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Franciszka and Stefan Themerson

By Jasia Reichardt and Nick Wadley

1. Introduction

The Themersons made seven films, the first in Warsaw in 1930, the last in London in 1945.

They were all experimental, and together they add up to 61 minutes of screen time. On the face of it, this may seem a modest contribution to film history, easily overlooked. It endures by virtue of their technical invention, and the originality of their ideas and effects. The surviving films (and stills from the lost works) remain compelling visual material, and not just period pieces.

The Themersons were also a living part of film history. They were central catalytic figures in the Polish avant-garde of the 1930s. Their first film Apteka (Pharmacy) was screened in 1930 at the Warsaw film club START. Franciszka was 22, Stefan was 20, 'a young boy from the provinces who knew what he wanted'. They also took part in film clubs in Cracow, Lwow, and Lodz, and then, in 1935, they founded SAF (one of the first film co-operatives). In their Warsaw apartment, they designed, edited and produced its journal, fa (art film). They travelled to Paris and London, 1936/37, met film-makers, and arranged first screenings in Warsaw of the European avant-garde (Len Lye, Basil Wright, Moholy-Nagy, Rene Clair, Leger, Chomette, Lacombe, Gilson).

There are direct links between that community and the wartime Polish Film Unit, under the aegis of Polish Ministry of Information & Documentation in London, where they worked during 1942-54. Eugeniusz Ckalski, its first director, had been a member of SAF, as had Aleksander Ford, who also directed films for the Unit, 1943-44. No history of the Unit exists but ten films are preserved in the Imperial War Museum, London, and there were more.

The hallmark element of most of the Themersons' film production was the 'trick-table' devised by Stefan, filming frame by frame. All of the films involved transformation: transformations of objects -- bulbs, bread, apples, birds, hands, bottles, leaves -- that become shapes in motion. Stefan referred to the early films as photograms in motion.

2. The Photogram

A photogram is the direct imprint of an object on photo-sensitive paper.

'Photograms in motion' means the recording in time of a series of photograms as the lights and shadows are manipulated and the objects are successively transformed. Stefan likened their syntax to the concentration of a poem and to the rhythmical patterns of music. And he insisted on their autonomy: 'it is something unique.
It is a photogram.
It doesn't represent anything.
It doesn't abstract from anything.
It is just what it is.
It is reality itself.'

The same sense of liberated discovery pervades his description of a childhood glimpse of new shapes watched during an X-ray of himself. And again, in a more lyrical form, when (in his book about film, The Urge to Create Visions) he likens the night sky to a screen on which one may watch 'a galaxy of dreams'. It is in the light of such open-ended ideas that we should approach the first films of the Themersons. It is as if, lying on his back under the 'trick-table', Stefan entered each time a poetic world, looking up at new lights in the night sky of his imagination. In Franciszka, he met a partner with an equally fearless sense of technical improvisation, and a pictorial imagination to match. It was a partnership that might have gone further in film. There were certainly more projects waiting, and no shortage of ideas. As late as 1947 they were still investigating new contacts in the London film world, but at the time funds were not forthcoming. They directed their energies into publishing, founding Gaberbocchus Press in 1948. Gaberbocchus Press was remarkable for the 60 titles they published between 1948 and 1979. It was one of the first avant-garde presses in London, and certainly among the most important small presses of the 1950s and 1960s. The conception and design of the books was also original, fuelled by the same invention and imagination as characterised their films. They wanted to make 'best-lookers' more than 'best-sellers'.

Even so, their thoughts returned to film-making occasionally during the 1950s.

3. The Adventure of a Good Citizen

Przygoda Człowieka Poczciwego (The Adventure of a Good Citizen) (An Irrational Humoresque) (there won't be a hole in the sky if you go backwards).

All of the 1930s films by the Themersons were lost during the war. Around 1960, a solitary, heavily-worn copy of this film discovered (somewhere near Moscow?) found its way to Warsaw, and then to the Film School in Łodź. (It is said that when Polanski was a student there, he made his Two Men and a Wardrobe as some sort of homage). The Film Archive in Warsaw later made a 16mm reduction print of it, and the version in the LUX collection is a print from this.

The lyrical sequence towards the end of the film, in the woods, with birdsong and falling leaves, that appears in negative, was originally hand-coloured.

There are no subtitles and the only two sentences in the film were spoken in Polish. The main character, sitting at his desk, overhears the sentence: 'there won't be a hole in the sky if you walk backwards' (i.e. the world won't come to an end, if you walk backwards). And, at the very end, the same man, now playing a flute from the rooftops, turns to the viewers and says: 'You must understand the metaphor, Ladies and Gentlemen!'.

The film is a fable of escape from convention, a social satire delivered with such delightful and homogeneous lightness of touch that it's hard to believe the hostility that greeted the first screening in March 1938. But like much of their work in all media, The Adventure of a Good Citizen questioned the status quo, and Stefan understood the weight of that. When the hero of the film walks backwards out of his office and down the street, he is pursued by protesters with placards proclaiming 'Forward march!', 'Walking backwards is wrong!'. The good citizen's dream-like escape from urban conventions into a natural world, where he flies free as a bird, must have appeared in 1938 more dangerously subversive than we can appreciate today. When Stefan was told of the film's survival in a letter of May 1960, he wondered, in his reply, whether its meaning had also survived.

4. Calling Mr. Smith

This is a propaganda film, made for the Polish ministry of Information and Documentation in 1943.

It is also one of the few experimental films made during the war. The dialogue is a frank entreaty to 'Mr. Smith' (Mr. Everyman), to open his eyes to the programmed destruction of Polish culture and the tragic devastation brought about by the Nazis. The Themersons realised this through a collage of newsreel footage and still photographs. Some stills were cut into silhouette, some were slides, and all animated and dissolved in light and shadow, and tinted in Dufay colour.

The mode shifts between the documentary and the allusive. All of the visual materials are ready-made images, apart from Franciszka's drawing of 'Mr. Jones' (who 'still believes the Germans are cultured'). The Themersons declined to cut an image of a hanged figure objected to by the censor, and the film was only shown privately, in October 1943 at the Polish Film Unit, and two months later at the Edinburgh Film Guild. The form and spirit of the film are very close to those of a 'Manifesto to the people of the world' distributed by the Polish resistance in February 1941, and published as a pamphlet 'Underground Poland Speaks', in many editions 1941-42, by Liberty Publications, London.

5. The Eye and The Ear

In introducing the project, Stefan Themerson wrote about the two ways of listening to music.

The first simply involves the emotions. The second involves understanding of the construction, instrumentation and pattern. The intention was to 'play' visually on the screen with shapes in motion as if they were the sounds of the voice and of musical instruments, and reflecting as well the speed and pitch of the music. Stefan described the film as 'an attempt to create for the eye an impression comparable to the experience of the ear'.

The four songs lend themselves to different methods of cinematographic interpretation. The first three observe a close equivalence between instrumentation, score and graphic devices. The last movement is in an altogether different, elegiac mode.

6. Phonovisor

Stefan Themerson continued to be interested in the relationship of sight and sound.

In 1956, he deposited copies of Calling Mr. Smith and The Eye and the Ear with the National Film Archive. The curator, Ernest Lindgren solicited ideas for another experimental film from the Themersons. In a long letter of November 1957, Stefan Themerson discussed his idea for a 'synæsthetic sight and sound coordinator', later on called Phonovisor, which he would like to construct. He explained, 'it is a sort of piano producing musical notes that would have a one-to-one relationship with images projected on a screen'. He wanted to start by building such an electro-mechanical contraption because he needed it to make his film. Film would be the means to demonstrate the experiment. Unlike Rimington and Scriabin who had progressed from image to music, he wanted to work from music towards film. The Experimental Film Production Fund felt unable to support Stefan Themerson in the construction of his keyboard, and this project was never realised.

7. Other Unrealised Projects

There is some evidence of a projected film called Polish Gothic around 1936: this title and date are attached to several sequences of black and white images of medieval carvings in stone and polychromed wood which don't relate to any other film.

In 1944, in the same work schedule as The Eye and the Ear, the Themersons had plans for another wartime film called, provisionally, The Child of Europe. It was to be about a child growing up during the war when norms of behaviour and patterns of expectations are derailed, and to contrast these with conventional patterns of life in peacetime. Whereas an adult's wartime world is inhuman and devastating, for a child it may be correct and normal since this is the only one it knows. The screenplay was to be developed with Hannah Segal, the commentary by Julian Huxley and Anna Freud.

Another proposal, probably from the late 1950s, is for Chopin's Piano. A six-page draft script suggests a repertoire of visual equivalents to the language of sound and music, first with natural sound, then with the piano, and finally with the orchestra, using music from Chopin and Szymanowski.

There is also a brief typescript for a comic film called Claiming the Moon, in which a text of an article from The Times of 7 March 1959, is to be treated as a screenplay, intermittently 'visualised and pictured' by Franciszka Themerson. In the article, a Washington congressional committee is worried about the Russians planting a flag on the moon, and the claiming of rights. Ensuing questions about the curvature of the earth and territorial rights in space need no editing to make a good slapstick script. There is a sketchy pencilled storyboard by Franciszka, and a group of related pen drawings.

It was altogether characteristic of the Themersons to pick up ready-made material and assimilate it. From the outset they liked using worthless materials, and simple hands-on processes. When Moholy-Nagy called Europa a sophisticated film, Stefan thought he'd got it quite wrong. He thought of it rather as 'primitive', by which he meant it dealt directly with the innate properties of the medium without pretension, technical or otherwise. His feeling for film-making was to do with the sovereign properties of the medium itself. He thought cinema lost something the more it approached anything else, the theatre, for instance. He liked silent movies best. Vigo's l'Atalante was a yardstick for him.

Jasia Reichardt and Nick Wadley

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