‘The Roll-Call’ is a 1970 animated film directed by Ryszard Czekała about the reality of Nazi concentration camps. It is one of the director’s best works.
Czekała’s The Roll-Call is one of the most moving pictures about the reality of Nazi concentration camps for which Czekała received the Grand Prix at the Annecy Festival. Dark black-and-white frames stylised as graphics reflect the horror of a world enclosed by barbed wire. The simplicity of the means used and the plot (focused around a single fragment of life in the camp) intensify the meaning of Ryszard Czekała’s work. This excerpt – the tediously long roll call which forces the prisoners to stand for hours in the cold – becomes a symbol of cruelty towards the captives.
The animation, created using the cut-out technique, received many awards and brought the director international recognition. It is worth mentioning that The Roll-Call, created in 1970, was a work that revolutionised the previously undertaken themes and conventions of animated film. Andrzej Kossakowski wrote the following about Czekała’s work (Polski Film Animowany 1945-1974, Wrocław 1977):
This time he reached for a subject that would seem to be completely unsuitable for the language of animation – life in a Nazi concentration camp. It turns out, however, and Czekała’s film additionally confirms it, that there are no ‘inappropriate’ topics for contemporary animated film. Everything that concerns man and, more broadly, the world, has the right of citizenship in animation, which has long since abandoned its purely ludic functions.
The animation shows a gripping sequence of events taking place during one of the roll-calls at the camp. The overture to the images shown in The Roll-Call is the headline of the film. The illuminated letters of the title sneak through the film’s frames like a train running on rails, carrying people who have not yet recognised how cruel their destination is. In the background, you can hear the rattle and creaking of the rails, followed by the squeal of brakes. The headlines appearing successively are accompanied by tearing screams of people, groans, dog barking, a terrible tumult. These are the dramatic noises from the ramp to the camp that the train reaches. After a while, everything quietly disappears and you can only hear the regular sound of soldiers’ boots marching. A sea of shaved human heads emerges from dense, dark frames. A group of prisoners dressed in striped uniforms with dead, almost petrified faces is waiting in suspense for the SS officer’s command. The darkness is illuminated only by the narrow glow of the lantern, allowing only a few human silhouettes to be seen more clearly. Finally, the Nazi shouts: ‘nieder!’ and then ‘auf’ – the cruel monotony of the words ‘fall’, ‘rise’ sets the film’s rhythm and builds its dramaturgy. The repeatedly shouted commands force the prisoners to keep falling and rising. In various perspectives and shots, the camera shows rows of striped uniforms and heads, creating powerful shots through which all the atrocity and horror of the dehumanised Nazi camps speak. In Polski Film Animowany 1945-1974 (Polish Animated Film 1945-1974, trans. MD), Andrzej Kossakowski wrote the following about The Roll-Call’s extremely dynamic camerawork and non-standard shots:
[…] Czekała’s animated films are far removed from any tradition of Polish animation and this is what makes them original. Using black-and-white, raw and simplified cut-outs, the artist deals with them in the same way as the director of an actor’s film deals with the actor, the long shot, the detail. Thus we have the camera raids and departures, panoramas and swings, big close-ups and the ‘peeping’ camera. At the same time, editing plays an important role here.
When one of the prisoners courageously resists the SS officer’s cruelty, he gets shot. His example, however, gives strength to others who, in silence, rise up in rows, showing their tired faces and looking boldly into the rifle barrels, as if it was a testimony to the Nazi crime. For this moment of heroic rebellion, courage and freedom regained for one, extraordinary moment, they pay the highest price. Only one prisoner survives the burst of the machine guns, but the film’s final shot leaves no doubt about his fate. The prisoners’ rebellion, however, will allow them to save their dignity in these inhumane conditions and to maintain at least a modicum of freedom. In the camp, this is only possible at the price of death.
The film’s meaningful visual layer is in harmony with the dramatic events shown, and the realism of the characters bears a clear mark of authorship. The suggestive frames of The Roll-Call constitute one of the most poignant images about the Nazi death camps. In a text about the director’s films, Jerzy Armata emphasised: ('Gazeta Wyborcza', 04.11.2010):
With his first films – The Bird (1968), and especially The Son (1970) and The Roll-Call (1971) – Czekała had already gained great recognition around the world. He used the means of expression characteristic of live-action film in animated cinema. Their suggestiveness, combined with his perfect mastery of the animation technique, has brought excellent results. Czekała’s moving dramas, with their great psychological depth, have discovered new thematic areas for animation […]
- The Roll-Call, Poland, 1970, directed by Ryszard Czekała; cinematography: Jan Tkaczyk; sound: Ryszard Sulewski; production: Studio Miniatur Filmowych - Kraków branch. Runtime: 7 minutes.
- Bronze Lajkonik, Kraków Film Festival (national competition), Kraków, 1971
- Grand Prix (ex aequo), International Animated Film Festival, Annecy, 1971
- First Prize ‘St. Finbar Statuette’ award (in the short films category), International Film Festival, Cork, 1971
- ASIFA Jury Award, International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen, 1971
- Award of the Society of Folk High Schools, International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen, 1971
- Film Critics Award, International Film Festival, Tehran, 1971
- Silver Praxinoscope (in the social film category), International Animated Film Festival), New York, 1972.
Author: Iwona Hałgas, July 2011