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The Films of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson
Marcin Giżycki discusses the films of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson.

The body of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson's film work consists of five films produced in Poland between 1930-1937 (Pharmacy, Europa, Moment Musical, Short Circuit, The Adventure of a Good Citizen) and two films made during the Second World War in England for the Film Unit of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in exile (Calling Mr. Smith and The Eye and the Ear). Despite the fact that of these seven works only the last three, respectively, have survived and the rest are known from descriptions and single frames, there is no doubt that the Themersons were the most important Polish independent experimental film-makers in the inter-war years and their films can easily be placed among the greatest achievements of European avant-garde film of the time.

Stefan Themerson's interest in the cinema, as it is documented in print, dates from 1928 when he became a regular film columnist for the newspaper Polska Zbrojna and his poem 'In the Cinema' was published in the literary supplement to Głos Prawdy. But according to his own memories, recalled in his article from 1937, the inspiration for his own creative film work came much earlier:

"one night long, long ago, three feet of scratched film-scrap tore across the screen in front of the author of this story. The screen glittered, blazed with its very own light and died. The slovenly projectionist must have joined two reels with a scratched bit of film... Let me now praise slovenliness. The method was simple; in normal photograms, objects were placed on light-sensitive paper. We arranged them on semi-transparent paper, using a sheet of glass for support; the camera (an old-fashioned box with a crank) was placed underneath and pointed upwards with the light source situated above the glass. Usually, but not always, by moving the lights (frame after frame) we obtained movement of the shadows and their deformations."

The above quote assures us that Pharmacy was an interesting experiment with animation. The true subject of this kind of animation was not drawings or objects, but the elusive nature of pure light. The film also contained shots of pharmaceutical accessories and of a siphon, face, clock, and hand. The Themerson's own photograms from 1928-1929 were used as well. The images were given a sequence according to their poetical and visual value. No literary script existed.

This totally innovative film aroused controversy. The critic Seweryn Tross, who sympathized with the avant-garde, wrote later: "Escapism from content into the area of pure a form in Pharmacy was for us a new and interesting experiment. It showed the Polish public, which did not know of foreign avant-garde films, the emotional value of cinematic image itself, irrespective of the content. However, the critics did not fully appreciate Pharmacy."

It was only the Themersons' next film, Europa (1931-32), based on Anatol Stern's poem describing in a series of images the current condition of the world, that received wider publicity. This was primarily thanks to the influential critic Stefania Zahorska who wrote a long review, titled significantly: A Good Polish Film! The published edition of the poem, which came out in 1929, had been illustrated and designed by Mieczysław Szczuka to resemble a visual film script. Both text and illustrations impressed the Themersons. The film was silent, but it followed the text rather closely, giving a visual equivalent of words and expressions. Stefania Zahorska called Europa a film poem explaining further that:

"It is not an abstract film, for it contains objects, people, fragments of action, but all these elements of realism were liberated from their immediate application — the relationship between them exists only on the level of ideology, at the threshold of symbolism... On this level it is materially and tangibly shown that Europe reproduces. Europe goes through the normal cycle, and continually gives birth — to machine gun fodder."

The difficult conditions of making the film were emphasized in the press. Years later Themerson commented on these opinions: "... we chose this 'primitive-ness' and took advantage of it because it gave a directness, which one has when one sculpts with one's own fingers." This attitude allowed him to criticize his fellow film-makers within the avant-garde movement (mainly the START group) for placing too much emphasis on the financial support of their work.

"Is it possible," he asked, "that the lack of funds could really stand in the way of the creation of any art?", "Such an avant-garde," he added on another occasion, "which takes money for its work, is out of the question today; it would have to abandon the directions and aims which make the term avant-garde legitimate." Themerson did, however, allow for the making of commissioned films — educational shorts and commercials treating them not only as a decent source of income, but also as an interesting problem to solve. Moment Musical, for example, advertised the fashion merchandise (baubles and trinkets) of Wanda Golińska, and Short Circuit, a commission by the Institute of Social Affairs, was a warning against the careless handling of electricity. Both were accepted positively by critics.

Moment Musical, made in 1933, was the Themersons' first sound film. This three-minute commercial was set to Ravel's (according to other sources, it was to Rimsky-Korsakov's) music which had been transferred from a disc onto a film soundtrack and then precisely analyzed. The products advertised served as the elements of moving compositions animated on the photogram stand described above. Movements were accurately synchronized with the music. The nature of the objects (glass, porcelain, jewellery) served perfectly for Themersons' concept of an animated 'light image.'

Their next film, Short Circuit, was also a commissioned work. Made in 1935 for the Institute of Social Affairs, the film warned against the careless handling of electricity. It contained a semi-abstract sequence (around 60 meters long), set to the original music by Witold Lutoslawski. The film-makers analyzed Lutoslawski's piece note by note using the method of their previous production. All the movements of forms on the screen and the editing were precisely synchronized with sound. The film shared the fate of the Themersons' earlier films and once again one has to get an impression of it from preserved stills and press reviews. Stefania Zahorska described Short Circuit as "a dramatic poem."

"The story takes place without people. It begins with electric wire, badly hung on a broken and cracked fuse, fixed with an unnecessary nail. Winding around the walls, it explodes into flames, and ignites the screen with a series of sparks, a red warning for danger. This film makes poetry of objects, lines, spots, lights. It is a drama of electricity, it is a short circuit of forms run out of breath, it is a convincing oration of the pictures themselves. A beautiful film."

The Themerson's following film was made under the aegis of SAF, the Film Authors' Cooperative (the organization co-founded by them), and premiered in March 1938. Titled The Adventure of a Good Citizen, it has luckily survived. This film is of an entirely different nature than the earlier works. The authors themselves called it an irrational humoresque, in which every obvious poetical aspiration of the decent citizen can be seen by all. "The main hero is Everyman, a citizen and obedient worker, who takes literally the statement: There won't be a hole in heaven if you go backwards" (the subtitle of the film). He gets up from his desk and begins to wander through the town, carrying a mirrored wardrobe to the woods and up a hill. Finally, he flies up onto the roof of a house, sits on the chimney and plays the flute. He stops for a moment and turns to the audience: "One must understand the metaphor, ladies and gentlemen!" His wandering provokes a reaction from his fellow citizens who quickly form a demonstration and follow the protagonist carrying banners: "THERE WILL BE A HOLE IN HEAVEN," "DOWN WITH WALKING BACKWARDS," etc. However, instead of capturing the creator of this chaos, the crowd gets the wardrobe, now without a back since it no longer has anything to hide.

The film turned out to be as provocative as the march backwards; despite the warm response of the more enlightened critics, it was attacked by the press and badly received by the public. It was booed and screening was suspended. Adrian Czermiński was right in seeing the sources of this reception in the psychology of the good souls who treat real life as the only tolerable form for their own and the surrounding world's expression. Any departure from this principle will be censured as incomprehensible, an attempt to bait the "good citizen" and often simply as "an aberration."

Considering the sophisticated means used, The Adventure of a Good Citizen was undoubtedly the most advanced film in the artists' entire output. In addition to live action, transformed in various ways (acceleration, reverse movement, negative images, etc.), unconventional takes (eg. from a camera lying on its side), the film contained, among other things, lyrical fragments composed of abstract reflections of light and even abstract effects painted directly on the film. Thus, considering both the technique and the plot, the film must be seen as a complex cinematic collage. The music, composed by Stefan Kisielewski, also played an important role. According to a critic "it was just what the film needed."

Soon after the completion of The Adventure of a Good Citizen, the Themersons left Poland. When the war surprised them in France, they were separated. Stefan joined the Polish army in France and Franciszka escaped to England. They met again in England in 1942. There, they made two more films, Calling Mr. Smith and The Eye and the Ear.

Calling Mr. Smith (1943) was a propaganda film addressed to the average citizen of the British Isles. The Mr. Smith of the title, whose refusal to recognize the truth of the Nazi crimes secured him peace of mind, was to be shaken by the image of the war. There was particular stress on the annihilation of culture in the countries occupied by the nation of Goethe and Beethoven. The film required a great deal of labor and, as usual, demanded a craftsman's technology. This time, a special table for trick photography was used, and hand-made slides were filmed through a softening condenser and color filters, creating an expressive effect for Gothic architecture, etc. Nevertheless, the film had a special mission to perform, determined by the time and the people to whom it was addressed. This necessity influenced the final shape of the work.

The Themersons' last film, The Eye and the Ear, was also made in England in 1944-45. The film consists of four parts, each based on a song from Karol Szymanowski's Słopiewnie. In the second and third part, the film is an abstract graphic transposition of the music (if one does not count Piero della Francesca's Nativity, which serves as a background to various abstract patterns). The movement and shape of the geometrical forms on the screen reflect exactly the main melodic line as well as the instrumental elements. Technically the film was made in a simple as well as an inventive way. In the second part organ-like forms were created by glass sticks. Triangular smoke-like forms symbolizing notes were achieved by passing the light beams emitted by small bulbs through a special lens. Other geometric forms were cut out of paper and superimposed. The close-ups of della Francesca's singing angels were composed so as to give the impression of one angel moving his lips to the tune. In the last part a glass container filled with water become a receptacle for small clay balls. The camera, placed as before, pointed upwards from below.

The film, although reminiscent of similar abstract music films by Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye or Norman McLaren, differs from them in one essential point. While the artists mentioned above attempted to create visual equivalents to music, the Themersons' approach was of a more scientific character. They treated the film medium as a tool for the analysis of musical structure. The film has been provided with comments which explain the precise function of each element appearing on screen.

In 1983 Stefan Themerson wrote to this author:

"Experiment — exercising to see the result. We planned Europa not as an experiment in this sense but as a work of art. Yet The Eye and the Ear was done as a consciously designed experiment. Not every avant-garde dealt with experiments and not every experiment equalled avant-garde."

The Eye and the Ear closed the Themersons' film period. "Do you remember," Stefan Themerson wrote to Alexander Ford in 1945, "our meeting in Paris a long time before the war? It was then that we parted with film for good. Although here, in London, more under the pressure of circumstances than a real, mad, frantic artistic need (the only one that counts), we returned to film making and made two short pieces... Yet, as we were working on them, we realized more acutely than before that the 'film fever' had left us, probably for good."

Marcin Gizycki
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