Les Jeux des Anges: blackly humorous indictment of concentration camps and police-state societies

Walerian Borowczyk, “Les Jeux des Anges” (1964)

So far the strangest film I have seen from Borowczyk, “Les Jeux …” at first doesn’t appear to have anything resembling a plot but on second viewing I realised the short is a minimalist satire of the concentration camp experience in WW2-era Poland and of Soviet-style collectivisation of agriculture in Poland’s post-war period. The first half of the film is a survey of a factory, its tools and machinery; the second half shows how human beings are processed by the machinery in the manner of a sausage-machine (I use the metaphor very euphemistically) into angels.

The original film’s colours emphasised red but in the version I saw on Youtube, the predominant colours were variations of dark blue and grey which made the film more sombre and depressing to look at but not so much so that I couldn’t appreciate Borowczyk’s blackly wicked humour which turns church-organ pipes into rifle butts and people’s heads into so many little metal balls to roll down little funnels while the camera’s focus switches from one funnel to the next and back in clockwork rhythms. A glamorous blow-up doll figure, possibly representing a warped mother / Virgin Mary figure, presides over the factory work.

A minimal approach is used to portray the factory and its interiors with an emphasis on repetition; there is no narration which forces the viewer to watch the film’s proceedings closely and judge for him/herself what the message is. Several shots are done “close-up” to various subjects and acquire a very abstract quality that Borowczyk uses to advance the film’s theme and “narrative”, and for comic, satirical effect as when he turns the pipes into weapons. The music soundtrack which features much church organ is droll, cheerful and unnerving; its association with the industrial processing of humans into angels speaks mountains about organised religion’s all-too-ready acquiescence to powerful political elites and its willingness to co-operate in the subjugation and oppression of populations.

The angels are sent out on the train tracks in a way that suggests their function is to collect more human materiel for angel-making and so the film concludes as it begins in a closed loop. A more devastating indictment of a police-state society and culture couldn’t be made in a film that blankly and silently presents its case in just under 10 minutes. Perhaps the true horror of such states is to be found in the film’s banal presentation of the factory and its inner workings: the matter-of-fact, almost casual yet relentless and repetitive mass-production processing of death.

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