Stefan and Franciszka Themerson

Przygoda Czlowieka Poczciwego (The Adventure of a Good Citizen) (1937)
Calling Mr. Smith (1943)
The Eye & The Ear (1944-45)

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.