Archive for the 'Franciszka and Stefan Themerson' Category

The Eye and the Ear

UK, 1945, black and white, 11 mins

  • Directors: Franciszka & Stefan Themerson
  • Commentary Script: Bruce Graeme
  • Camera: Franciszka & Stefan Themerson
  • Editors: Franciszka & Stefan Themerson
  • Narrator: James McKechnie
  • Music: Karol Szymanowski
  • Conducted by: Ronald Biggs
  • Soprano: Sophie Wyss
  • Production Company: Polish Film Unit

Of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson’s three surviving films, The Eye and the Ear is much the most successful, and one can only regret that their extensive interests in other fields precluded them making any more in a similar vein. As the title implies, and the explanatory intertitles explain in detail, this is a pioneering attempt at devising an appropriate visual accompaniment for four songs (from Słopiewnie, op.46) by the then recently deceased Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1883-1937). Although the film is technically British (it was made in London with the support of the Polish Film Unit), it remains true to the Themersons’ cultural roots.

Both the onscreen titles and commentary (by James McKechnie) offer a somewhat dry and pedagogical explanation of what we are about to see - perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that the Themersons were ahead of their time. (It’s worth noting that the not dissimilar Oskar Fischinger-inspired first segment of Disney’s Fantasia some five years earlier - the J.S. Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sequence - also featured a spoken introduction).

The first song, Green Words, is performed in an arrangement that substitutes the voice for a solo violin, and the images provide an eloquent replacement for the original lyrics (which described the growth of woodland rushes). Against a backdrop suggesting flowing water, natural images of branches and leaves are presented in inverted silhouette. When the violin motif rises, the branches grow up the screen. When it falls, so do the leaves, each tracing an arc as they descend. As the music increases in complexity, we see a photographic image of a real branch against rippling water - this appears to have been shot in reverse motion so that the ripples’ concentric circles move inwards. Finally, extreme close-ups of water drops triggering larger ripples are timed to accompany rhythmic pulses in the score.

The treatment of the second song, St. Francis, is much more calculatedly abstract, with various shapes used to denote pitch, volume and the conductor’s beat. These are overlaid on top of a series of dissolving images, initially of the cosmos, then medieval/Renaissance paintings of singers to accompany the vocal line when it commences. Shortly afterwards, the film switches entirely to abstraction, with jellyfish-like shapes ascending the screen, a new one generated by each individual note, its final resting-place dictated by the pitch. Blocks of grey wash over the screen and the cosmic backdrops return, the song’s individual pitches now generating a variety of triangles whose lengthy tails intertwine in complicated filigree patterns.

The treatment of the third song Rowan Towers takes its inspiration directly from the printed score, with the various instruments given their own geometrical form (typically blocks and triangles, whose shape alters according to the pitch of the note), the waveform of the vocal line floating on top. At the time, this was certainly an intriguing and worthwhile experiment, but it’s since been comprehensively usurped by computer-generated visual accompaniments offering more complex and colourful renditions of similar basic principles.

But any abiding disappointment quickly shrivels when the fourth part, Wanda, starts. The most mysterious and suggestive segment of the film, it creates a spellbinding visual accompaniment with the simplest means: repetitive images of rippling water (both straight lines and concentric circles), overlaid and dissolved on top of each other, timed to coincide with the music’s rhythm, but assembled so subtly that the joins are all but invisible. As with Green Words, reverse motion is occasionally used to make the concentric ripples appear to be turning in on themselves. The song is about suicide by drowning (Wanda was a Polish queen who drowned herself in the Wisła river rather than marry against her will), and towards the end of the piece we see a silhouetted arm trailing in the water - though this is the only concession to anything descriptive. Enthralling from beginning to end, this final segment of the Themersons’ final film provides the most eloquent case for their stature as pioneers of abstract cinema.

DVD Distribution: The film is included in two DVD compilations, the Anthology of Polish Experimental Animation (Antologia polskiej animacji eksperymentalnej), distributed by Polish Audiovisual Publishers (Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne/PWA), and The Films of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, a joint effort between LUX in London and PWA in Poland. Both are Region 0 PAL, and the transfers (unsurprisingly) appear to be identical - my only real complaint is that the individual songs aren’t chapter-stopped or skip-pointed.

Picture: This is the best-preserved of the Themersons’ three surviving films and there are no issues worth noting beyond the occasional minor print blemish. The 4:3 aspect ratio was universal at the time.

Sound: The mid-1940s mono recording is compressed and shrill, with noticeable distortion at the top end, but this is almost certainly a fault of the original materials.

Subtitles: The film’s spoken content is in English, and optional Polish subtitles are provided on both editions. The sung lyrics are not subtitled, though a précis is supplied by each spoken introduction.


Posted on 1st February 2009
Under: Reviews, Animation, Poland, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson | No Comments »

Calling Mr Smith

UK, 1944, black and white, 8 mins

  • Directors: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson
  • Dialogue: Bruce Graeme
  • Photography: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson
  • Editing: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson
  • Producer: Eugeniusz Cękalski
  • Production Companies: Concanen Films, Polish Film Unit

The first of two films made by the husband-and-wife team of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson in Britain towards the end of World War II, Calling Mr Smith is a visually virtuosic, despairingly bleak piece of anti-Nazi propaganda that tries to open British audiences’ eyes not merely to the physical destruction of Poland but also of its history and culture - and the possibility that the same thing might happen to them if they let Hitler triumph, and why it matters (an opening title states “The products of various arts practised by a people constitute an objective and most important record of the spirit of that people”). The film was made for Concanen Films, a British production company that spent the war years specialising in Anglo-Polish propaganda (its other titles include White Eagle, Diary of a Polish Airman, A Polish Sailor and Scottish Mazurka). Like the Themersons, the film’s producer Eugeniusz Cękalski had also been active in independent film circles in the 1930s, where their paths would have originally crossed.

The film opens with a whistle-stop tour of European civilisation from the Greeks to the present, emphasising how different cultures tended to excel in differing fields: Greek sculpture, Roman architecture, Italian painting, English literature, German music. This last point leads to a brief abstract interlude in which gigantic close-ups of organ pipes and distorted images of ecclesiastical architecture and religious sculpture is accompanied by Bach’s Toccata in D minor, the fusion of these various elements illustrating the cumulative aesthetic and spiritual impact of different art forms when combined to create something embodying a particular national culture. But cut to the 20th century, and “German culture” now comes branded with a swastika, and its products are shown in graphic close-up: dead children, starving families…

…and then at the word “Stop!”, the film jumps off the projector and comes to rest diagonally across the image, sprocket holes and soundtrack clearly visible. The film has been halted by the Mr Smith of the title, who describes himself as “a plain bloke” and demands to know the identity of the female narrator. “A woman of tortured Europe”, she replies. She tries to persuade Mr Smith of the importance of her message, but he’s unimpressed: “I’m fed to the teeth with all this horror stuff”. He’s probably also put off by her hectoring tone, and her subsequent invocation of his apathetic neighbour Mr Jones almost certainly doesn’t help. (Neither does, at least for a present-day viewer, her use of the word “beastliness”, a term with a little too much of a touch of P.G. Wodehouse to effectively convey notions of absolute evil.)

But the stridency is understandable under the circumstances. As she goes on to demonstrate, Adolf Hitler is now the embodiment of German culture, its Shakespeare (Mein Kampf), its Leonardo (his crude daubs) and its patron of architecture, while the music of Bach has been replaced by the Horst Wessel song. A newsreel montage shows ordinary Germans and their children gleefully waving swastika flags. Worse, Hitler has been systematically eliminating culture that doesn’t meet his strictures - and indeed people. (A shot of a hanged woman fell foul of the British Board of Film Censors, but the Themersons refused to cut it). To Mr Smith’s explanation that that’s the sort of thing that happens in war, the narrator explains that she’s more concerned about what happens after the war, when the Nazi plan to turn non-Aryan nations into illiterate and uncivilised slaves will be fully enacted. (It’s worth noting that this film was made before the discovery of the extermination camps).

It’s at this point that the film begins to focus on the Themersons’ native Poland, explaining how Poles were excluded from seats of learning, and university buildings have become secret police headquarters. Polish literature has been suppressed, as have works by Polish composers. The film’s second musical interlude sets a spinning 78rpm disc of a Chopin piece against Stefan Themerson’s trademark photograms of spinning and tumbling leaves, suggesting the onset of a cultural winter (to emphasise this, the record is subsequently crushed under a jackboot). A third musical section is a dry run for the Themersons’ The Eye and the Ear (1945), as it uses various extreme close-ups of parts of a violin, overlaid in multicoloured layers, to illustrate one of the Karol Szymanowski pieces featured in the later film. As these shift into abstract shapes and colours, they are eventually overlaid by Polish religious statues (by the polymath Stanisław Wyspiański, best known as the author of the play The Wedding/Wesele). The narrator reappears, this time in more conciliatory mode, as the eloquence of the film’s images have made her point for her.

Much more than the Themersons’ other surviving films, Calling Mr Smith is of its time: it was commissioned as a propaganda piece, and has all the drawbacks of that form. But individual sequences are immensely powerful, and the film’s overall message about the fragility of culture and civilisation couldn’t be more heartfelt: the Themersons themselves had recently resettled in a different country - where, as it transpired, they would spend the rest of their lives.

DVD Distribution: Calling Mr Smith is included in the DVD compilation The Films of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson (Region 0 PAL), a collaboration between LUX in London and Polish Audiovisual Publishers (Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne/PWA) in Poland.

Picture: The print doesn’t appear to have undergone full restoration, and there’s quite a bit of surface damage, though never to the point of affecting watchability. It’s hard to tell if the muted colours are intentional or a by-product of the Dufaycolor process fading over time - though it’s probably safe to assume that the reds were originally intended to be punchier.

Sound: Typical 1940s mono, with noticeable background hiss, though it’s never at the expense of clarity.

Subtitles: The film is in English throughout, but optional Polish subtitles are available.


Posted on 1st February 2009
Under: Reviews, Poland, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson | No Comments »

The Adventure of a Good Citizen

Przygoda człowieka poczciwego
Poland, 1937, black and white, 10 mins

  • Directors: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson
  • Script: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson
  • Photography: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson
  • Music: Stefan Kisielewski

The last of five films made by the husband-and-wife team of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson in their native Poland, The Adventure of a Good Citizen is the only one to have survived World War II - indeed, it’s one of the few remaining examples of what by all accounts was a thriving 1930s Polish avant-garde in which the Themersons played a leading role as both artists, promoters and critics (they ran a film production cooperative, SAF, and a short-lived avant-garde film magazine, f.a.) . Unlike most of their films, it’s almost entirely live action, albeit replete with various in-camera effects, including so much reverse motion that Stefan Themerson claimed that the film would make just as much sense if run backwards - at least visually, if not aurally.

An opening title characterises the film as “an irrational humoresque”, while cautioning the viewer “not to misinterpret [the protagonist’s] lyrical flight from reality for nonsensical extravagance.” In other words, for all the film’s playfulness (the opening shot is of a drummer drumming on what a pan reveals to be a hat worn by a distinctly unamused man) and Stefan Kisielewski’s jolly score, there’s method in the Themersons’ apparent madness. Indeed, the film’s plea for tolerance of individual eccentricity comes across as being far more poignant today, in light of what happened in Poland just two years after the film was completed.

There are two parallel narratives - in one, two men attempt to carry a large wardrobe with a mirrored front (it is generally assumed that Roman Polański must have seen this film during his studies at the Łódź Film School, as there are many visual and thematic parallels between it and his 1958 film Two Men and a Wardrobe/Dwaj ludzie z szafą), while in the other, an office worker (the ‘Good Citizen’ of the title) overhears instructions being given to one of the wardrobe-carriers - “The sky won’t fall in if you walk backwards!” - and decides to adopt it as his personal credo. So while the wardrobe is being transported, the Good Citizen gingerly tries walking backwards out of his office and then, with greater confidence, out into the world. One minor accident later (which results in the Good Citizen assisting with the wardrobe transportation), and he’s the target of a full-scale protest march, with placards reading ‘Down With Walking Backwards!’.

When the wardrobe-carriers enter the forest, there’s a startlingly lyrical interlude making use of Stefan Themerson’s trademark ‘photogram’ technique, in which objects were filmed through a translucent glass sheet covered with paper to create highly expressive silhouetted effects of a bird, plants, lights and indefinable abstract movements (this section was originally hand-coloured). After this, the wardrobe becomes the central prop for a variety of fantastical ideas in which the men seem to fly (by means of flapping one arm and leg next to the wardrobe’s mirror, creating the impression that they’re taking off - a visual gag later trademarked by the British comedian Harry Worth). When the protestors finally track them down, the men have genuinely taken off into the sky, and the wardrobe stands empty.

The film’s recurring themes of flight, reverse motion and the undermining of what are perceived to be natural laws are echoed by the visual and montage treatment. Much use is made of the wardrobe mirror to play tricks with reflections on camera, but photographic effects are also used - in an early sequence, people appear to turn left and right simultaneously, their “reflections” appearing in negative form. The mirror not only seems to reflect the world in the conventional way, but it also occasionally seems to make time run backwards: its attitude towards spatial and temporal laws seems just as cavalier as does the Good Citizen’s, and indeed the Themersons themselves. It’s an authentically Surrealist film up to a point (and would play well in a programme with other 1920s/30s examples of the form such as Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique, Man Ray’s films or Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou), but it also conveys a forceful message about freedom and individuality, albeit couched in much more playful terms than the Themersons’ next film, the despairing anti-Nazi propaganda film Calling Mr. Smith (1944).

DVD Distribution: The Adventure of a Good Citizen is included in the DVD compilation The Films of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson (Region 0 PAL), a collaboration between LUX in London and Polish Audiovisual Publishers (Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne/PWA) in Poland.

Picture: This is sourced from the only surviving copy, a 16mm dupe of a 35mm original, so any issues regarding image quality and physical condition should be set against the print’s extreme rarity value. Actually, it’s surprisingly watchable - there are a few splices, but no more serious damage bar a few spots, scratches and faint tramlines, and though the grain and contrast are certainly more obtrusive than intended, they’re never actively destructive (though the hand-tinted colours that originally accompanied part of the forest scene have not survived). It’s hard to see how the DVD transfer could have done a better job with this material.

Sound: With the caveat that this is a mid-1930s soundtrack (with all that that implies in terms of inescapable technical limitations), it really doesn’t sound at all bad. Music and dialogue are perfectly clear, and although there’s some faint crackle in the background, it’s much less obtrusive than one might expect.

Subtitles: These alternate between yellow (over titles) and white (over moving images), but the translation seems fine, and they’re sensitively placed - on the left-hand side of the framt to avoid obscuring a sign, for instance. They’re also optional, and barely needed, so they can easily be switched off after a first viewing.


Posted on 1st February 2009
Under: Reviews, Poland, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson | No Comments »

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