One of the leading examples of reflective philosophy in Polish animation. The picture embodies symbolism, taking viewers on journey into the depths of an anti-utopian metaphoric world. Jan Lenica's masterpiece, with its artistically brilliant images and rich layers of meaning, may be read as a totalitarian reality of a city-labyrinth that is in confrontation with an individual who seeks freedom.
Adopting the technique of collage and cut-outs, the artist was able to re-create the formidable and fascinating world of the "Labirynt / Labyrinth". The animated world is composed using the artists original recognisable style, characteristically loaded with symbolism and meaning. In a survey taken within a circle of critics at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival (Festival International du Film d'Animation d'Annecy) in 1973, the film was ranked as the fifth best ever animated film in the world.
The protagonist in Lenica's animation is a man with wings. The individual is in search of freedom and a promise of a better life. He eventually arrives to an enormous, unfamiliar metropolis. The associations with the mythological Icarus are obvious here, particularly when one also takes the title of the film into consideration. And so, for Lenica’s Icarus, the city-labyrinth becomes the goal of his journey, and whose final demise will be just as dramatic as the journey taken by the mythological archetype.
At his destination, the protagonist finds himself in a spacious and affluent city with beautiful Art Nouveau architecture. Very soon, however, the impressive domes of the palaces, the richly decorated houses, the ornate fountains and monuments prove to be nothing but a facade behind which true evil lurks. The disturbing atmosphere of the seemingly deserted town turns out to be progressively more ominous. The town is inhabited by beasts comparable to that of the mythological Minotaur. The labyrinth built by Daedalus is colonized by various creatures - skeleton-like, antediluvian amphibia, dragonflies, and hybrids that take on different forms, like that of birds with human heads.
The protagonist, who joyfully removed his wings in order to begin life in a new and better world, must now confront the hostile and ruthless reality - a reality reminiscent of a bad dream. The idea of a 'brave new world', one that conjures up the famous novel, is not accidental - Lenica's world is not unlike Aldous Huxley's society - a disturbing anti-utopia. The beautiful city turns out to be a treacherous labyrinth that is governed by forces of violence, annihilation, deceit and deception. A woman lures birds with male heads into her room, whereupon they exit as mere skeletons. In another part of town, a walrus deceives a man-dragon fly and has him annihilated. The relentless hunt for life, which takes place on the streets of the metropolis, is accompanied by a sardonic laughter of a demonic old man who appears in one of the windows. It’s no mystery that the metropolis from the "Labirynt / Labyrinth" is a city of destruction, and where there is no place for freedom - the city’s main monument here is represented by a killing machine, and the walls of an impressive state hall are decorated with human skulls.
The precious humane impulses of the newcomer are quickly drowned in the flood of hatred and cynicism - saved from the claws of a monster, the lady (victim) feeds the reptile monster a rose that was offered to her by the hero and once again chooses to return to play out the role of the victim. Lonely and disorientated within the labyrinth of the city, the protagonist from the very beginning becomes an object of observation, closer to that of surveillance and invigilation coordinated by the scientist-machine. The eye of the Big Brother - to evoke another figure from a different famous anti-utopian society, George Orwell's "1984" - incessantly monitors the activities of the new-comer, and watches over the city and its inhabitants making sure that there are no signs of freedom or manifestation of independence. A moment of sovereignty does come, and it is symbolized in the figure of a small bird which takes flight out of August Rodin’s allegorical statue of "The Thinker". The bird’s free and joyful flight, however, very soon comes to an abrupt end as the attempt for liberty is quickly suppressed. The same hand - a tool of the oppressive system - is also what in the end enslaves the new-comer. The protagonist's dangerous free-thinking ambitions will be placed under special scrutiny and - not unlike the hero himself - they become trapped and constrained. Even with the help of a small bird, the hero’s escape from the totalitarian labyrinth will not be one of success. Using feathers, the hero constructs and re-attachs a pair of wings - a symbol of humanity’s pursuance for freedom and life in a better world. Very soon, however, this attempt proves to be easy prey for the evil forces in the city and our protagonist is confronted by the energy and aggression of an envoy from the city-labyrinth that is send after our hero.
Over the decades, Lenica’s famous animation has had numerous interpretations. Some critics found in the work a strong inspiration of Franz Kafka's writing, others tried to interpret "Labirynt / Labyrinth" by referencing the thoughts of Carl Gustav Jung and Mircea Eliade (J.Spalińska-Mazur). It’s also important to mention the historical context within which the work was created - as a young boy, Lenica had survived World War II, and then he lived in one of the eastern block countries under socialist rule, so it wasn’t until his departure abroad, that he could join many other Icarus’ who tried to escape the totalitarian system by any possible means. Themes that have appeared in the animation, their refrences and allusions to culture and history of cinema have further been discussed by Marcin Giżycki in his book "Nie tylko Disney / Not only Disney" (Warsaw 2000):
Lenica’s collage projects are of course part of the surrealist poetic, whose spiritual father is none other than Max Ernst. But Lenica's work is also somehow connected with the nostalgia associated with the old science-fiction engravings that decorate the original editions of Jules Verne's novels, as well as, the naive fantasy motives found in Georges Melies own films (...).
In the images that appear in the film you clearly see the artist’s fascination with Art Nouveau - and the architecture of the city represented in the film clearly shows extraordinarily rich ornate designs of the building facades, outlandish decoration of the doors and embellished fencing. The spirit of Art Nouveau is also evoked in the dragon flies and paneling at the vaudeville theater which the protagonist visits in the film.
The unique atmosphere of the film is also due to the disturbing sound and brilliantly built tension of the music. The soundtrack to the film was composed by Włodzimierz Kotoński, for which the composer received an award at the Ogólnopolski Festiwal Filmów Krótkometrażowych / National Short Film Festival in Kraków. Despite the passing of time and the development of animation techniques, Lenica’s masterpiece - which is still watched and re-interpreted anew - continues to seduce with its aesthetic and simplicity of form in producing an astonishing vision of a surrealist metropolis.
- "Labirynt / Labyrinth", Poland 1962. Direction, story, artwork: Jan Lenica; photographs: Antoni Nurzyński; music: Włodzimierz Kotoński; Production: Studio Miniatur Filmowych / Short Film Studio (Warsaw). Film duration: 14 minutes.
- 1st Prize in the Experimental Film category, International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen 1963;
- FIPRESCI prize, The Annecy International Animation Film Festival (Festival International du Film d'Animation d'Annecy), Annecy;
- 1st Prize "Złoty Smok Wawelski" in Animated Film category, Ogólnopolski Festiwal Filmów Krótkometrażowych / National Short Film Festival, Cracow 1963;
- Prize in the Art Film category , Young Artist Biennale, Paris 1963;
- Special prize for animation, International Film Festival, Melbourne 1964;
- Grand Prix in the Animated Film category , International Short Film Festival, Buenos Aires 1964.
Author: Iwona Hałgas, March 2011. Translated by Klaudiusz Ślusarczyk