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.
- Luxonline page for The Eye and the Ear (includes two video clips)
- The Themerson Archive (official website)
- Gaberbocchus Press (official website)
- Stefan and Franciszka Themerson (Luxonline - includes links to video excerpts)
- Luxonline articles: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson (Jasia Reichardt/Nick Wadley), The Films of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson (Marcin Giżycki), The Themersons and the Polish Avant-Garde (A.L.Rees)
- Wikipedia entries on Stefan and Franciszka Themerson.