The "cut-out" technique used in his first films with Jan Lenica worked well to convey an amusing message as well as grotesque expression right up to absurdity and horror like that of Ionesco and Kafka. From the start, Borowczyk treated animated film as a form of "highbrow" art. The presence of humour deserves to be stressed, in his animated and feature films - in many cases absurd and evoking associations with surrealism.
No record of the greatest achievements of animated film worldwide would be complete without mention of two Polish artists, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica. Their joint film from 1957, Once Upon a Time, followed by films they made together such as House in 1958, and also their individual productions, triggered a revolution in this peripheral film genre. They turned animated film into an art capable of communicating the most complex, difficult and serious messages.
Borowczyk was born in 1923 in Kwilcz near Poznań, he lived in France from 1959. He died in France in 2006. He was an accomplished visual artist, scriptwriter, stage designer, director of animated and feature films, and writer. He studied painting and graphic arts at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1951. As a student, he made amateur short films including animations. He designed theatre and film posters and, from 1950, published satirical drawings in the magazines Szpilki and later in Nowa Kultura and Życie Literackie. At the National Art Exhibition in Warsaw in 1951, he won third prize for graphic art. With Jan Tarasin, Borowczyk published the picture album Rysunki satyryczne in 1953, maintaining the typical socialist-realist style. In the same year, he received the Polish National Prize for his cycle of lithographs Nowa Huta.
He started a collaboration with Jan Lenica in 1956. They made an animated cartoon in 1957 titled Once Upon a Time, which brought them international fame. After making several more films, including one on his own titled School, Borowczyk left Poland for good in 1959 and settled in Paris, where he went on to make short and feature-length animated films and short feature films. After 1969, Borowczyk focused almost completely on full-length feature films.
Borowczyk was involved in many art genres. Beside animated films, short feature films that the critics hailed as masterpieces, and interesting full-length productions, he was one of the main creators of the Polish poster school and, first and foremost, of artistic erotic cinema. He made satirical drawings, sculptures and film sets, and exhibited his works in Poland and abroad. He received many prizes for his artistic output. He also wrote a volume of short stories, L'anatomie du diable / Anatomia diabła, published in France in 1992 and in Poland a year later, and a book of memoirs, Mes années polonaises / Moje polskie lata written in French and published in 2002.
Borowczyk was awarded the Max Ernst Prize for his life's work in animated films in 1967, and the President of the Italian Republic's Gold Medal in 1971, and was a recipient of awards at festivals of short films, including those in Oberhausen, Mannheim, Tours, Berlin, Venice and Krakow.
Marcin Giżycki was accurate when he wrote that "in animated films ... there were two eras: before and after Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk" (Kino 12/2001). As "milestone works" he mentions their joint projects Once Upon a Time and House as well as Lenica's Monsieur Tète, Labyrinth and New Janko the Musician, and Borowczyk's The Astronauts and School.
Before the films of Lenica and Borowczyk, animated films in Poland were a less valued form, regarded as films addressed to children without any great artistic or visual - not to mention philosophical - aspirations. In Giżycki's estimation,
Lenica and Borowczyk's brilliance did not reveal itself in technical innovation or inventiveness, on the contrary, it was demonstrated in their nonchalant approach to existing techniques and conventions. ... Their films made no secret of the simplicity of means they utilized, camouflaged nothing, their movement and montage as simplified as possible. Just a few pieces of coloured paper, old photographs, junk objects, fragments of found drawings.
The "cut-out" technique they used in their first films worked well as a means of conveying a humorous, amusing message as well as surreal grotesque expression, right up to absurdity and horror like that of Ionesco and Kafka. From the start, Borowczyk treated animated film as a form of "highbrow" art. One example of his serious treatment of this genre is Renaissance (1963), which was shown at the film festival in Krakow in 1964 next to Lenica's Rhinoceros, and which enchanted the esteemed film critic Aleksander Jackiewicz, who judged it even more highly than Lenica's film. It is worth quoting his words, as they reflect the value of Borowczyk's art (Życie Literackie 24/1964):
This is an animated story about the world being ruined as a result of some disaster. The world - a real table, the real objects lying on it, the basket under the table - has physically fallen apart. And then it comes together anew, matter organizing itself into objects again. The trumpet lying on the table starts playing triumphantly. Then a second disaster strikes. The history of matter, the persistence of matter in the face of the forces of destruction - shown on one square metre and a few odd pieces of junk!
The presence of humour deserves to be stressed, both in Borowczyk's animated films and his feature films. This was often black humour, in many cases absurd, grotesque and not without reason evoking associations with surrealism. This was the case with The Magician (1959) and School (1958). Sometimes, though, a film, even an animated one, had an air of peril. The Game of the Angels (1964) is one example, about which Marian Prominski wrote (Życie Literackie 25/1965):
[...] game indeed - a slaughterhouse with streaming dark blue blood, as that seems to be the kind that angels have [...]
stressing the film's "infernal" mood. It is primarily the case with Borowczyk's full-length animated grotesque, Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre - a film in which the animated protagonists become as realistic as real people, which augments the horror of the story. Aleksander Jackiewicz wrote (Film 25/1969) that
[...] the most fascinating thing about this film is that the Kabals are ostentatiously fictional characters throughout. Dashes, dots that portray people. But they portray them realistically and act like living people.
It is also worth noting the way Borowczyk used photographs in his films. Even as a young man, wrote Urszula Czartoryska (Fotografia 11/1961), Borowczyk took a lot of photographs, and liked putting together pairs of photos in such a way as to give the impression of movement when you looked at them. He used photography extensively in the film House (1958). Here, he and Lenica even used photographs made by the pioneer of cinema, Jules Marey, stripping Marey's shots down to their constituent parts and introducing jerky movement akin to the first ever films. In School (1958) Borowczyk used almost exclusively his own photos (taken with Lenica), made specially for this film. After filming on a trick-table, 400 photos turned into a 9-minute film, a grotesque protest against military drill which strips people of personality. As Czartoryska writes,
'School' is [...] the height of succinct and simple means, it is a masterpiece of montage [...] it is an attempt at exploiting photographic material not only placed next to normal sequences shot with a film camera, but replacing them [...]
Marcin Giżycki noted (Kwartalnik Filmowy 19-20/1997-1998) that both artists headed toward Melies in their animations. Lenica was closer to Feuillade's films about Fantomas and Chaplin's burlesques. Borowczyk, though he made the colourful, Melies-style The Astronauts (1959), moved towards trick film. It is a fact that photographs often played a more important role in his animated films than drawings. With time, actors appeared as well, treated - as the critics emphasised - just like animated characters.
Borowczyk's full-length feature debut Goto, Island of Love (1968) was enthusiastically received by the critics. The director received the first-ever award named after the French film critic Georges Sadoul for this film. His first all-actor short Rosalie (1966) met with a similarly enthusiastic reception, with Bolesław Michałek (Kino 8/1967) finding it to contain "pure, crystalline form" and "an amazing frugality of means", while the critic who signed his name "wa" called the 15-minute film a masterpiece (Magazyn Filmowy 2/1971).
His next feature films also brought Borowczyk recognition: Blanche (1971), Immoral Tales (1974) and a film made in Poland, Story of a Sin (1975), extremely interesting visually and psychologically, and at the same time faithful to the original novel by Żeromski, a melodrama that the director called an "illustration" of the book. Borowczyk's move away from animation, though, had a mixed reception. Edward Chudziakowski (Student 6-7/1968) wrote about the 1967 film Gavotte that "it turned out to be a pretentious macabre film in which one searches in vain ... for philosophical subtext". He added that Borowczyk's departure from animation "is starting to bring less and less interesting effects". Meanwhile, Aleksander Jackiewicz (Film 19/1969) - seeing the story of a tyrant, death and love as being rather uninteresting and derivative - criticised Goto, Island of Love: "There's a story too many in this film."
Oskar Sobanski (Film 44/1992) wrote that the films made in 1974-76 formed the central part of Borowczyk's output, naming Immoral Tales, Story of a Sin, The Margin and The Beast:
They won the greatest renown and practically exhausted the director's aesthetic and intellectual potential [...]
Films like Immoral Tales and The Beast consolidated Borowczyk's position as a maker of artistic erotic films. Subsequent productions, Behind Convent Walls, Heroines of Evil, Lulu, Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes, Ars Amandi and the fifth part of the Emmanuelle cycle - to quote Oskar Sobanski - "are a collection of erotic themes of no great importance". In these films, from an issue that triggered existential questions about the nature of man - culture versus nature - sex turned into a magnet to draw audiences.
These films were also obviously inspired by de Sade, or more generally by 18th-century French libertinism, where sex was coupled with pain, and also by Italian and Spanish mannerism. Libertinism is also the source of the treatment of woman as an object that is adulated and humiliated at the same time. However, as one can notice after reading Borowczyk's short stories, this inspiration is not only outdated but also lacks artistic value. That includes a lack of film value, as the more unkind critics noted, to mention Jan Gondowicz (Film 44/1992) in a column devoted to The Beast.
Even Borowczyk seemed to assess this part of his work differently. At a retrospective of his films in Kraków in 1999, he did not want to show these particular productions, as Boguslaw Zmudzinski reported (Opcje 2/1999). Zmudzinski wrote that "they call Walerian Borowczyk 'Boro' in Paris". He added that Borowczyk "is an outstanding director of animated and short films", while 'Boro' was associated chiefly with a director of feature films who "gained the ambiguous fame of the creator of French erotic cinema", or even the fame of a "soft porn classic". Many of his films were banned in various countries for years, edited by censors, cut, changed; there were even problems with some of his short films, to mention Collection Particuliere.
Borowczyk did distinguish between pornography and erotic films. Talking to Andrzej Markowski (Kino 4/1975), he said:
Eroticism, sex, is one of the most moral parts of life. Eroticism does not kill, exterminate, encourage evil, lead to crime. On the contrary, it makes people gentler, brings joy, gives fulfilment, leads to selfless pleasure.
Despite controversies surrounding Borowczyk's successive feature films, they always display great visual imagination, great creative inventiveness, absurd humour and a grotesque that is inspired by the surreal. It is worth noting one more thing. Borowczyk was the absolute maker of his films, not only the director and scriptwriter, but also the set designer. He imposed the way the films were shot, and as critics emphasised and he never denied, he was a filmmaker who prepared everything meticulously and was in full control of the production process. Even a great cameramen such as Zygmunt Samosiuk, the cinematographer for Story of a Sin, had to submit to him completely.
One could even say that Borowczyk created not only the film reality but also himself, since the image of 'Boro' was clearly created for the benefit of the liberal critics and French audiences. Perhaps his altered birthplace and date (Wojnowice 1932), different from what can be found in encyclopaedias, which the author mentioned in the afterword to his collection of short stories L'anatomie du diable, was an element of that creation.
In May 2014, the astonishing works of this Pole will be digitally restored and produced as a DVD box set. The set is to include the first five of Borowczyk’s full-length films The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal (1967); Goto, Isle of Love (1968); Blanche (1971); Immoral Tales(1974); The Beast (1975), as well as fifteen shorts spanning 1959-1984, many of which will be world video premieres. Read more...
Animated films - short and full-length as well as short documentaries and feature films:
Full-length feature films:
Author: Jan Strekowski, April 2004; updated February 2006.