The Banquet: a much loved cartoon with wry gallows humour

Zofia Oraczewska, “The Banquet / Bankiet” (1976)

Its style seems outdated for a short animation of its vintage but I believe this is still a much loved cartoon in Poland for its inversion of roles and what that might have said about Polish society at the time (and might still say generally about Western society today). Waiters and cooks working at a swanky hotel or palace prepare a lavish banquet for guests (one of whom looks suspiciously like Liza Minnelli) who arrive dressed in luxurious furs and glittering jewellery in chauffeured limousines. The guests eagerly race for the food – but unpleasant surprises await them and never was the saying “eat the rich” more appropriately applied as here.

The short piece is rich in gallows humour fantasy at a level that would delight and scare the very young and the old alike for different reasons: among others, the weak and powerless rise up against those who would literally consume them, heart and soul; Gothic horror meets the every-day; and the amount of mayhem and mess left behind when the waiters come to clear away the dishes might be a comment on the devastation we unthinking humans leave behind whenever we stop at or pass through a place or country.

The animation is reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s collages of cut-up figures set against painted backgrounds. Only the waiters and cooks are fully animated characters done in conventional children’s-cartoon style, and only they seem fully alive and alert to their surroundings. Everything else from the food to the guests either looks realistic in parts or is grotesque and crudely drawn, which suggests the food and the guests have much more in common with each other than either has to the general human collective. Thus the eater and eaten are cannibals of a sort.

The music is excellent accompaniment to the proceedings, giving away little hint of the carnage and bloodshed that will occur when the guests charge towards the groaning tables of food.

As long as there is short, succinct and intelligent animation and an audience exists for it, “The Banquet” will always have its fans.

Ichthys: a caustic commentary on institutional religion

Marek Skrobecki, “Ichthys” (2005)

For once I didn’t need to look up an English translation for the title of this Polish animation short which uses animated puppets. A man rows a boat to a distant shore, gets out and enters a cathedral. A waiter shows him to his table and the man orders the fish of the day. What follows is an amusing exercise in patience and frustration as the man waits a life-time to be served. Reward does eventually come but it carries consequences that can be interpreted on different levels relating to the nature of Roman Catholicism, spirituality and the search for meaning to life.

That the castle resembles a cathedral and the waiter a priest is no accident: the restaurant represents institutional religion which promises a great deal if people think and act in certain ways but which ultimately delivers either very little or delivers with even more conditions incumbent on individuals that they can’t refuse or avoid, or which condemn them to even more existential anguish and torment. The hungry man’s wait is torturous: as his clothes wear out and holes develop in his elbows and knees, the man’s face and body waste away and he literally falls apart: he tears off his face and his arms drop out of his sockets. He looks hungrily at the fish in the fish-tank but the creature ends up dying a natural death. When eventually the waiter returns, the customer is practically dead. The fish of the day revives the poor man but he does not realise that by taking the dish, he will be the butt of a malicious cosmic joke.

In spite of the often gorgeous colours that appear during the film’s duration and the promise of light and all’s-well-that-ends-well, the feeling that a huge con is being played out is never far away. Anyone who is familiar with Polish animation (and the animation of some other eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic) will know that Polish animation often carries a very sly black funereal humour and just when you think everything will turn out well and everybody will be happy, darkness and melancholy are never far away at all. So it is with “Ichthys”.

The animation is very well done with good pace and timing; the man’s facial contortions and comic if pathetic behaviour capture his anguish and torment. His actions are all the more pitiable when the reward is revealed and he receives it gratefully. Some viewers will anticipate what happens to him next and suspect that the waiter has known all along where the man ends up as he takes the customer’s hat and throws it into a room full of … other customers’ hats.

An excellent if very biting and sarcastic comment on the nature of institutional religion, what it demands of and extracts from people, and how it traps people in a never-ending cycle of debasement and purgatory, “Ichthys” is highly recommended viewing.

The Red and the Black / The Horse: two little oil paintings in continuous motion

Witold Giersz, “The Red and the Black / Czorwane i Czarne” (1963) / “The Horse / Kon” (1967)

I was held spellbound by these two very visually beautiful short animations which use animation of oil paintings done on cardboard or glass, and that exploit the possibilities that the characteristics of oil painting can offer. In the first cartoon, “The Red and the Black”, whose tongue-twisting Polish name offers opportunity for word play, a red matador and a black bull duel within the corrida and outside it – and even outside the painting, to the consternation of the “painter” who did the picture! The second cartoon is also a duel, this time between a wild horse and the young warrior who wants to tame it and ride it into war – but this is a much tamer affair that experiments more with colour than with breaking boundaries: one can only toy around with viewers’ expectations and spring surprises on people once.

The two shorts might be portraying the eternal tug-of-war between Human and Nature, and all that is symbolised by those two concepts: Human as symbol for a rationalist view of the universe and Nature as synecdoche for the organic, non-logical and unstructured forces of the universe. During the Communist period (for Poland, this was from 1945 to 1989) the conventional interpretation of “The Red and the Black” was that one side represented the forces of freedom and democracy and the other, those of Communism and authoritarian dictatorship, but my opinion is that the short is a light-hearted playful one and should not be assumed to symbolise two political polarities and their conflict.

The  visual style resembles the bright colourful Fauvist painting style that was briefly popular in France in the first decade of the 20th century, and there may have been influences from Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and the French Impressionist school as well in the preference for broad painterly brush-strokes in the movement of the figures. The animation in “Horse” is particularly good: the portrayal of the animal’s movements, in particular its galloping and the way it turns and flicks its tail, shows how closely Giersz must have observed the movements of horses as the animation is accurate and captures the rhythms of its flowing gait.

There is much humour in the narratives of both shorts: both matador and warrior are outwitted by the animals throughout. Even when matador and bull are literally bottled up, their essences still animate their prisons which threaten to upset the painter’s studio. The warrior appears to lose hope of ever capturing his steed as he fades into the black background.

If I were showing a group of animation students a series of cartoons to watch, I would definitely include these two little masterpieces of breath-taking originality.

Son (dir. Ryszard Czekala): a solid, powerful short about rural-urban and generational division

Ryszard Czekala, “Son / Syn” (1970)

This short silent animation piece is one that Polish animator Ryszard Czekala is best known for and it’s easy to see why: its themes of rural-urban divide, generational separation, isolation and abandonment are universal. A rich businessman from the Big Smoke visits his parents on their remote farm: the elderly folk are glad to see him come back and serve him the best meal they can offer but the son spurns their humble lifestyle, reads his newspaper at the dinner table and races back to the city as soon as he is done with visiting. The parents are puzzled at his behaviour but resume their tilling and other work.

The animation looks dark and heavy but carries a sure solid power especially in scenes in which the farmer and his bullock are dragging a plough through heavy soil. The farmer and his wife have tired, worn faces and hands and fingers used to heavy labour over many years. I have the impression they have waited for a long time, years stretching into decades perhaps, for their son to return. Return he does but the long-awaited reunion is a disappointment. The film briefly touches on the couple’s bemused expressions and for a moment I think they are perhaps glad to see him leave, having observed his shallow and supercilious behaviour, before they pick up the rhythm of their lives again.

No dialogue is needed to convey the psychological and cultural chasm between the parents and their son as all that we need to know happens in their actions and in a small scene in which the son knocks a piece of bread off the table but fails to pick it up, expecting his parents to do so as if they were servants. They do so but not because they are his servants; every bit of food is precious sustenance.

It’s a paradox that sometimes the most powerful messages are delivered by short silent films such as this little work. Makes me wonder why I still bother to watch feature-length films sometimes.

Little Black Riding Hood / The Walls: two very different early shorts by Piotr Dumala

Piotr Dumala, “Little Black Riding Hood / Czarny Kapturek” (1983)

Piotr Dumala, “The Walls / Sciany” (1988)

Based on the familiar childhood story but rendered in such a way as to make it an adults-only animation short, “Little Black Riding Hood” is an early work by Piotr Dumala that subverts expectations about what a film adaptation of a fairy tale should do and about the roles of the characters themselves and what they represent. The result returns some of the original darkness of the story back to it: some mediaeval versions of the tale included cannibalism and sexual intercourse, and both are present in Dumala’s adaptation.

Drawn in a superficially child-like scrawl, the whole cartoon has a slight smutty air, encapsulated in the sketchy landscapes where trees have a bushy, almost electrified appearance and suspiciously resemble pubic hair. As soon as the girl and the wolf meet, they’re at each other’s throats straight away in an orgy of violence, bloodletting and carnivorous consumption. The hunter who’s supposed to be the hero of the story joins in the carnage. Granny turns out to be skilled with a crudely drawn katana and further bloodshed ensues. Then the story repeats but with a happy ending instead as two unlikely characters decide to get it on and the house conveniently spews enough chimney smoke to preserve decorum.

Most viewers might find the short meaningless and pointless but it does remind us of the original tale’s themes of restoration and rebirth, however low-brow these transformations appear, and that fairy-tale characters aren’t always strictly good (and tame) or strictly bad (and wild) but possess aspects of both. There is an absurd quality to the short as well and that may be Dumala’s snide reference to some versions of the Red Riding Hood tale which had a moralistic slant about how well-bred young ladies should not talk to strangers who might have bestial designs on them.

Five years later, “The Walls” represents Dumala at his more typical and refined: his distinctive technique of drawing over plaster and scratching out figures, then erasing and drawing new figures gives a three-dimensional and very nuanced appearance to his characters, and brings a melancholy that suits the existential theme and the main character’s inner psychological turmoil. light and shadow are beautifully illustrated with depth and the technique readily lends itself to stream-of-consciousness thinking and surreal imagery and story-telling.

The film can be interpreted on several levels: on one level, it could be about a prisoner or a deranged man in a mental asylum; on another, it could be an allegory about living in a repressive society where one’s life is at the mercy of uncaring bureaucrats and ideologues; on yet another, it might be an expression of angst at living an absurd life in an absurd universe created and controlled by an indifferent God for whom existence may also be absurd.

Both very different in style, theme and mood, yet in their own way these shorts may have deeper meanings that viewers need to draw out for themselves.

Stairs: a deceptively simple film with a deep and powerful message about finding meaning and purpose in an alienated life

Stefan Schabenbeck, “Stairs / Schody” (1969)

A minimalist claymation 7-minute piece, “Stairs” is one of those teeny-tiny classics about the human search for meaning in life and the often fruitless efforts one puts into finding that meaning only to get no answer or a strange one. A little figure is mooching along the sand when he (we’ll call the figure a “he” for the sake of convenience) sees a raised platform so he steps onto it. He comes across another raised platform so he steps onto that one as well … only see more such raised platforms, all layered over one another in the form of stairs. He eagerly investigates these stairs and discovers himself lost in a maze of stairs leading upwards or downwards in random ways. He determinedly wanders all over the terraced landscape, trying to find the highest point of these stairs – but the only problem is whether his body and spirit will give out before he finds the staircase of all staircases, overseeing its ziggurat dominion, and discovers the whole raison d’etre for this massive tiered sculpture.

Comparable to a much later Polish animation, Tomasz Baginski’s “The Cathedral”, “Stairs” is as barebones in its style and story-telling as can be: the trumpet-dominated music follows the travails of the little character and reflects something of his frustrations in its melodies and plaintive tones. Although the film might seem long for its 7 minutes due to its narrow focus, there is a reason for that apparent obsession: the journey is hard and arduous, the character cannot go back or retrace his steps but must continue his quest, and the whole lanscape around him is seen to be unforgiving. There may very well be a hidden commentary about navigating one’s way through a brutal and uncaring bureaucratic society or trying to find meaning in one’s life when everything around is indifferent. Because the film is so minimalist in its theme and presentation, and lacks a context the viewer can relate to, it becomes timeless: viewers can attribute whatever message that seems most relevant to them to the film and the film communicates that message back so well. Having seen “The Cathedral”, I imputed the message of that film to “Stairs” but had I seen something else with a different message and theme but a similar story, I might have interpreted “Stairs” very differently.

Deceptively simple but very powerful indeed.

Crime and Punishment (dir. Piotr Dumala): unusual and subtle animation no substitute for lack of plot and unsatisfactory resolution

Piotr Dumala, “Crime and Punishment / Zbrodnia i Kara” (2000)

The style of animation associated with Piotr Dumala is unusual and often emotionally intense: using plasterboard painted in black under a camera, he scratches white lines with a needle and creates drawings with considerable line-hatching to achieve a 3-D effect and subtlety in mood and changes of mood. By necessity at times, there is a strong emphasis on negative shapes and outlining, shading of characters and objects, shadows and night-time: overall, a suitable background context in which sinister, almost unconscious events can take place away from the public gaze. The look of Dumala’s films can be fragile: characters appear to be sensitive, existentially tormented people and objects, even buildings, seem impermanent in keeping with the animator’s aim to present the unsteady inner life of his main student character before and after the crime he commits.

“Crime and Punishment” is very loosely based on the original Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel. Although the film short in itself is technically accomplished, its plot is very weakly developed: it builds up quite slowly to the central student character’s killing of the old woman and her sister and thereafter falls apart. No attempt on Dumala’s part to portray the student’s internal anguish and guilt over killing the two women, no young woman to offer comfort to the student (and in so doing, add to his turmoil as he wrestles with his conscience) and an anti-climax in which the student finally gives himself up to the authorities, is tried, convicted and banished to several years’ hard labour in a Siberian camp … all this completely disappears. It becomes obvious that the novel serves mainly as inspiration for Dumala’s own superficial version in which animation artfully demonstrates emotion and changes in emotion; the film is little more than an unusual art film. In this version, the student anti-hero appears to be tempted or provoked by an older man, who may or may not be Satan in disguise, to carry out the crime; the student later feels remorse, some depression and loneliness and is driven to kill himself. There is not much character development here and viewers won’t feel much sympathy for the student. Given that Dumala by 2000 had nearly 20 years’ animation experience, the lack of a definite story narrative, whether linear or not, is a complete disappointment. While Dumala is at liberty to reject large chunks of the Dostoyevsky novel as it suits, by throwing out most of it he has ended up with a story that is banal. A man takes his time agonising whether he should dock a horrible woman, does so almost by accident and spends the rest of the film feeling guilty

The pace of the story is slow and much attention given to the slightest of movements which reflect internal emotional states; eyes and faces in particular are rendered finely and sensitively, and have a very sharp sculptured appearance. No dialogue appears and the whole film is carried by a piano-dominated musical soundtrack. The city landscapes are spooky: there’s no hustle and bustle on the streets, horse-drawn carriages are uncommon and people, on crossing a bridge over a river, make gesticulations and other movements that suggest they might throw themselves over the edge of the bridge! All the splendid artwork Dumala does here is a mind-boggling labour of love: I can’t imagine his particular style of destructive animation readily lends itself to quick, easy work – but his obsession with his form of animation means he neglects the film as a story-telling vehicle.

“Crime and Punishment” could have been a very great film indeed if Dumala had drawn more inspiration from the novel and maybe developed the film short’s plot further so it includes redemption or at least an attempt to reconcile the families and connections of the student and his victims.



The House: early foray into cut-out stop-motion animation could have done with a stronger vision and extra time

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, “The House / Dom” (1958)

Rather odd film in which a woman (Ligia Branice), seemingly trapped and bored in an apartment block while tapping away at a typewriter, daydreams about various moving objects, two men French-boxing and fencing, a man repeatedly entering a room and placing his hand on a hat-stand, and a live fur wig breaking pieces of still life on a table, “The House” is an early foray into cut-out stop-motion animation for the two Polish animator / directors Borowczyk and Lenica. As it is, the film is good if uneven: the first half of the film has more lively and eccentric animation while the second half concentrates on a series of photographic stills and only the last few moments feature any “real” animation when a mannequin’s head disintegrates.

Not much plot to speak of here though it’s possible that in “The House”, Borowczyk and Lenica were criticising an aspect or some aspects of totalitarian life in Poland: the sense of feeling trapped and apathetic in a structure you can never escape from; people performing repetitive actions in a society they don’t care about yet can’t get worked up enough over to get rid of it; and the absurdity of life where common sense is constantly being over-run by petty laws and bureaucrats. Branice’s character appears to live in a fantasy world: she kisses a mannequin and caresses it as though it can actually respond … and it does, just not in the way the woman expects. She returns to her boring typing job in the building.

There’s not very much of the cut-out stop-motion animation in the film. It must still have been a new thing for Borowczyk and Lenica to work out. The best of it is in Ligia’s first dream in which objects operate of their own volition. The fight sequence is not bad and is noted mainly for its repetition, the change in colours (the use of colour is rather crude and limited in its scope) and the musical soundtrack which suggests a UFO hovering overhead human cities while the alien pilot tries to find a parking spot. Depending on the action, the music is often very droll and even borders on the kitsch. In the second half of the film, Ligia starts thinking of distant relatives whose portraits appear in the still photographs and of how one male relation had to go to war and fight.

Cheekily, Borowczyk and Lenica deflate a tender and melancholy passage in the film for laughs: the woman kisses a mannequin, decorates it with flowers and stands back while the mannequin disintegrates. Perhaps this sequence is intended to reflect the cruelty of life, that it separates loved ones who may never see each other again.

I wish the plot had been more developed so that the woman’s motivations become clearer and we understand why she’s stuck in the building and day-dreams so much. Bits of the film can seem fussy and overdone in a way that suggests the two directors wanted to milk ideas for all that they’re worth. Even so, “The House” is an interesting film to follow to see how two animators were developing and perfecting their art.


The Labyrinth: absurd surrealist animated film portrays a bizarre totalitarian society

Jan Lenica, “The Labyrinth / Labirynt” (1963)

Superficially this looks like a Terry Gilliam / Monty Python animated cartoon and it is indeed very funny and quite surreal. A man with mechanical wings strapped to him visits a strange 19th-century European city whose streets and buildings are oddly empty. He has several weird adventures which culminate in his being captured by a mad scientist who early on has noted his presence and who probably rules the city. The scientist-ruler subjects the visitor to painful scientific examinations but he manages to escape and tries to leave the city. The ruler searches for him and sends out bat-winged scouts to find the visitor and bring him down.

The combination of stop-motion animation and collages of paper cut-out 19th-century figures and buildings gives the short a distinctive steam-punk look and provides opportunities for humorous sight gags. Insects with human heads and animated dinosaur skeletons don’t look at all out of place – we accept them as inventions of the mad scientist-ruler. Colour is an important feature and its use is very striking and beautiful. The musical soundtrack assumes a major role in enhancing the action and tension of the plot and of the 19th-century atmosphere as the film is completely silent.

There are passages where the action seems fussy and dragged out – the scientific examination of the visitor is probably overdone though the animation is fiendishly droll and the use of colour very original in parts – and the film could have been edited for a faster, tighter plot narrative.

Overall “The Labyrinth” presents a world at once absurd, bizarre and entertaining but which turns out to be nightmarish and deadly. The city is more Hotel-California than the visitor realises: you can visit and stay as long as you like but you can never leave. A parallel with the authoritarian state that existed in Poland in the early 1960s, and the absurdities associated with totalitarian rule that went on in that country, can be observed.

Franz Kafka: lack of story and direction drag down an otherwise very fine brooding and melancholy film

Piotr Dumala, “Franz Kafka” (1992)

A 15-minute film of various episodes in the life of early 20th century Czech writer Franz Kafka, this is remarkable mainly for its style of animation rather than any plot. Dumala uses boards completely covered in black paint through which he scratches images and shadows in shades of white and dark grey and all hues in-between to achieve atmosphere, emotion and depth of perspective or viewpoint through texture and tone. Great delicacy and emotional expressiveness are achieved. It’s a pity in a way that the subject matter comes across as fragmented and disjointed with no obvious narrative beyond emphasis on Kafka’s sense of isolation and being an outsider because of his fragile physical health and his subdued nature, and how this isolation influenced his outlook, sense of being and his writing. The pace is slow and the film seems much longer than its 15-minute playing time. The music is plaintive and often very intrusive. Whatever sound is produced is very discreet; people’s voices usually aren’t much more than a series of murmurs.

The drawings and animation (stop-motion) are very detailed especially in close-ups of Kafka’s face yet are very flexible in scenes in which Kafka appears to change into an animal (and in the last scene does so definitively). Blurring of edges is used often to demonstrate a 3-D illusion and the perspective can change so that things close to us can switch from blurry to sharp while at the same time faraway objects go from sharp focus to blurry. The drawing and animation techniques allow for subtle and very delicate movement of facial expressions and hands. Shadows in most scenes heighten a sense of Kafka’s isolation from the world around him yet in other scenes encourage an intimacy between the main character and viewers. A sex scene early in the film is portrayed tastefully and voyeuristically.

Something of Kafka’s dreary everyday life, lived in shadows and the shadows (figurative as well as real) of people around him, can be discerned from the film’s details. Viewers get the feeling of being trapped with him in his existential prison. The lack of a story and direction can be off-putting for viewers but the animation is unusual and must have been very painstaking to do and is worth repeated viewing.