Władysław Starewicz – The Bug Trainer
portrait, Władysław Starewicz, Self-portrait, photo: Se-ma-for Produkcja Filmowa, center, starewicz-wladyslaw-autoportret.jpg
He created his first animated film when Walt Disney was still in elementary school. He inspired Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson and the creators of Toy Story. Animation would not be what it is today without him.
Entomologist without a degree
In his childhood, he discovers his two passions: visual arts and insects. This uncommon combination will affect his career.
He is born in Moscow to a Polish family. After his mother’s death, he lives with his grandparents in Kaunas. The protagonists of his first animation are natives of the Lithuanian primaeval forests: stag beetles.
Starewicz wants to create a nature documentary, a battle between two male bugs. However, just after he turns on the lights, the beetles freeze. Starewicz puts them to sleep and inserts filaments in the place of their limbs. This way he can move them.
He dresses them in fancy costumes, makes them duel and do other unimaginable things. The Beautiful Lukanida emerges from this experiment: the first animated puppet film in history. Starewicz adapts the story of Helen and Paris for the insect world: this gives him a pass to the world of Moscow’s animation studios.
In Russia, he creates his next masterpiece: The Cameraman’s Revenge. It is a melodrama parody, a story of love, lust, envy and infidelity, starring a dragonfly, a grasshopper and beetles.
At that time, Starewicz gets his ‘bug trainer’ nickname. Sometimes, just for kicks, he introduces himself as professor Łoższkij (‘Professor Liar’) who, by using scientific methods, teaches his pupils how to act. To this day one can encounter information that he was an entomologist (actually, his education ended with the gymnasium).
Wizard of the silver screen
In Moscow, over the course of six years, he directs over 30 films, both animated and live-action. He is a one-man band: he writes his screenplays, directs and does cinematography.
Starewicz’s work becomes the first Russian animation sold abroad. The Ant and the Grasshopper based on Ivan Krylov’s fable reaches an astounding (at the time) number of 140 copies thanks to which it can be seen by viewers in Western Europe and in the United States. A special reel, packaged in a silver box, ends up in the hands of the Tsar.
Folk beliefs, the supernatural and horror stories are three things that stimulate his imagination the most. He eagerly reaches for classics of Polish and Russian literature: Gogol (several times), Kraszewski and Żuławski. At the same time, he maintains his characteristic style: surrealist atmosphere, grotesque and macabre – but also warm humour and a (somewhat old-fashioned) fairy-tale manner of storytelling. It is an explosive mix.
The puppet master
After the outbreak of World War I, he films a few pacifist grotesques. After that comes the revolution and another conflict: civil war. Starewicz flees from the Bolsheviks to Crimea and from there to France.
He does not know the language and has no acquaintances there. Despite that, he gets back in the game fairly quickly. He masters creating puppets and scenography. In 1925, he is awarded a US Riesenfeld’s Gold Medal for The Voice of the Nightingale. An award for the best foreign film screened in American cinemas is supposed to be a gateway to a career in the United States. A chance for an Oscar appears together with other lucrative offers from Hollywood. However, Starewicz declines. He values his independence too much and, besides, he does not like to work in a large team. ‘My stars don’t sulk and don’t cancel contracts (…)’, he says in an interview for Kino magazine.
Until the end of his life, he remains faithful to the DIY aesthetics. In his home in Fontenay-sous-Bois, he runs a family studio. His wife creates costumes, helps him make puppets and decorations.
In the 1930s, he directs two of his breakthrough films. The first one is Fétiche Mascotte. Many years later, the creators of Toy Story and Tim Burton point it out as their inspiration (it is on Burton’s list of 10 best animations ever created). It is a story of a stuffed dog wandering around a big city in the times of the Great Depression, struggling with unfriendly people and impure powers.
The second film is Le Roman de Ranard, the first animated feature-length film partly based on the fable of Reynard the Fox: the animal kingdom’s greatest dodger and his vile conducts (he also inspired Wes Anderson for his Fantastic Mr Fox, while the Quay Brothers think that Starewicz manifested downright miraculous abilities with this film). Unfortunately, DIY has its downsides: the film has to wait almost 10 years for its sound.
In 1939, Starewicz plans to move to Poland. He is supposed to become the director of a film studio and work on an animation based on Adam Mickiewicz’s Madame Twardowska poem. However, the outbreak of the war thwarts his plans.
During the German occupation, he only directs some advertising films. In the late 1940s, he creates an adaptation of a legend about looking for a fern flower. This film, the first colour picture in his career, again gets him awards and esteem. However, Starewicz starts to lose his touch. His ambitious ideas for adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Bible’s creation myth for animation end in a fiasco. He dies in 1965, during work on his next film: Like Dog and Cat.
Translated by Patryk Grabowski