Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

In Search for the Polish Avant-Garde Film

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

In Search for the Polish Avant-Garde Film

Article excerpt

IN SEARCH FOR THE POLISH AVANT-GARDE FILM The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-garde Film 1916-1989 Edited by Kamila Kuc & Michael O'Pray Wallflower Press, 2014

It is not an accident that current interest in the film avant-garde of the former Eastern block countries, especially Poland, coincides with the publication of this anthology of essays. Twenty-five years after the collapse of socialism, a new 'artistic rebellion' is taking place within Poland's community of filmmakers and artists.1

The book, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-garde Film 1916-1989, offers a review of the rich heritage of experimental and avantgarde filmmaking in Poland, for the first time to the English reader. The editors, Kamila Kuc, a film and art historian, and Michael O'Pray, a Professor of Film at the University of East London, introduce the reader to the oeuvre of filmmaking throughout the tumultuous political history of Poland, from its reappearance on the map of Europe after the Partitions, to the fall of communism. They claim that the political ups and downs of that period have a fundamental impact on artistic choices by Polish film artists. In the spirit of that premise, the authors appropriated a broad understanding of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking, adopting a definition of the term that coalesces notions of formal investigations by Dadaists and Surrealists with ideas of socio-political filmmaking.

The collection begins with an essay by A. L. Rees, the author of A History of Experimental Film and Video (2011), which introduces the reader to the beginnings of the Polish film avant-garde. It reviews the pioneering works by the members of Polish Constructivist and Surrealism movements, Mieczyslaw Szczuka and, internationally acclaimed visual artists, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson.

Rees considers the first attempt at experimental filmmaking in Poland the study for a graphic film by Szczuka. The artist drew the entire film on a long roll of paper as a visual interpretation of his article, Essential Elements for an Abstract Film, (Blok, 1924). Unfortunately, Szczuka died prematurely at 29 in a climbing accident, never realizing his idea on celluloid. The film, if originally made, would have been the first experimental film ever made in Poland. Nonetheless, Marcin Gizycki, a critic, filmmaker, educator, and one of the contributors to the book, reconstructed it as 5 Moments of an Abstract Film (2006), to provide just an idea of its possible look.2

Another of Szczuka's influential contributions to avant-garde cinema was his design for publication of the futuristic poem Europa by socialist writer Anatol Stern. In 1932, Stefan and Franciszka Themerson turned the design into a film under the same title. Ironically, Europa, a prophecy of war and "a strident attack on the destructive militarism of European capitalism," was lost in the upheavals of the war that it anticipated and denounced. The film's form of neo-constructivist art and its content of sociopolitical realities were intrinsically interconnected. "A shot of grass emerging from between paving stones grew on the screen into a tree, the roots cracked the paving stones, hungry body cells were shattering the heartless fundamentals of civilization cast in stones," writes Stefan Themerson in his notes to the film. One of the few of Themersons' works that survived is the best known, The Adventure of a Good Citizen (1937). The film, subtitled "an irrational humoresque," is a satire of the absurdity of ordinary living, reminiscent of artworks by René Magritte and writings by J. L. Borges. The main character is a common man, who carries a wardrobe with a large door mirror while walking backward from the city streets into the woods. The mirror becomes a metaphorical gateway for anyone to cross over into the world of irrationality, poetry, and art. The Adventure of a Good Citizen was the last film realized by the Themersons in Poland, who moved to Paris before the war and settled in England in 1942. …

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