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.

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