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Polish Avant-Garde Film Before 1945

The retrospective was curated by Marcin Gizycki, a Polish art historian and critic who has been teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design since 1988 and is a Vice President of Poland's recently established, innovative new School of Visual Arts and New Media in Warsaw. He is the author of an incisive collection of essays on animated film called Disney Was Not the Only One (Nie tylko Disney).

Though Poland before World War II did not have the kind of established and thriving avant-garde film movement seen at the time in France and England, a number of extremely interesting experiments with the film medium were made by artists in Warsaw and Cracow. Some were never finished, some were destroyed and later "re-created" by others. Some were artistic experiments incorporated into more utilitarian assignments for commercial or war propaganda projects.

The Themersons

Most prominent among these pioneer filmmakers were Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, whose 3-minute film, Pharmacy (Apteka), in 1930 was the first successfully completed avant-garde film in Poland. The experimental techniques of the Themersons' films, evolving out of their improvisations with the "photogram" from 1928 to 1935, emphasized the movement of light and shadow over objects. Most of the images were made on an improvised animation stand, enabling them to place various objects on a piece of translucent paper over a sheet of glass, lit from above, and to animate them by filming from below one frame at a time. Shot in 35mm, the film was lost during the war. What is shown in this retrospective is a four-and-a-half-minute version recreated in 2001 by American artist Bruce Checefsky on the basis of surviving stills, notes, storyboards, and press descriptions of the lost original. Checefsky, director of the Reinberger Galleries at the Cleveland Institute of Art, had already been doing experimental work with photograms when he discovered the Themersons' work at an extensive exhibition in Warsaw. He shot his film in Budapest in collaboration with the award-winning animator and film writer Laszlo Revesz.

The Themerson's second film, Europa, made in 1931-32, attempted to find purely visual correspondences to the text of the poem Europa by the futurist poet, Anatol Stern, in which he evoked mounting social tensions and another looming world war. The fifteen-minute and completely silent film had become a cult movie among film lovers in Poland by the time Hitler invaded, when it, too, was lost. Europa found its own rescuer in 1988 when a young filmmaker named Piotr Zarebski made Europa 2, interweaving surviving stills from the original with his own footage shot on the streets of Lodz, and this time adding an actor's voice-over reading Stern's poem.

These attempts to play with light, as in Pharmacy, or to create a filmic equivalent of verbal poetry through images alone, as in Europa, were all part of a general exploration in search of a truly filmic language.

Two commissioned films, one promotional and one educational, afforded the Themersons the luxury of getting paid to pursue their animated-photogram techniques from Pharmacy. But these films, too, were destroyed. The Themerson's last film made in Poland - in 1937 - is the most significant Polish avant-garde film from the 1930s to survive the war. The Adventure of a Good Citizen (Przygoda czlowieka poczciwego) is an 8-minute, mostly live-action surrealist burlesque with a notable score by Stefan Kisielewski. It is fairly evident that a young Roman Polanski might have seen it at the Lodz Film School and found in it some of the inspiration for his renowned 1958 student film, Two Men and a Wardrobe.

Rounding out this retrospective of the Themersons' work, two films are included which they made in London during the war, sponsored by the Polish Government-in-Exile. Calling Mr. Smith (1943) is an innovative anti-Nazi propaganda film that juxtaposes images of pure visual beauty with shocking documentary footage to dramatize the intentional destruction of Polish society. Ironically, the film is said to have been banned by the British government for its inappropriately anti-war tone.

In The Eye and the Ear (1944-45) the Themersons were able to return to their quest for a purely filmic language, this time for a visual equivalent to music. Through a variety of means (including the ripple effect of clay balls dropped into water), they create visual interpretations of four songs by Karol Szymanowski, with lyrics by Julian Tuwim, as sung by Sophie Wyss. Though scarcely known, The Eye and the Ear is regarded as an outstanding example of abstract cinema.

To get a sense of the Themersons' extraordinary output as writer, painter, and publishers - and of their joie de vivre - one should visit the website devoted to their work, including the unique publishing house, Gabberbocchus Press, that they ran in London until 1979:

The Cracow Group

A number of artists and filmmakers in Cracow made three films in 1934 that are included in the program. One is - again - a 1985 remake by Ignacy Szczepanski and Marcin Gizycki of a film by poet and writer Jalu Kurek called O.R. (Rhythmical Calculation) (O.R. (Obliczenie Rytmiczne)). It is incorporated into a longer documentary by Szczepanski called Jalu Kurek. Kurek's original intention, faithfully pursued in the remake, was to demonstrate that one could make a film about people without showing their faces. It was also aiming for a certain degree of abstraction. An ordinary rendez-vous is thus recounted primarily through shots of the two protagonists' legs. Jerzy Gabryelski's Boots (Buty) is another anti-war narrative that cleverly utilizes the visual tricks of the newly explored film medium, as might a video artist in his own medium today. The third film in this Cracow contingent is one that some might regard as most nearly capturing a language that is unique to film. Two architectural students and members of an active film society, Tadeusz Kowalski and Jerzy Zarzycki - instead of seeking filmic equivalents of music or equivalents of poetry - have applied technical tricks unique to film in their own poetic reportage of an actual, concrete event, the annual ball for architecture students, called There is a Ball Today (Dzis mamy bal).

The entire program runs 70 minutes.


Tuesday, March 18, 7:30 PM - BERKELEY

UC Berkeley Art Museum/ Pacific Film Archive
PFA Theater (in its "Alternative Visions" Series)

2575 Bancroft Way near Bowditch Street
Berkeley, California
(510) 642-1412
General admission: $8

Sunday, March 30, 7 PM - LOS ANGELES

As part of the weekly Sunday-night Los Angeles Filmforum at the
Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
6712 Hollywood Blvd, at Las Palmas.
Los Angeles, CA 90028-4605
Parking on adjacent streets or validated parking at the Hollywood & Highland parking complex. Park 4 hours for $2 with validation.
$8 general admission; $6 seniors/students; free for Filmforum members.

Wednesday, April 30, 6:30 PM - ONTARIO

Cinematheque Ontario, Toronto, Canada
at the Art Gallery of Ontario Jackman Hall
317 Dundas St W, entrance on McCaul St.
For more information please call the Bell Infoline at (416) 968-FILM ext 2.
$9.60 general admission, $5.75 members, $5.25 student members / seniors,
screenings in The Independents series are free.

Saturday, June 28, 7:30 PM - CHICAGO

Beverly Art Center of Chicago
2407 West 111th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60655
tel. (773) 445-3838
$8 general admission, $6 BAC members

Exhibition in conjunction with the films:

Bruce Checefsky, Photograms
June 12 - July 6, 2003
Opening reception June 28, 5:00-7:00pm

Thursday, September 18, 7:00 PM - CLEVELAND

The Cleveland Cinematheque
The Cleveland Institute of Art
11141 East Boulevard
Cleveland , Ohio 44106
tel. (216) 421-7450
$7 general admission, $5 members

Bruce Checefsky, the author of "Pharmacy" will attend the screening.

Friday, October 3, 7:00 PM - BUFFALO

as part of KINO POLSKIE V organized by
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center
Market Arcade Film and Arts Center
639 Main Street
Buffalo , NY
tel. (716) 835-7362
$7 general admission, $5 students/seniors, $4 members

Saturday, October 18, 8 PM - SEATTLE

Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
University of Washington , Seattle
HUsky Union Building (HUB) Auditorium (room 112) on the UW campus.
tel. (206) 543-6848
admission is free

Reception to follow screening.

Saturday, October 25, 6:00 PM
Sunday, November 2, 2:00 PM - NEW YORK CITY

as part of A Short History of Polish Avant-Garde and Experimental Film
Museum of Modern Art Film at The Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street (at Lexington Avenue )
New York , NY
Tel. (212) 777-4900
$12 general admission, $8,50 students/seniors, members and children under 16 accompanied by an adult free, for more information:


Pharmacy, a re-make by American artist Bruce Checefsky (USA, 2001) of the film Apteka, by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, 1930. BETACAM. Running time: 4:40 min.

Europa 2, a film inspired by a 1932 film of the same title by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, directed by Piotr Zarebski, 1988. Running time: 14:30 min. 35 mm

OR. Rhythmical Calculation /OR (Obliczenia Rytmiczne)/, re-make of a 1934 film by Jalu Kurek, directed by Ignacy Szczepanski, screenplay by Marcin Gizycki (professor, Rhode Island School of Design), 1985. BETACAM (fragment of a documentary Jalu Kurek). Running time: 4:00 min.

There is a Ball Tonight /Dzis mamy bal/, by Jerzy Zarzycki and Tadeusz Kowalski, 1934, 35 mm. Running time: 7:00 min.

Boots /Buty/, by Jerzy Gabryelski, 1934, 35 mm. Running time: 12:00 min.

The Adventure of a Good Citizen /Przygoda czlowieka poczciwego/, by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, Warsaw 1937. b/w, sound, 35 mm. Running time: 8 min.

Calling Mr. Smith, by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, London 1943. Dufay-color, sound, 35 mm. Running time: 9:30 min.

The Eye and the Ear, by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, London 1945. b/w, sound, 35 mm. Running time: 11:00 min.


The Adventure of a Good Citizen


The Eye and the Ear

The Eye and the Ear

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