by Frako Loden
For those who have heard about the excellence of Polish animation but haven’t seen much of it, the “Polish Animation 70 Years” series at Pacific Film Archive is a superb crash course in a remarkable body of work starting Sunday, December 3. Since the political thaw of 1956, Polish animation has been winning awards at film festivals all through the world.
I was able to sample many of the offerings on a small screen, and I assure you they will be spectacular in a theatre. Mubi boasts 235 works of Polish animation (including some in this series), but even a subscriber can view them only when Mubi feels like featuring them. So it’s best to attend all four collections showing this month on the PFA screen for an amazing year-end treat. Surreal, perverse, baffling . . . Polish animation is unforgettable.
UC Berkeley’s Russell Merritt, an expert on animation, introduces the “Masters of Animation” program (Sunday, December 3 at 7:15pm), which screens canonical greats from 1957 to 1984. In Red & Black, the energetic, self-reflexive inking of Witold Giersz tells a comic bullfighting tale. In Kazimierz Urbanski’s Sweet Rhythms, the sunny springtime colors of live-action beekeeping are somehow made vaguely sinister by the intervention of Krzysztof Penderecki’s music and sounds that seem to breathe life into abstract shapes, hovering over the enterprise like bees themselves and suggesting a grasping, predatory force.
Daniel Szczechura’s then-controversial The Voyage is also set to a soundtrack by a renowned composer, this time pioneer of Polish electronic music Eugeniusz Rudnik, whose harsh clanking and scraping cadence troubles the smooth progress of a train passing through landscape and carrying the mysterious silhouette of a man with his back to us. The rhythm, timed to the passing of telegraph posts, seems to mock the absurdity of the passenger’s journey.
In Ryszard Czekala’s moving Son, an elderly rural couple eagerly await the arrival of their urban son, but the encounter brings only disappointment and happier memories. Jerzy Kalina’s Solo in a Fallow Field sketches a burly farmer preparing for his workday. Once out in his field pushing his plow, he seems to be controlled by a patriotic song that stalls and shudders on its turntable, like Soviet propaganda cracking up and malfunctioning.
Zbigniew Rybczynski’s endlessly fascinating Tango is the years-long life of an ordinary dining room telescoped into 8 minutes of frenetic, repetitious activity. Winner of the 1982 Best Animated Short Oscar and can be watched many times, each offering new revelations.
“The Festival Favorites” program moves into the 21st century. Mariusz Wilczynski’s Kizi Mizi is a sardonic film about adultery, depression and longing—between a cat and a mouse. Wilczynski, described as “Poland’s most treasured animator,” was given a retrospective with live musical accompaniment by Trance Mission at the recent Mill Valley Film Festival.
Be warned that Piotr Dumala’s Hipopotamy can be a deeply unpleasant, even triggering, viewing experience, as a peaceful bathing scene of seven women and their children, bodies beautifully rendered and “lit” in a bluish glow, is interrupted by five men who wade into the pond and assault them. When the women fight back, the men kill the children. The characters’ nudity and uniform appearance suggest that this brutal story is an allegory for sexual violence. But when the figures start moving in unison, it implies a grotesque, aestheticized ballet. Perhaps worse, the title hints at a natural basis for such behavior. Should you boo the film (as audiences have) for its nihilism, or praise it for its ambiguity?
Pussy is the whimsical work of Mariusz Wilczynski’s student Renata Gasiorowska, in which a woman readies herself for a private pleasure interlude only to create a monster with a will of its own. Correction: this monster craves pleasure too and gives the woman a psychedelic climax. I couldn’t make clear sense of Marta Pajek’s multi-award-winning Impossible Figures and Other Stories II, just figuring it has to do with a tired and skeptical woman’s relationship with men, hampered by a domestic space that refuses to obey the laws of gravity. Apparently it’s the second in a triptych work, the final segment not yet finished.
Izabela Plucinska’s Sexy Laundry peers into the unsuccessful efforts by a couple married 25 years to revive their sex life in a chic hotel room whose wallpaper features pulsating vulvae. Naked Henry and Alice try massage, genital nicknames, kinky boots and whip and even Greek food to re-ignite old flames of desire. They manage to knead themselves into shapes only clay animation would allow. Tomasz Popakul’s Ziegenort, which won Principal Prize at Oberhausen, is a surreal, hand-drawn fable of an awkward Fishboy who helps his fisherman father but keeps being called back to his fishy origins. This one haunts my sleep still.
The “Emerging Artists” program demonstrates the tonal diversity of Polish animation. A poison love letter from a scorned woman, Ewa Borysewicz’s To Thy Heart (2013) is rendered in unappealing stick-figure drawings. Its vocabulary of rejection and longing shares imagery with Ziegenort and Kizi mizi, like the mysterious coveted red object and long-distance viewpoint from a highrise window. Anita Kwiatkowska-Naqvi’s Ab Ovo is a gently mesmerizing clay-animated ode to a baby’s gestation.
Another gentle work about women’s lives is Wiola Sowa’s Refrains. I saw it without subtitles—I hope that’s intentional despite all the whispering on the soundtrack, because the haunting, shimmering pianoforte soundtrack is enough to accompany this tender allegory of three generations of women.
Michal Socha’s Chick roars to life with dazzling red/black/cream lines and a klezmer/scratch soundtrack, as a long-legged woman dolls up for her male visitor. The date is a great success, or so it seems until the inevitable sour ending.
In Piotr Szczepanowicz’s Hidden, a man chopping potatoes hears a sound and takes his flashlight upstairs to investigate—a description that doesn’t evoke the mystery of this haunting tale. Jakub Wronski’s The Mystery of Malakka Mountain is a charming head-scratcher about the secrets of a boy’s father, a “living legend” whose plane is lost in the Chinese mountains.
“More Festival Favorites” begins with Marcin Podolec’s A Documentary Film, an almost unbearably sad work about ageing and being forgotten. But things pick up with Tomek Ducki’s Baths, in which two elderly women swimmers plunge into an upside-down world from their past. Another work about an elderly protagonist, Marek Skrovecki’s Ichthys, is a grotesque fish tale of last suppers and the one who got away.
Kamil Polak’s masterpiece The Lost Town of Switez is a visionary epic based on Adam Mickiewicz’s poem—actually a ghost story in which a wandering young 19th-century man falls into a lake and relives the siege and destruction of a medieval town by a mounted army. A combination of hand-drawn and computer animation renders scenes of apocalyptic cruelty and ineffable beauty—a gorgeous tale. It’s said that 131 people worked for seven years to complete this work, boasting its own orchestral and choral score by Irina Bogdanovich.
Finally, Suzie Templeton’s hilarious and delightful Peter and the Wolf, set to Sergei Prokofiev’s famous suite, is a wordless stop-motion wonderland of animals falling atop each other, losing their balance on the ice and trying not to get killed by the wolf threatening all of them. Peter is restricted to home by his grandfather and tossed into a dumpster by bullies when he escapes. Trapped by the wolf, he and his pet duck, crow friend and grandpa’s cat try to survive. Remember this is realistic Polish animation and not Disney, so don’t expect animals to come back from the dead. Depicting the hunters as out-of-shape bullies is a modern touch. Winner of the Best Animated Short Oscar in 2008.
More information at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive website.
Frako Loden is a free-lance film writer who contributes to Documentary.organd Fandor. She teaches film history and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College. She doesn’t like anyone messing with her assigned seat at the Pacific Film Archive. Frako has written for EatDrinkFilms about the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself and Japanese film master director Kenji Mizoguchi. Her Facebook page is a good way to keep up with her current writings.