As one of the reformers of Polish animation of the late 1960s, his focus on plot brought animated film closer to feature film or documentary. His films might have been told with actors, but the formula provided additional meanings and greater expression.
The director and screenwriter of animated and feature films was born in Bydgoszcz in 1941. He died in Kraków on October 30, 2010. He received a degree in painting and graphic art from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków in 1966, in the Drawing for Film Class of Kazimierz Urbański. As a producer of animated films, he debuted two years later with Ptak (The Bird, 1968). Czekała was a co-founder of Kraków's Animated Film Studio. He debuted as a feature film director in 1976 with Zofia (Sophia), after which he made feature films for almost a decade, returning to animation with Do utraty głów (Until Loss Of Heads) in 1985.
He received awards chiefly for his animated works, including the main prizes at festivals in Kraków and Mannheim for Syn (The Son, 1970), and in Cork and Annecy for Apel (The Roll-Call, 1971). His feature films also received recognition, his debut Zofia (Sophia) winning major prizes including the Grand Prize of the San Remo IFF (1977). Kazimierz Żórawski wrote in 1971,
Less than four years have passed since his debut, 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 recognized framework of animated film, blazing new trails. (Kino 10/71)
Czekała was one of the reformers of Polish animation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. What sets him apart from our other animation artists? First of all, his focus on the plot of a film, his way of treating material in a way that brings animated film closer to feature film or documentary. Therefore it is the themes, which seemed reserved for feature films and documentaries until Czekała's animation appeared. He has said,
I take the themes for my films from everything around me [...] I model the matter of my films from everyday life accessible to everyone [...] eliminating all the formal ornamentation and spectacular material - I select the form to match what I want to say. What I say are simple things. (Polska 5/1971)
Today it seems obvious that an animated film can tell a story, that it can be subtle, expressive, close to people's hearts, yet still remain an animated film. This has been proved by Czekała's successors, mentioning especially Piotr Dumała. Though critics point out that Czekała's films might just as well have been told with actors, the formula of animated films give them additional meanings, greater expression, strengthening an impression that maybe the same stories told traditionally could not have created.
What were those stories? Ptak (The Bird, 1968) - the main character dreams of freedom, its substitute being freedom for a bird that he is saving up his pennies to buy. Syn (The Son, 1970) - the loneliness of parents abandoned in the countryside by their now "urban" son. Finally, Apel (The Roll-Call, 1970) - a shocking picture of life in a concentration camp, a story of fear, humanity and the inhumane camp system. These stories could have been told differently. However, what Czekała did when he made these three films can be compared to the contemporary achievements of Art Spiegelman, author of the Maus comic book, and Zbigniew Libera, who proposes that we build ourselves a concentration camp from Lego yoy bricks (LEGO Concentration Camp), where the material adds meanings but also forces people to take an aloof look at the consumers of things that, one would think, are impossible to consume.
Andrzej Kossakowski wrote that with Apel (The Roll-Call), Czekała contributed to overcoming certain mental barriers: "It's true that animated films have long come out of the nursery ... but not all issues seemed possible to transfer to the world of animation." The director also showed that animated films can be used "to speak about serious matters seriously, without that seemingly necessary wit, that 'tongue in cheek'," something that had seemed reserved for documentaries or acted films. (Film 50/7)
Ryszard Czekała's proposal was interpreted by many critics as a reaction to the ossification of philosophical films, which dominated the 1960s. Czekała confirmed this:
I simply don't really like animated films which are allegories, or films which are philosophical tales, where people and objects have symbolic meanings. I want to show specific events and situations. My only concern is that they be evocative. ("Film" 25/1970)
As Kazimierz Żórawski writes:
The works of Ryszard Czekała are a natural and conscious reaction to the philosophical or rather pseudo-philosophical aspirations of many makers of animated films, to those films - parables of the world, films - syntheses of existence, films - grand symbols. 'Ptak', then 'Syn', and finally [...] 'Apel', are works telling simple and uncomplicated stories, where the simplicity is intentional, it is an artistic method [...] The aim of a realistic story line supported by a visual setting reminiscent of documentaries, is to bring the author's thoughts closer to the viewer." (Kino 10/71)
It is worth noting this comparison, because it comes up in texts by critics analysing Czekała's early animated films. Alicja Iskierko compares them to documentaries in her book Znajomi z kina. Szkice o polskim filmie krókometrażowym / Cinematic Acquaintances. Sketches on Polish Short Films (Warszawa 1982). So does Kazimierz Żórawski, mentioned earlier, many times in fact, writing even more explicitly:
His films give [...] the impression of being "documentaries" transposed to the language of animated film, not only in the images which Czekała composes three-dimensionally, but equally, thanks to the themes and references to reality, in moving from the realm of"'thinking" to the realm of "feeling". (Film 12/71)
In fact, Czekała comes much closer to feature films. The drama of his works, the way he leads the camera, the rhythm, sound, the precise and extremely meaningful editing similar to that of features, the use of detail, all this gives them an affinity to feature films. Andrzej Kossakowski wrote that in all of Czekała's films, animation could be replaced with acting, though he did say the impact would be smaller then (Film 50/77). One has to agree. Jerzy Giżycki (Kamera 5/1971) even compared the power of impact of Czekała's Apel / The Roll-Call to Wanda Jakubowska's Ostatni etap / The Last Stage and Andrzej Munk's Pasażerka / Passenger, the best-known feature films touching on the problem of concentration camps.
Ryszard Czekała said:
I try to create a certain evocative vision of the world in my films which would make the viewers forget they are at the cinema. The audience should feel participants in the events, they should identify themselves with the characters. [...] Even a world drawn on paper can look enough like genuine reality for the viewer to believe in its existence. Even a drawn person can betray their personality, their feelings. (Film 9/1971)
Asked point blank if that meant he wanted to make feature films, he replied:
A producer who can narrate an event with the help of drawings should also be able to narrate it with the help of staged shots. ... We should think in film terms, not in terms of graphic art, painting, or theatre. To a filmmaker all these disciplines are only an element of directing. (Film 25/70)
As Kazimierz Żórawski writes (Kino 10/71), Czekała emphasised that he thought in film images from the start, including the sound, or maybe even initially he heard his films more than he saw them. That's an important confession. It is exactly this equal value of story line, sound and image that constitutes the value of Czekała's films. Żórawski writes:
It is that naturalistic and surreal sound to which the black-and-white images in Ptak are synchronously set, which creates images of the loneliness of a hunched man, and in Syn the loud swallowing of soup, the sound of a piece of bread falling to the ground, the quiet splash of a tear flowing down the father's cheek and hitting the smooth surface of the liquid filling his plate, finally the rustle of the newspaper as the son reads it, create the mood and the audience's emotional reception.
After he made his feature debut Zofia / Sophia (1976) and abandoned animation for 10 years, Wanda Wertenstein wrote that a careful observer could have predicted that Czekała would find animated film too confining. In his three early pieces, "Their graphical realism was not far from photographic realism, while the notional, philosophical aspects were shaped by classic means of expression of narrative cinema - the choice of standpoints, light gradations, editing, the relation of image and sound. The drawn figures were surrogate actors, the animated cut-outs - a substitute for real gestures." (Kino 10/76)
Wertenstein asked if the baggage of animation was sufficient for a producer of features. She replied in the affirmative, saying that "Czekała tries to utilize the same stock of means which made him original when he was working with the material of animated film" (Kino 10/76). This refers to the use of detail, telling a story more through editing than through scenes of action, staging simple but expressive shots.
Czekała abandoned animation in favour of feature films but remained faithful to the themes from his animated works, especially Ptak / The Bird and Syn / The Son. The result was not unequivocally good. He did best in his feature debut Zofia / Sophia (1976), a film which received awards including the main prize at the San Remo festival. Bogdan Zagroba wrote that " 'Zofia' is primarily a film of moods and climates created by object shapes, colours, shadows; in other words - by visual composition. Dialogue appears infrequently".
He praised Ryszarda Hanin's acting, and the film as a whole: "Czekała has shown himself to be an artist aware of the diverse possibilities offered by the language of film, the language of images, moods, comparisons, able to make do without words." (Film 44/76)
Critics noticed faults as well, though. Zagroba himself wrote that the film was burdened with the tenuousness of the literary material, causing it to look more like "Czekała's favourite monochromatic impression than a complete figure." Wanda Wertenstein also saw drawbacks in Czekała's method, writing that the film "requires some effort from the viewer, and above all patience to see all the pieces of the puzzle come together into a cohesive whole." (Kino 10/76)
Czekała's second feature, Płomienie / Flames (1978), revolved around the problems present in his first animated films and in Sophia. Parents, children, countryside, city, traditional rural culture or urban "hotchpotch"? These are themes familiar from the "peasant trend" in literature and the works of other filmmakers, to mention Grzegorz Królikiewicz. The film received praise from Czesław Dondziłło in his book Młode kino polskie lat siedemdziesiątych / Young Polish Cinema of the 1970s (Warszawa 1985); he thought it even surpassed Sophia, which he thought to be more single dimensional. Krzysztof Kreutzinger praised it, too (Film 7/79), comparing the visual side of Flames to the paintings of Vermeer. Nevertheless, critical opinions predominated. Tadeusz Sobolewski was negative:
"Czekała has kept to his old method. Each character repeats the same grimace the whole time. And it's only for that one grimace that he needs actresses like Ryszarda Hanin and Barbara Krafftówna. [...] Czekała could have used a clean soundtrack, without dialogue, with just crunching and grunting. If we muffled the impossibly lengthy conversations and cut the film to under twenty minutes, we would be left with 'Syn', no less - the best film by Ryszard Czekała. (Film 8/79)
Subsequent films as well, Przeklęta ziemia / Damned Earth (1982) and Piętno / Stigma (1983) based on the prose of Julian Kawalec, took on the dominating theme of Czekała's output: "watching people who are between two types of culture, on the borderland of the urban world and the rural world." (FSP 3/85)
These films did not receive unequivocal praise, either. Stigma was accused of being too rough, inconsistent in terms of drama and even genre. As Maciej Pawlicki wrote: "The director wanted to turn a contemplative moral treatise based on retrospection into a fast-paced, spectacular and intelligent crime story with a wise message. The result is neither one nor the other." (Film 25/85)
The adventure with feature films, though it delivered the outstanding Sophia, came to an end. This was cohesive output, though with different cinematic material. What Andrzej Kossakowski wrote about Czekała's animated films can also be applied to his feature films: "Czekała's world is sad, dark, it doesn't try and win anyone over with perfunctory optimism [...]This is a world of tragic human truths whose portrayal required serious language." (Film 50/77)
His return to animated films did not bring Ryszard Czekała achievements on a par with The Son or The Roll-Call. His works had lost their uniqueness. However, he remains important as the producer of milestone animation films: The Bird, and above all the two just mentioned.
Here is what Magazyn Filmowy wrote about this last film:
"It's rare to see an animated film which makes such a huge impression. Narration, rhythm of images, visuals, sound, all form an absolute whole, working together equally powerfully in this small piece which is an outstanding work of art." (MF, 25/71)
Ryszard Czekała is the co-writer with Andrzej Warchał of the script for the animated film Hasło / The Slogan (1974) directed by Krzysztof Raynoch, and wrote the script for the animated film Clown (1986) directed by Danuta Węgrzyn and for the short feature film Kredą rysowane / Drawn in Chalk (1987) directed by Lesław Wilk.
Ryszard Czekała also collaborated on Kazimierz Urbański's films Czar kółek / The Charm Of Two Wheels (1966) and Tren zbója / A Robber's Lamentation (1967).
Author: Jan Strękowski, December 2007; updated: November 2010