Polish Animated Film Builds on History
With Academy Awards and a BAFTA in more recent years, and groundbreaking work from the earliest years of cinema, Polish animated film's storied, innovative history is maintaining its creative vitality today.
Poland's animated-film heritage dates to before the First World War, when Władyslaw Starewicz made his groundbreaking, stop-motion films with insects. Having been made by a Pole in Russia, Starewicz’s early films continue to provoke the argument about Poland or Russia being first to make animated films. The first animated films created in Poland were made after 1917. Little has been preserved of these early works.
The outstanding Polish work in the field was Oko i ucho / The Eye and the Ear, an abstract film by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, made during their exile in the U.K. in 1944. The filmmakers "The film is a musical and visual experiment based on the analysis of the manners of transposing sound into image and vice versa", writes the Filmoteka Museum, "in a pursuit of finding such a method of combining the two that would not lead to a mere mutual illustration, but could ensure coherence of types of content hailing from each medium."
After the Second World War, a handful of Polish animators, without necessary equipment, studios or a tradition or professional training, began from the scratch. The only filmmaker with any experience was cartoonist Zenon Wasilewski. His puppet film Za króla Krakusa / For King Krakus (1947) was the first Polish animated film to win awards at international festivals. Wasilewski's satirical Pan Piórko (1949) was banned by censors, accused of formalism and eventually pulled from distribution. It became obvious that Stalinist socialist realism did not ignore animated films.
Animated films produced in this period were mainly fables sprinkled with ideological expressions. There were exceptions, such as Włodzimierz Haupe's Cyrk / Circus (1954), which had higher artistic values than its predecessors. Socialist-realism doctrine was not being enforced as stringently by the mid-1950s, and creators explored new topics and means of expression.
A turning point came for Polish animated film with Był sobie raz / Once Upon a Time (1957), the début by Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. The film, in the words of a Kinoeye critic, was a "witty, formalist joke derived from the free-association of cutout elements, Once Upon a Time caused something of a revolution, childish in execution, yet thoroughly adult in conception which deservedly won the grand prize at Venice and Mannheim."
Just a few years earlier, Once Upon a Time would not have seen release for its political undertones. The two filmmakers made two more original films, including Dom / House which won the Grand Prix at the Experimental Film Competition in 1958 during the Brussels World Exhibition. Through the innovative use of collage, Lenica and Borowczyk demonstrated that animation can be a means of personal expression, such as graphic design and painting. Both artists lived abroad, then made three outstanding works in Poland: Borowczyk's Szkoła / School (1958), and Lenica's Nowy Janko Muzykant / New Musician Janek (1960) and Labirynt / Labyrinth (1962).
The golden age
The peak of Polish animation came in the 1960s, in terms of both quality and quantity. Individuals emerged at the beginning of the decade whose work strongly marked the artform for years. The leaders of this group were Mirosław Kijowicz, Daniel Szczechura and Kazimierz Urbański. International success of such works as Mały western / Small Western (1960), Czerwone i czarne / Red and Black (1963) and Koń / Horse (1967) by Witold Giersz, Fotel / Chair (1963), Hobby (1968) and Podróż / Journey (1970) by Daniel Szczechura, Sztandar / Banner (1965), Klatki / Frames (1966) and Droga (1971) by Mirosław Kijowicz, established a top position and global recognition for Polish animation.
Szczechura's debut films borrow elements from the aesthetics of Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. "I see no reason to hide that I was inspired by the films of Borowczyk and Lenica," as Szczechura acknowledged in an interview, ":which suggested the cut-out technique that allowed me to rid myself of the baggage of additional animators, designers and assistants. This technique generally revolutionised animated film, [...] because the subject of animations expanded with the introduction of cut-outs."
While classical animated film proved incapable of venturing beyond "cat-chases-mouse" situations, cut-out films allowed artists to broach far more important issues. "Their [Borowczyk's and Lenica's] early animations made a big impression on me precisely because they were serious", Szczechura said in an interview with Kwartalnik Filmowy in 1997.
Other filmmakers of note included Alina Maliszewska, Katarzyna Latałło and Wacław Kondek. Soon, foreign festivals started taking note of the Polish Animation School.
The loosely affiliated "School" saw spectacular achievements in the 1970s, brought forward in part by the Urbański Animated Film Studio in Kraków. New filmmakers made waves of their own, especially Ryszard Czekała with Syn / Son (1970) and Apel / Appeal (1972), and Jerzy Kucia with Powrót / The Return (1972), Winda / Elevator (1973), W cieniu / In the Shadows (1975) and Szlaban / The Gate (1976). Such films proposed a new concept of animated cinema, drawing on themes of ordinary life, with visual elements inspired by photography.
The industry moved in leaps and bounds in this period. Not long after Ryszard Czekała made his first film, critic Kazimierz Żórawski wrote in Kino magazine in 1971:
Less than four years have passed since his début, during which time he has made just three films, but even today one can say about Ryszard Czekała that he is a fully mature artist, a creative personality whose works go beyond the recognised framework of animated film, blazing new trails.
Kraków was not the only centre of animated-film production in the 1970s, and Czekała and his colleagues were part of larger group of Polish filmmakers. Others of note included Jerzy Kalina, based in Warsaw, who made W trawie / In the Grass (1974), Muszla / Shell (1975) and Ludwik (1976), and Zbigniew Rybczyński in Łódź, with such works as Zupa / Soup (1975), Święto / Holiday (1975) and Tango (1980).
The Academy Award that Rybczyński received in 1983 for Tango was the first awarded to a Polish artist. The filmmaker moved to the U.S. around this time, when martial law was imposed in Poland. He went on to win other awards, including three MTV Video Music Awards, an MTV Video Vanguard Award for "being visionary in the field of music video" (1985–86), a Silver Lion at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival (1987), and an Emmy in 1990. The filmmaker's body of work in the U.S. using high-resolution video technology has reinforced his position as one of the great expressive innovators in world cinema.
Big, interesting achievements of Polish animation got underway in the 1980s. Representatives of this generation include Piotr Dumała, a lover of the work of Kafka and Dostoyevsky, and inventor of the animation technique of painting on plaster panels, with films such as Czarny Kapturek / Black Hood (1983), Latające włosy / Flying Hair (1984) and Łagodna / Gentle Spirit (1985).
Dumała took great pride in the films he made, distinguishing them from cartoons made for children. In an interview with Kino magazine about his film Franz Kafka, the filmmaker said:
Animation has traditionally used conventional figures, looking like Bolek and Lolek [Polish children's cartoons], flat men without shadows or space. And when someone starts – like I do – to use shadows (all of my 'drawn' lights and shadows were underlined with real lights or shadows), he is said to copy feature films. [...] The truth is that animation does not copy 'the real cinema'. It is 'the real cinema'."
Another of the new generation's important player is Marek Serafiński, creator of several satirical films based on animated photographs of actors, including Mówca / Speaker (1980), Dworzec / Station (1987) and Koncert / Concert (1987). Also influential in the industry were Jacek Kasprzycki with Mojego domu / My Home (1983) and Ewa Bibańska with Portret niewierny / Unfaithful portrait.
Transition, and renaissance
The impact of the free-market economy after 1989 was a hard blow for the animated-film industry in Poland. Major studios were forced to close, and many artists fell silent. It is irony that the art form that had perfected the art of subtle subversion for decades, quietly criticising the system, had no place or a voice following the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
The end of the 20th century saw a revival of animation films in Poland. A factor in this was access to supercomputers, allowing for CGI films rivalling those of Hollywood. Major players in this period include Mariola Brillowska, with her sado-erotic Grabowski Haus des Lebens / Grabowski, House of Life (1990) which she made in Germany, and Tomasz Bagiński, whose computer-generated art-nouveau fantasy Katedra / Cathedral was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002.
Several production companies are functioning today. The most prominent is Se-ma-for, a studio set up in Łódź in 1947. Se-ma-for has received two Academy Awards, the win in 1983 for Zbigniew Rybczyński's Tango, and for Peter and the Wolf in 2008.
Peter and the Wolf is a classic stop-motion animation, and adapts the musical tale from 1936 by Sergei Prokofiev. Many films have adaptated work by the celebrated Russian composer of the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Director Suzie Templeton's work distinguishes itself with elaborate set design and finely crafted, animated puppets. It makes full use of detailed stop-motion puppets, dramatising complicated relationships between main characters and the depth of their experiences, which eventually leads to an inner transformation.
Another major studio operating in Poland is Platige Image, founded in 1997 in Warsaw. The studio's important recent works include Katedra by Bagiński, Damian Nenow's Oscar-nominated Paths of Hate and City of Ruins, a digital stereoscopic reconstruction of Warsaw after it destruction in 1944 by the German occupation forces. The film re-creates in excrutiating detail the aerial view of the largely empty ruins from a B-24 Liberator bomber looping over the city in spring 1945.
Another of Bagiński's major works, which drew significant international attention to Platige studio, is Fallen Art. A perverse story set at an isolated military base in the Pacific Ocean, the film concerns officers who have lost their minds and have a terrible pastime: photographing soldiers plummeting from a platform. Their pictures serve as material for their mentally ill general as he creates his own film, with the help of a special stop-motion technique that produces a macabre dance of death. Fallen Art received awards at major film festivals in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Stuttgart, Linz, Tehran and Tirana, and received a BAFTA from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Jeż Jerzy / George the Hedgehog (2011) was based on the Polish comic series depicting day-to-day life for the tragic hero, George the Hedgehog. The animated feature was three years in the making, and involved the skills of a team of directors and animators.
The centre of young Polish animation is presently the Łódź Film School, according to film critic Jerzy Armata. Armata told Portalfilmowy.pl two factors for the school's predominance: "Firstly, the artistic tutors of these films are recognised animators [including] Piotr Dumała, Marek Skrobecki and Mariusz Wilczyński. Secondly, these masters do not impose their vision, and allow the young filmmakers do it it mostly by themselves. They only discreetly and wisely advise them. This results in interesting, fresh and varied films."