rocks.
The art historian and painter Mirosław Kijowicz represented the philosophical and reflective strand of Polish animation. This is how in Polish Animation 1945-1974 critic Andrzej Kossakowski described Kijowicz's films,
They belonged to the genre of philosophical reflection. The artist observes the world around him, reflects on the fate of the ordinary, 'grey' man, and looks for philosophical generalisations [...]. Kijowicz's exceeding sorrow – even his irony – is far from humorous. His unique humour is not carefree, and his very difficult imagery forces us to think.
In the 60s Kijowicz made several politically involved films: Banner (1965), The Wicker Basket (1967), Smile (1968) and Frames. The last film, the director illustrates the reality of the Polish People's Republic and the relentless and pointless attempts of its leaders to indoctrinate the people.
His 70s films also had a philosophical and reflective inclination. In Road (1971) he portrays human choices which can sometimes have unexpected and disproportionate consequences, while in Variants (1970) he explains the varying paths our lives can take. Kijowicz therefore beat Krzysztof Kieślowski to the punch – the latter would pick up the topic in Przypadek.
Kijowicz was not the only Polish animator to reveal the drab reality of communist Poland. Daniel Szczechura reflected disapproval of political circumstances through irony.
His first film – Conflicts (1960) – was made in the cut-out technique and is a parody of censorship in Poland at the time. The director was playing a game of cat and mouse with the representatives of communist law. He would challenge the system but never overtly, only through allusions. His critical film was disguised as an animated detective film describing mundane things. The Machine (1961), co-produced with Mirosław Kijowicz was a political satire in the cut-out technique. The film ridicules industrial monumentality in the Polish People's Republic. The film A Chair is a humorous but wise story about the fight for power which is symbolised by the titular chair.
It's the satirical edge of Szczechura's early films that earned him the title of the "Mrożek of Polish animation". In his later works, the director was more philosophical, leaving room for reflection and the abstract. Hobby (1968) combines the cut-out and drawn animation and is a macabre tale about female possessiveness and the battle of the sexes. The Voyage (1970) on the other hand, is a milestone work in the history of Polish animation.
Stefan Schabenbeck, author of Everything is a Number (1966), Exclamation Mark (1967) and Stairs, (1968) fits into the philosophical-reflective current of Polish animation.
The artist's contribution to Polish animation was the Pythagorean perspective. He used film to talk about human life but stressed the micro and macro perceptions. When looked at from a different angle, life appears different. The protagonists (which in Everything is a Number were inspired by the works of Saul Steinberg) appeared alongside geometric figures, numbers and shapes. His unusual films, which could always be interpreted in a number of ways, were a phenomenon in the 60s.
Years later, Stairs would serve as inspiration for Tomasz Bagiński's The Cathedral – an award-winning and well-known animation. Stairs shows life as an arduous climb up a labyrinth of stairs. Once we reach the top, we turn into one of the steps. Schabenbeck's work has an important place in Polish animation.
The Krakow-based Studio Miniatur Filmowych was one of the most important centres of development for Polish animation in the late 60s. This is where Julian Józef Antoniszczak (Antonisz), film-maker, inventor, composer, and a prominent figure in Polish animation made his début. Jan Strękowski wrote:
He is a creator of animated films who is difficult to confuse with any other film-maker from the genre. Vibrating, pulsating, full of motion and the ineptitude of some plasticity that hides the fact that it is intended, his films teem with an ingenious, surprising, absurd, and illogical sense. They are grotesque and ripe with satirical commentary, full of rough sounds as the narrations are rough, read mostly by amateurs, full of mistakes and linguistic screw-ups. Antonisz's films, more than 20 years since the director's death – and about the same period since the fall of the communist regime – still arouse great audience interest. It is an audience that includes young viewers who may never have heard of the film-maker who makes the realities of communist Poland seem like a fairy tale.
Julian Antonisz, Ryszard Czekała, Jerzy Kucia, and his younger brother Ryszard Antonius Antoniszczak learned from Kazimierz Urbański, thus the movement was referred to as the Kazimierz Urbański school. In the late 60s and the early 70s, he went his own way and developed his own ironic educational film genre. His films: As It Happens... (1970), Out of the Woods (1970), How a Sausage Dog Works (1971) and Practical Advice on How to Prolong Your Life (1974) brought him cult status.
Through non-camera techniques, Antoniszczak talked about the absurdness of real socialism. He would say that "the pulsating land of non-camera is the sole antidote for the existing paranoid reality". His best-known films are Sharp Involved Film (1979) and the aforementioned How a Sausage Dog Works.
Though they both belonged to the same school of thought – the Urbański school – Czekała and Antoniszczak went different ways in their artistic work. Antoniszczak chose absurd humour while Czekała found the story-telling aspect of animated films more pertinent. Thus, his films went in the direction of documentary and feature films.
The Bird, in 1968, was his first film. The main character dreams of freedom, but the public toilet worker cannot realise his own dream so he saves up to buy a bird and frees it. Czekała revelled in poetic expressions of dreams of freedom and its substitutes. His works illustrated what most people felt at the time.
Son (1970) is one of his most popular films. It's the alluring story of a son's visit to his parents house in the countryside. It talks of unrequited love and longing, and is perhaps one of the most beautiful films in the history of Polish animation.
Just as well-known and appreciated by critics and audiences is Czekała's The Roll-Call (1970), a shocking black-and-white film about a roll-call in a concentration camp. A prisoners' revolt ends in the execution of them all, including one who had no part in this act of opposition. Czekała was the first to depict a concentration camp in an animated film.
He is one of the best-known Polish animators on an international level. Kucia was closely associated with Krakow, where he lectured at the Academy of Fine Arts.
He made a début in 1972 with the film Return. In the book Polish Animated Films 1945-1974 critic Andrzej Kossakowski called the movie a poetic vision "about loneliness". Return is the simple story of a man riding a train into the past, towards his dream home. But this past is Kucia's own past, which he allows the viewer to enter. The film was a success at the prestigious Grenoble festival and brought Kucia into the limelight. Though he continues to work to this day, his most prolific period was the 70s.
He made seven films in this time, all of which were hits. Elevator (1973) and Barrier (1977) are two moving productions which exemplify Kucia's style – he communicates with the viewer, who, through rising emotions, feels co-responsible for the film.
Another monumental work is Reflections (1979), the bitter and highly symbolic story of a battle between two insects which ends in both of them being crushed by a human. In the following decades, Kucia slowed down his rate of production but nevertheless stayed active. In 2000 he made the fantastic The Tuning of Instruments and took back his position among the best creators of animated films in Poland.
Unlike Kucia, who can be called the poet of emotion and time, Rybczyński created visual poetry and unusual spaces – Bogusław Zmudziński.
Rybczyński attended an art school in Warsaw and graduated from Łódź Film School. He made his first films in the 70s at the Warsztat Formy Filmowej. He experimented with animation. In three films – Soup (1974), Plamuz (1973) and Holiday (1976) – he broke with traditional narration and experimented with photography.
His greatest artistic success is Tango (1980), for which he received an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. The film exhibits the plethora of social roles. In a room, a number of characters come and go. There's a boy playing football, another one exercising, there's a mother breastfeeding her child, a plumber, a dying woman and a couple which takes her place after she passes away.
After winning the Oscar, Rybczyński continued to work abroad, including in the USA and Germany. He was among the first artists to work with HD technology. Film critics tend to hail Zbigniew Rybczyński the contemporary Mélies. Marcin Giżycki wrote,
He belongs to the line of Mélies' descendants, the cinematic craftsmen combining extraordinary plastic imagination with an aptitude for inventing and constructing, and endowed with Benedictine patience. (Projekt 3/4 1987)
The political and economic transition of 1989 hit the animation industry hard. They weren't the only ones deprived of public funding – the entire film industry was crippled. Short animated films could no longer be screened as supporting material ahead of full-length features. Prominent master animators continued to create and produce but there were few developments in the field and few experimenters.
The 80s were more difficult for Polish animation than the previous two decades. Nevertheless, new talents continued to emerge. Among them was Piotr Dumała.
By the time he graduated in 1982, he had made his directing début with the animated film Lycanthropy. This story of werewolves was illustrated using conventional methods. His blackly humorous cartoon Little Black Riding Hood shows the wolf being eaten by Little Red Riding Hood.
Dumała's most accomplished film from the period (or ever) is The Gentle One (1985). It's an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story of the same name. How did he create the effect of a table turning into a bed and a clock into a square? He used a technique he invented himself – scratching an image out of black plaster. Dumała's eleven-minute-long motion picture is one of the finest film adaptations of the Russian master's prose. Dumała used the language of film and used close-up shots to give Dostoevsky's grim story about mysterious and passionate people psychological credibility.
Dumała based many of his works on literature. In Walls (1987) and Freedom of the Leg (1988) he alluded to Kafka. In 1991 he created an entire film about him entitled Franz Kafka. He also returned to Dostoevsky, adapting Crime and Punishment in 2000. Interview with Jerzy Armata, Dumała commented,
If you compared literature to a bridge over the ocean, the bridge would have two main pillars: Dostoevsky and Kafka. The other pillars would not reach the ground. Or, even if they could, they wouldn't be able to hold the construction together.
Marek Skrobecki began his career in animation in the 90s. He is known for his unique puppet animations.
D.i.m. (1993) heralded an upcoming star of animation. The film seduces with its simplicity. It shows two lonely people who feed a bird every day. Skrobecki used characteristic life-size puppets with expressive faces. His next film, Om (1995) is the story of a prisoner who walks around in circles in a labyrinth and is murdered by his doppelgänger.
Fish (2005) is his most popular work. It's a metaphorical tale about failure and human existence, full of irony, yet without many typical elements of dark humour. The themes of loneliness from the director's earlier films acquire new meaning. Fish was made using classic techniques of stop-motion puppet animation and 3D computer techniques.
In 2010 Skrobecki made headlines with the animated film Danny Boy, a satirical, ironic portrait of society in which almost everybody is headless. In this anonymous, headless mass, one man – the inventor Danny Boy – stands out from the crowd.
While Polish animation was mostly associated with traditional forms: time-lapse photography, puppet animation, non-camera, cut-out and illustration, the permanent arrival of computer technology in the late 90s changed the industry. Tomasz Bagiński, a self-taught draughtsman and painter, is the symbol of the era. He made his first film, The Hunt, on a computer at the mathematics faculty of the University of Warsaw's Białystok branch where his father worked.
In his second year of university, in 1997, he started working on the film Rain which won the YoungElectronicsArts 3D graphics competition and opened the way to a job at the Platige Image post-production company. It was at Platige Image, working after hours, that he made The Cathedral, and he dropped out of university in his fourth year to focus on animated films. The Cathedral (2002) received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film and made Bagiński famous in the industry. Many new young people have since followed in his footsteps: Damian Nenow, Grzegorz Jonkajtys, Marcin Pazera, Marcin Waśko.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translator: MJ 24/11/2014
- Andrzej Kossakowski, „Polski film animowany 1945-1974”, Warszawa 1977
- Marcin Giżycki, „Nie tylko Disney. Rzecz o filmie animowanym”, Warszawa 2000
- Marcin Giżycki, Bogusław Zmudziński [red.], „Polski film animowany”, Warszawa 2008
- Andrzej Pitrus, „Kino końca wieku”, Kraków 2000
- Piotr Dumała, „Dumała”, Gdańsk 2012
- Jerzy Armata [red.], „Śnione filmy Piotra Dumały”, Kraków-Warszawa 2009