Where to Begin with Walerian Borowczyk
default, Where to Begin with Walerian Borowczyk, Walerian Borowczyk, photo: Wladyslaw Slawny / FORUM, center, borowczyk_walerian_forum_port.jpg
The filmmaker protested when critics called him a surrealist and cinematic pioneer. He threw tantrums when his work was described as erotic. During his 40-year career, he created dozens of films, but despite this remains a mystery for the majority of theatre-goers. As a remedy, here’s a quick guide to Walerian Borowczyk.
In Kuba Mikurda’s Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk, Terry Gilliam says that you can fight with Borowczyk if you want, but must ultimately acquiesce. The creator of Brazil is right – Borowczyk’s films have a surprising and seductive quality, giving them fresh meaning even after decades. But a trip through his oeuvre must be carefully planned, so as not to miss out on any of its richness. Where to start?
It’s best to start at the beginning, of course. In this case, that’s Borowczyk’s animations. He made over 60 of them, discovering new techniques and aesthetics along the way.
In the 1940s, as a student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, he was already aware of his love of animation. In an interview, Mikurda reminisced about the director’s beginnings. Borowczyk would break into train stations, painting the sides of a train at night so that in the morning it would embark and create a moving picture.
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That has hardly the end of his experiments. In the 1950s, he invited friends to his studio to create live films for them – he first painted on a reel of film and then projected it for his audience.
He made his international debut in the second half of the 1950s, with a film co-created with Jan Lenica. In 1957 they released Był Sobie Raz… (Once Upon a Time), a story about an ink blot that comes to life and goes out to explore the world. The film, created using cut outs and lacking any traditional narration, was a first in Polish animation.
A year later, Borowczyk and Lenica created House, a story about a Secessionist-style tenement which becomes witness to a series of loosely connected stories. In 1959, the film won a 10,000 dollar prize in Brussels. Critics around the world began comparing Borowczyk to Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, but his works avoided neat categorisation, as his works linked cut outs, acrylics, film fragments and photography. Journalists described him as a cinematic poet, surrealist, a generational visionary and a master of animation. Borowczyk fended off cheap comparisons, and wrote years later:
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There is no difference between a narrative and animated film. Two different techniques, but one thought process.
After 1968, having released films such as School, The Games of Angels and Astronauts, he turned to narrative film. Why did we start our journey with his animated work? Because of its artistic intensity and clear vision. Borowczyk fully harnessed the allegorical powers of animation – within a few minutes, he could speak to larger themes, histories and human loss. These same motifs and themes returned in his narrative works, but in contrast to his animation, some of the films have not aged well.
‘Goto, Isle of Love’: Love and Tyranny
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Goto Island of Love
Before Borowczyk became an icon of erotic film in the 1970s, he created a film which critics compared to Antonioni and Eisenstein, launching his star among the greats of cinema.
Goto, Isle of Love tells the story of a robber (Guy Saint-Jean) in love with the beautiful Glossia, the wife of a dictator of the aforementioned archipelago. But it’s not the story that showcased his artistic talents, rather the style – Borowczyk’s love of surrealism laced with melancholy, and his careful attention to detail and set design elevated it to the role of protagonist.
The allegorical tale of a country under despotic rule landed it on a blacklist. In Spain under Francisco Franco, the film was deemed ‘horribly antifascist’ and was not shown until the collapse of the regime. Likewise in Poland under communist rule, the censors did not allow its release. Years later, Borowczyk jokingly noted:
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My first film went down in cinematic history as a unique project, which proved through its existence that there is no difference between fascism and communism.
Rejected by Poland, Borowczyk’s film received acclaim in the West, and the director himself landed on the cover of Cahiers du Cinéma. After the film’s French premiere, Claude Maria wrote in Le Figaro Litteraire:
Walerian Borowczyk’s camera, as observant as his pen and pencil, reveals to us, in all of its bitter beauty, a world never seen before.
Both his animations and Goto seem the key to understanding Borowczyk’s later creations. As opposed to his later erotic films, these earlier works have not lost any of their depth and charm with the passage of time. Borowczyk created allegories and stories that did not ascribe to a specific style or aesthetic. Not much later he pioneered a new style – erotic films through an artistic libertine lens.
‘Beast’ & ‘Immoral Tales’ – the erotic world of Borowczyk
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Scene from 'Beast' directed by Walerian Borowczyk, photo: Album / East News
Beast and Immoral Tales are two of the best examples of Borowczyk’s new style, which led to his nickname in the 1970s, the ‘engineer of ecstasy’. They were campy productions, balancing between eroticism and kitsch. In the 1960s and 1970s, they caused an uproar among the population. In Beast, some viewers saw a corruption of the traditional ‘Beauty and the Beast’, while in Immoral Tales, one could see echoes of the Marquis de Sade. Borowczyk was not afraid of outright pornography, but he could also wrap it in an ironic shield. He didn’t so much show eroticism as evoke it. This difference led to one of the more colourful anecdotes about the Polish director.
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In 1974, Immoral Tales premiered at a festival in Locarno. The outdoor screening, situated in front of a palace, housed 2,000 viewers. Halfway through the presentation, a storm broke out, but everyone stayed to watch until the very end. Borowczyk made his way to the nearest bar, where he spotted a group of German artists sitting with director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. When the German spotted Borowczyk, he shouted: ‘Borowczyk, why weren’t there any male erections in your film?’ Without pausing, Borowczyk replied: ‘There were, in the crowd, despite the thunderstorm and lightning.’
Borowczyk excited the audience, not so much with the nature of his films as with the atmosphere they created. He wrote about intimacy, sexual fantasies, the need for risk-taking, and the removal of the shackles of prudery. Alberto Moravia, author of Contempt, wrote of him:
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Borowczyk is one of those directors who helps us understand that the sexual revolution of recent years is something positive, beneficial, and let’s hope, permanent.
That’s not to say the erotic films of Borowczyk didn’t have their enemies. Those were plentiful. In Great Britain, censors took out a seven-minute clip from the film (which wasn’t restored until 2001), and 20 years after their premieres, every time Borowczyk’s films were presented in Poland, a church in Katowice held a Mass to pray for the soul of the film’s distributors. Borowczyk countered in his ironic style, claiming that Michelangelo would have been thrown out for his shameless painting Leda and the Swan.
‘The Story of Sin’ – national pornography
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goto the isle of love
Our journey through Walerian Borowczyk’s filmic universe ends with a film that opened Polish eyes to the sexual revolution. In 1975, Borowczyk returned to Poland. He prepared to take Stefan Żeromski’s scandalous tale to the big screen, the same story that critic Teodor Jeske-Choiński described as having ‘kicked, slapped and spat on the Polish woman’. Borowczyk’s reputation as a master of erotic cinema meant people expected no less from him.
The film turned out to be a spectacular, financial success, bringing to theatres 8 million viewers and receiving critical acclaim. Bolesław Michałek wrote that the film is ‘an absolute and clear picture of desire. A terrifying and wondrous daydream. A dream about a great physical desire. An incredible aesthetic.’
Borowczyk landed at a historical moment, where the sexual revolution came to Poland with a few years’ delay. A year later, the famous book The Art of Loving by Michalina Wisłocka would land in bookstores, and Polish audiences were waiting for a film that would cross aesthetic and ethical boundaries. Borowczyk fulfilled their desires, creating a film that shocked but did not offend. The film’s erotic scenes were blended together with an ironic look, and Borowczyk made sure that the film was something more than just an iconoclastic send-up. Following Żeromski’s story to the letter, he betrayed its spirit, and his film ‘compromised the hypocrisy of culture, which for centuries gave people false, beautified tales about the nature of their emotions’, wrote Tadeusz Lubelski in Historia Kina Polskiego (History of Polish Cinema).
Watching years later, The Story of Sin no longer shocks, but it does allow us to understand where Borowczyk’s need for freedom came from, and how it fuelled him throughout his life, leading him to break so many taboos. Likewise, it is a calling card from the consciously eclectic director, who linked within himself the profane and melancholy romantic, constantly dreaming of a new story about impossible love.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Sztaszczyn, translated by AZ, Sept 2019