Loving Vincent: an arresting visual animation style papers over a repetitive and insubstantial formulaic plot

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, “Loving Vincent” (2017)

Most viewers will probably be bowled over by the use of oil paintings on canvas as animation cels and the directors’ preference for classically trained painters over animators to do the paintings, resulting in a very arresting visual style drawing heavily on 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant style. For all the distinctive visual style though, the film is not that remarkable in its plotting and I have to wonder why animation was preferred wholly over live action when both animation and live action could have been used. I suspect the animation helps to paper over inconsistencies and flaws in the plot that would have made the film just another ordinary historical biopic about a famous figure.

A year after Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890, young tear-about Armand Roulin (voiced and played by Douglas Booth) is tasked by his postmaster father to personally deliver a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo after the letter fails to reach the latter and is returned to the post office. Although Armand does not know van Gogh well, his father persuades him to take the letter, telling Armand that van Gogh had suffered mental illness and had been ostracised by others as a result. Armand goes to see Julien Tanguy, an art dealer who sold painting supplies to van Gogh: Tanguy tells Armand to visit Dr Gachet, who had cared for van Gogh in his last days, in Auvers-sur-Oise. Armand calls in at the Gachet residence and learns the doctor is away. The young man whiles away his time visiting people who knew van Gogh (who painted their portraits) and tell him all they know of the painter: their stories form a narrative suggesting to Armand that van Gogh might not have committed suicide but instead had been murdered. In Armand’s mind, everyone including Dr Gachet and his family become potential suspects.

The film does flit over several themes including mental illness and people’s attitudes toward mentally ill people in van Gogh’s time, the painter’s difficulties in coping with his poverty and various demons, and how best to remember someone by seeing the world as he saw it, with all its natural delights, and celebrating what he leaves behind in spite of a painful and undeserved death. Unfortunately the film concentrates too much on a story that tends to go round and round in circles and becomes quite repetitive. Ultimately Armand’s adventure seems rather insubstantial – the whole murder plot building up in his mind eventually goes awry after he’s interviewed all the most significant people who knew or met van Gogh – though he does come to appreciate how special van Gogh was to the people who knew him and he resolves to lead a better life than he has done so far. Even so, the idea of a rank amateur trying to solve a murder mystery that the police have dismissed as a suicide, and using rough-n-ready interview techniques to solve where more sophisticated police methods of the time have failed is hardly new.

The acting is not all that remarkable and seems rather flat – but that may be due to the style of animation used. The action proceeds in a leisurely way and only near the end does it become emotional and moving in parts.

Promoters of the film are very fond of saying how it was made and of how many painters (mostly from Poland and Greece, two countries severely affected by neoliberal economic policies and programs ordained by EU bureaucrats) were employed to create the 65,000 oil paintings that became the basis of the film’s animation. When so much emphasis is placed on the film’s technical aspects, one suspects that so much else within the film isn’t quite as good.

Son of Saul: a modern morality play in the midst of extreme evil

László Nemes, “Son of Saul / Saul Fia” (2015)

Of all the stories László Nemes could have chosen to film to launch his career as a director, few are so terrifying as a day or two in the life of a Jewish Sonderkommando unit member working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in 1944. The Nazi German war machine is on its last legs and its death factories are going full-tilt as the regime begins its psychotic self-cannibalism. Hungary has just been swept up into the embrace of the Third Reich and the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau begun almost immediately. On arrival at the camp, the strongest men among these Jews are separated from the rest by Nazi administrators and forced into Sonderkommando work units under threat of death. Their duties are to collect the clothing of people herded by Nazi guards into the gas showers and to search the clothes for gold, money and other valuable trinkets needed for the German war effort; to haul away the dead and throw them into the ovens; to dispose of their ashes; and to clean out the shower rooms for the next lot of victims.

One such Sonderkommando unit member is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) who gradually becomes numbed to the dreary and tough physical work he has to do, day in, day out, under close supervision from the guards, with little time for himself … in case he starts plotting with other men like himself to fight back against their oppressors, blow up the camps and escape to alert the rest of the world to what’s been happening there for the past three years or so. One day while helping to dispose of yet another batch of asphyxiated victims, he discovers that a 13-year-old boy survived the gassing. A prison doctor comes over to examine the boy and smothers him. Saul however becomes obsessed with the boy: he believes the child may be his son whom he abandoned many years ago as the child had been conceived and born out of wedlock. With great difficulty and putting his life and others’ lives at risk he retrieves the boy’s body. He then searches for a rabbi among his fellow prisoners and new arrivals for chambers who can say a kaddish (a hymn of praise to God) for the boy so he can be given a proper burial. Saul endures unimaginable suffering and torment from both the Nazi guards and other Sonderkommando work unit inmates to find the rabbi; at the same time, he is also part of a scheme worked out by his work unit leader and other Sonderkommando work units to collect enough gunpowder to make bombs that will blow up the camps and help the prisoners escape into the outside world.

By focusing on Saul’s point of view and following him closely, the film relays the horrors of the death camps and the indignities suffered by Jewish prisoners at the hands of their jailers effectively without delivering any sermons or passing any judgement. It is up to the viewer to decide whether to condemn Saul for risking his life and other prisoners’ lives for the dead boy. For Saul, the child represents an opportunity to redeem himself for not having taken care of his son while he was alive; at the same time the dead boy also represents a continuation of the Jewish people since by being buried his body will be evidence of his people’s former existence if they cannot be allowed to live in the present and into the future. As the film continues, the dead boy may be viewed as representing all the victims who perished in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

In his obsessive search for a rabbi – so much so that he risks his own life and at least one other man is killed as a result – Saul in his own way upholds the importance of the spiritual life and the traditions and rituals associated with spirituality and communion with God. Saul is mocked by his fellow prisoners in his search but they do help him find the boy’s body and help lead him to a rabbi, risking their own lives in doing so. Saul’s obsession causes him to fail in his allotted part in the scheme to help blow up the camp but the rebels pull him along with them in escaping from the camp. One would think that, having failed his friends, Saul would have been left behind to face the tender mercies of the authorities when the pathetic rebellion fails as it was bound to … so it is all the more remarkable that they rescue him not once but twice during the rebellion. This might say something about the level of camaraderie that the Sonderkommando prisoners have managed to develop and the depth of humanity they retain in the midst of all the hellish, machine-like evil they are exposed to.

The dialogue is extremely minimal and matter-of-fact and Röhrig is stoic in his facial expressions that seem to say more than words could possibly ever express. This narrative approach allows for multiple interpretations of Röhrig’s motivations and actions, and those of his fellow prisoners, whether they are justified or not in the context of his environment. The cinematography by Mátyás Erdély, relying on a hand-held camera and following Röhrig very closely, so closely that the film jumps when he jumps and swims when he swims, is a stand-out feature of the film; it captures the sickening and hellish ambience of the gas chambers, and the brutal and dehumanising work routines endured by the Sonderkommando work units. Another outstanding aspect of the film is its ambient soundtrack of shouting, crowd noises, explosions and gunfire to suggest various horrors occurring off-screen.

Whatever message the film carries, for most viewers it should surely carry the message that even in the midst of great evil where absolute hopelessness dominates, and people, jailers and prisoners alike, are stripped of all that makes them human, an individual may still be able to find some remnant of humanity within his / her being and through that defy oppressors and gain some redemption. The film drives home the point that morality is very much a personal choice and how one deals with the consequences of making that choice in one’s immediate situation is what saves or damns that person. “Son of Saul” is perhaps best read as a morality play in which a protagonist must decide how best to live his / her life in the midst of unrelenting bleakness, suffering, brutal violence, oppression and hopelessness.

Fascism As It Is: snapshot film of the Ukrainian crisis that indicts mainstream Western news reporting

Andrey Karaulov, “Fascism As It Is” (2014)

Looking hastily made, this documentary is a snapshot of the chaotic situation in Ukraine after the massacre of left-wing activists and pro-federalisation rally participants in the Odessa Trade Union building and the building’s subsequent burning by fascist supporters of the interim Ukrainian government in early May 2014. The film concentrates on two incidents: the aforementioned Odessa mass killings and arson and a similar incident of mass killings in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, with mention of a third incident in Zaporizhiya, also in eastern Ukraine, that occurred before the Mariupol incident in which people holding a peacefully rally were harassed by police who used tear gas and chemicals to intimidate and disperse crowds.

The two incidents are retold in considerable detail in the format of interviews by the director with various eyewitnesses and others people spoken over what look like newsreels. Historical film material of incidents of World War II is used in parts of the film that refer to the Soviet defence of Ukraine against the Nazi German onslaught. The format is very stream-of-consciousness and the pace is quite fast so it takes all my attention to follow what is being said. Many viewers might need to watch this documentary at least twice because there is so much information coming at you and so much detail to absorb. However what comes through very clearly is the fact that the government that overthrew the legitimately elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 has very clear links to current Ukrainian fascist forces as represented by the Svoboda Party and neo-Nazi Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and Ukrainian fascists and nationalists of the past (such as the notorious Stepan Bandera) who collaborated with Nazi Germany in the early 1940s and among other things butchered Jewish people in their thousands. Interviewees make clear that Pravy Sektor thugs have infiltrated most parts of Ukraine beyond their base in western Ukraine where Svoboda enjoys electoral support and are terrorising people and committing brutal acts including killing and causing disappearances.

Another theme running through the film is the way the various incidents are reported or ignored in the Western mainstream media. Just about everything that has been occurring in Ukraine has been filtered through an anti-Russian point of view that favours the fascists by Western news media. The incidents in Zaporizhiya and Mariupol have been all but ignored and the massacre of progressive, leftist and pro-federalisation activists by Pravy Sektor, Shtorm and the so-called “Dnepr-1” battalion, the latter two groups being owned by Ukrainian oligarch businessman and politician Ihor Kolomoisky, has been downplayed and the arson given more prominence as an accident. The staged incident of “rival soccer fans”, actually Shtorm and the Dnepr-1 battalion, fighting with one another was portrayed as being for real.

The most horrific part of the documentary comes very late in the film when a journalist tells the interviewer of bodies of dead people being thrown out of the burning Odessa Trade Union building (with accompanying shots of the dead bodies falling from windows and hitting the concrete) and of the smells of chemicals used in the building. The journalist describes how she barely managed to escape the building alive herself.

In spite of its slapdash style and apparent lack of organisation, this documentary is well worth watching. The Odessa Trade Union building mass murders and the arson that was intended to cover up the butchery are documented on other websites and blogs like Oriental Review, World Socialist Web Site and Joe Giambrone so the film cannot be accused of being pro-Russian propaganda.  Interviewees point out that the interim regime’s Pravy Sektor and other enforcers have been killing ethnic Ukrainians as well: the lists of people who were killed in the Mariupol incident and who have been disappeared by the authorities since Yanukovych fled Ukraine include several people of ethnic Ukrainian background.

It is clear from the documentary that the interim government under Acting President Oleksandr Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk is guilty of war crimes. Western governments and the Western news media, by ignoring or obfuscating the truth of the incidents highlighted in the film stand equally guilty as accessories to war crimes.

As a narrowly focused state-of-the-nation snapshot, the film does not fully explain the connections between the Ukrainian fascists and nationalists of the past with their descendants in western Ukraine who now govern the country with brutal force and incompetence. The film does not make the link between the deliberate misinformation generated in the Western news media about the recent shocking events in Ukraine and the fact that the fascist government under current President Petro Poroshenko is taking orders from rogue elements in the United States government (especially the US State Department) who are keen on seizing energy resources in the eastern Ukraine and surrounding Russia with hostile NATO states armed with missiles aimed at major Russian cities.

The Kinematograph: a familiar and bittersweet story done better by others

Tomek Baginski, “The Kinematograph” (2009)

Here is a bittersweet story of a lone inventor labouring to produce the first moving picture with sound and colour only to lose both his wife and a claim to take out that first patent and to be forever remembered as the world’s first film-maker. The story is a familiar one – the inventor is so obsessed with his technology and his discoveries, that he forgets to care about his loved ones until too late and he is left with only his lifeless machines and memories, while the world moves on, indifferent to his sorrow and loneliness – and Baginski does it no favours by relying on a sparse and unimaginative dialogue, a flat delivery by his voice actors and trite background music that tugs at the heart-strings in an irritating way.

While the animation is quite good and transitions from past memories to the inventor’s current reality are done well and subtly – the inventor is portrayed as elderly while his wife is shown as always youthful (because the film shows him as living in the past) – it does move too quickly in parts and viewers can feel a bit dizzy from all the dynamic spinning of the point of view of the “lens” which purports to be that of the viewers. The film looks rather like a video game as a result and this detracts somewhat from the sketchy story.

The emotion is very forced and viewers can feel manipulated by the short’s plot and message. The characters are one-dimensional and seem very stereotyped: the wife as self-sacrificing to the point where she refuses to see a doctor about her tuberculosis until far too late, the husband as too obsessed with his work to notice that his wife is unwell.

For a better treatment of a similar theme, viewers are encouraged to watch Andrei Shushkov’s “Invention of Love” which has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Tolerantia: a plea for religious tolerance and diplomacy over war

Ivan Ramadan, “Tolerantia” (2008)

An animated 3D short made in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2008, “Tolerantia” is a plea for religious tolerance. Set at the end of the last Ice Age (or the next Ice Age perhaps when the planet is done with the ups and downs of global climatic change), the film is completely silent save for necessary sound effects. A Shrek-like character thaws out of a block of ice and immediately sets about finishing off his personal stone ziggurat which he had planned and started to build countless millennia ago before the Deep Freeze set in. Completing the job with a shrine to the sun, he begins his worship but is rudely interrupted by another fellow who has also just completed his solar-focused pyramid and is irate at being overshadowed. In those days, folks couldn’t apply for council development applications that would restrict overshadowing so the two prehistoric (or post-historic if you will) chaps start the mediation and negotiation process their own way, tossing rocks at each other until they achieve a sort of stalemate resolution.

It’s pretty obvious that if the guys had engaged in jaw-jaw rather than war-war, the sun would have proved quite generous in sharing its bounty between the two and viewers are to assume that if people worshipping different religions could just sit down together and talk, a lot of the pain and dislocation caused by religious intolerance leading to war could be overcome. I do not know how much this is true of Bosnia-Hercegovina in recent times if it is; much of the conflict in that country must also be attributed to resurgent nationalism among the Croatians and Serbians spilling across borders after decades of being suppressed or unresolved under Yugoslav Communist rule.

The reality beyond Bosnia-Hercegovina is that more often than we realise religion is used as a cover for other causes leading to a breakdown in communication among two or more different religious communities and a resort to violence. How does one explain the situation in parts of the Middle East where for centuries Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other religious communities co-existed and co-operated more or less peaceably and it is only during the late nineteenth century and onwards that these communities started experiencing inter-faith conflicts? If we take each major conflict and dissect the causes behind each and every one of them, we will find the causes are much more complicated and often (though not always) involve interventions by foreign actors intent on playing one religion off against others. Current conflicts in Iraq and Syria, two countries with long histories of major and minor religions co-existing side by side in the same communities, turn out to have been stoked and encouraged in part by forces outside those two countries, in particular Britain, France, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.

Apart from all my rambling about its theme, the film is well made with slapstick humour, considering that Ramadan did pretty much everything save for the music, composed and done in traditional Bosnian folk style by Mostar Sevdah Reunion. The message is simple and very straightforward, the story structure builds up steadily and the conclusion is at once devastating and blackly humorous.

The Forgiveness of Blood: psychological drama of two teenagers caught between rapid modernisation and age-old traditions

Joshua Marston, “The Forgiveness of Blood / Falja e Gjakut” (2010)

Hard to believe that even in Europe there are societies where the very new and modern can co-exist with traditions and customs that have lasted for hundreds of years, and individuals, even communities, end up getting the short straws of both. In an Albania long since supposedly liberated from the rule of Communism, teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) lives in a small village where he dreams of running his own Internet café and has his eye on a girl, Klodi, at his local high school. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), planning one day to attend university, helps her father on his bread delivery run. To make more money, dad Mark (Refet Abazi) takes short-cuts across his neighbour Sokol’s land. The neighbour fences off the land to prevent such short-cuts and a feud develops between the two men that results in Sokol’s death. Mark goes into hiding and his brother is arrested. Sokol’s family invokes the Kanun (a centuries-old code of local law and tradition) and Nik and Rudina are most affected by the restrictions involved: Nik must remain inside the family home to avoid being killed and Rudina must give up her dream of further study and take over Dad’s bread delivery business.

The film, which has a documentary feel in its slow naturalistic approach, close-ups, long shots of scenic country-side and relative paucity of soundtrack music, explores the effect of the Kanun on two young teenagers’ lives and its unexpected usurpation of traditional gender roles by which a teenage girl ends up becoming the family bread-winner while her brother becomes a prisoner in the family home. The film also contrasts the young people’s attempts to find ways of mediation with Sokol’s family that don’t involve too much financial expense and time wastage with their elders’ view that the requirements of Kanun cannot be watered down for the benefit of youth. At the same time, while Nik and Rudina’s family try to bargain for besa (a time period granted by the victim’s family to the killer’s family during which Nik would be free to go outside the house), some members of Sokol’s family harass Nik’s family by shooting at their house or burning down their shed.

The film’s style is quiet and slow and naturalistic in its treatment of the plot and the actors’ actions. Halilej and Lacej give excellent performances as the young stoic teenagers forced to grow up very quickly as a result of their father’s headstrong actions. As the film progresses, Nik and Rudina demonstrate resourcefulness in making the most of their extreme predicament but the long house arrest with no end in sight takes its toll on the two youngsters and the rest of their family. Tension accumulates slowly and casually until it comes to an intense confrontation between Nik and Sokol’s family and Nik is subjected to conditions that force him to make a hard decision about his life that will also affect Rudina and their mother and younger siblings.

Marston’s intelligent and sensitive depiction of a rural Albania under the burden of rapid modernisation and stubbornly maintained tradition, that can never be subjected to change as long as elderly men uphold it to the detriment of the young and of women, is sympathetic to its subject without supporting or condemning age-old values and customs. Rudina enjoys an unexpected freedom running her father’s delivery business and talking to strange men much older than herself. Nik finds a new hobby building a makeshift gym and exercise apparata. One unintended effect of the imposition of Kanun on two rival families is that children seem to act more like adults than the adults themselves do. Nik and Rudina’s older male relatives are unable to countenance any possibility of change and flexibility and the children’s mother disappears for long stretches of film while Nik tries to comfort his younger siblings and send them to school, and Rudina negotiates with shopkeepers to buy cartons of cigarettes at discounted prices so she can make more money on top of what she earns for delivering bread (by horse and cart, mind).

Although the actors portray stoic and resigned characters who get what they can out of a difficult and stressful situation, the film derives its strength from the psychological drama and tension generated by the plot. The naturalistic style helps to focus viewer attention on the characters. While slow and driven by dialogue and plot, the film does feature long shots without dialogue in which Nik and Rudina feel the strain of the conditions imposed on them in accordance with Kanun.

For its subject matter, the film appears calm and subdued. Yet there is tension between families and within families, and violence can be unexpected and sudden. One doesn’t expect that there’ll be an easy answer or a happy resolution that satisfies everyone. The message though is very despairing: the only way out for Nik is to escape literally but this leaves Rudina with a very uncertain future. What we have seen of Rudina in the film though is supposed to leave us in no doubt that she’ll find a way to survive and thrive, and this is the hope viewers are expected to carry at film’s end.

The Changing of the Guard: how love conquers social class and restrictions

Wlodzimierz Haupe and Halina Bielinska, “The Changing of the Guard / Zmiana warty” (1958)

A simply made stop-motion animation piece, this little film is a tragic tale of romantic love that crosses social class and conventions, and causes a scandal in the town where it occurs. The characters are matchboxes representing stereotypes of class. An anonymous soldier falls in love with a beautiful princess; he finagles his way into night-watch duty just so he can see her. While on duty, he gazes at her window and she appears; she comes out to him and their love, hitherto unfulfilled due to their respective social roles and the restrictions upon them, literally bursts into the open in flames.

The narrative is carried by the soundtrack and consists of various noises real people might make: snoring sounds when the soldiers go to bed, and the sighings of the soldier and the princess when they see each other and meet. There is martial music during one scene where soldiers are being drilled.

At the film’s end, the town burghers where the soldiers’ regiment was quartered put up signs stating “No Smoking!” in several languages: this is a message to all citizens to repress their real feelings and thoughts and to obey the rules.

The animation which consists of stop-motion cut-outs of match-boxes and cut-outs of props against a bare stage and background throws the emphasis on the story. The plot is easy to follow up to the point where the soldier and the princess sacrifice themselves for love. Although the mood is neutral, the denouement is quite chilling.

It’s a well-made film whose message will be clear to both children and adults on different levels: children will see it as a love story and adults will see it as an allegory about how love can conquer the strictures placed on people by society, albeit briefly. That the town throws further constraints onto the expression of love is an acknowledgement of how powerful love can be.

 

Once Upon a Time (dir. Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica): an oddball pair trying to find their identity and place in an abstract world

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, “Once Upon a Time / Byl sobie raz” (1957)

An amusing little cartoon with a circus freak-show organ music soundtrack, “Once Upon a Time” traces the adventures of an egg shape with four sticks for legs in its attempt to find an identity and a partner. It finds a set of feathers and a bird’s-head silhouette and together the unlikely duo encounter various cut-outs and images, and find a temporary home among a collage of live-action film shots and a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting in an art gallery.

The animation style looks crude and childish but the execution is ingenious and cuts across notions of identity, function and narrative. Small children may not really understand what’s happening here: they will appreicate the egg shape drawing a line on the blank page so it can walk over the line but not understand why the set of feathers behaves rather erratically, at once accepting the egg thing’s friendship yet ever ready to abandon its friend. There’s sly humour and the duo of the egg shape and the set of feathers behave like a Laurel-and-Hardy or Abbott-and-Costello pair. There may be an absurdist message in the narrative of the twosome as they eventually find a home and become virtually invisible in it, however comfortable and well-defined their new surroundings are.

The use of collages prefigures Terry Gilliam’s use of cardboard cut-out figures and it’s possible this and similar creations by Borowczyk and Lenica strongly influenced the Monty Python man in his own animated work.

The Adventure of a Good Citizen: a plea for tolerance, celebration of eccentricity and relating to the world in new ways

Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, “The Adventure of a Good Citizen / Przygoda czlowieka poczciwego” (1937)

Experimental film-making got off to an early start in Poland in 1930, the year that the writer-painter couple Franciszka and Stefan Themerson made the first of five short experimental films together before travelling to Paris in 1937 and settling there. “The Adventures of a Good Citizen” is the fifth of these films. There is a strange little narrative in the film: a man discovers that if he walks backwards, the sky won’t fall on him so he adopts his new backward-walking habit into his daily routine. A remarkable adventure results – he collides with two men carrying an empty wardrobe with a full-length mirror on the door and he ends up replacing one of the work-men. The two carry the wardrobe, walking backwards of course, into a forest. Some irate citizens protest at this act, fearing the new gait will become an unwelcome fashion trend, and follow the two men.

There’s a message about how changing one’s routine even in mundane ways can result in a completely new and different way of seeing the world and appreciating its beauty and joy. The centre-piece of the short film is in a series of nature shots for which animals were filmed through a translucent glass covered in paper: the effect is to create lively silhouettes of a squirrel and various birds flapping their wings. Some silhouettes are black against white backgrounds and others are white against dark or changeable backgrounds. The effect is often painterly and abstract. This photogram technique was developed by Stefan Themerson. There is also a general theme of reversal and mirror effect throughout the film as ways of enabling people to step outside their comfort zones, to think laterally and to see familiar things in a new light. Early shots of people walking in one direction, left to right, and their mirror images walking in the opposite direction, often in film negative, illustrate the theme.

The wardrobe and its mirror are distinctive characters in their own right: the wardrobe becomes a companion for the Good Citizen and a portal to another world, as the protesters discover when they pass through the door and see the Good Citizen literally flying high over them.

For its time, the film was highly inventive in plot, filming techniques and visuals. The music by Stefan Kieselowski does not sound very original or experimental to modern ears and can be very intrusive. There’s not much dialogue and what there was, was in Polish with no English sub-titles so a part of the film went over my head when I saw it. It’s worth seeing for the photograms that Themerson used to stunning effect to encourage people to take a renewed interest in familiar objects in nature. There is some animation used in the film as well.

A plea for tolerance of eccentricity, to question old and accepted ways and habits, and to renew and re-energise one’s relationship with the world as a result might well be the film’s ultimate message to viewers.

 

The Eye and the Ear: an assertion of Polish rebirth in an abstract and experimental short film after years of war

Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, “The Eye and the Ear / Oko i Ucho” (1944 / 1945)

Abstract and experimental animation has a long and illustrious history in Poland, to judge from this 10-minute short made by writer-painter pair Franciszka and Stefan Themerson. The short portrays in visual form what four songs composed by Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937) of a particular opus “Slopiewnie” (this actually consists of five songs but for some reason only four songs received animation treatment) might be like. The first song “Green Words” shows white silhouettes of twigs and leaves growing across the screen against a background of blurry images on film exposed to light. More images of silhouettes of leaves and branches, black this time, appear over backgrounds of concentric circles rippling over water and blending with one another or more misty clouds of blurred objects. “St Francis” features animations of white lines and geometric shapes moving across the screen while soprano Sophie Wyss’s singing is represented by images of mediaeval singers and musicians. “Rowan Towers” is distinguished by constant shifting and flashing white geometric shapes representing various orchestral instruments over a black backdrop while Wyss’s vocals are portrayed by moving and fluctuating horizontal bars. “Wanda” uses more water ripples and a silhouette of an arm and hand in reference to the subject of the song, a woman who drowned herself in the Vistula river to avoid an arranged marriage.

The music and the singing can sound a bit shaky and shrill at times due perhaps to the age of the film and there may be some wear and tear on the images but the photography and animation work are well done. The visuals and sound coordinate beautifully though I must admit I would have liked to concentrate more on the visual part of the animation: considerable thought and imagination went into the shapes used and the images flow quickly and smoothly. The spoken word introductions to each of the songs and their associated images were the only part of the film that was unneeded as these disrupt the flow of the imagery and music and to an extent dictate to viewers what they must see and hear during the film.

Modern audiences may grouse that the film isn’t in colour, doesn’t make use of three-dimensional shapes and imagery and looks quite cheap and tacky without the wonders of CGI. Bear in mind though that at the time the film was made, Poland was just emerging from a devastating war (World War II) in which nearly all the country’s major cities were destroyed, millions of people died in horrible conditions in concentration camps and the country’s borders shifted dramatically westward forcing thousands if not millions of people to migrate. The film might be seen as an assertion of Polish national identity, defiantly reborn after a harrowing six years of war.