Scene One: A crowd gets eaten by the roasted chickens and crabs on the banquet table.
Scene Two: As a train moves, all that an onscreen silhouette of a man sees is a repetitive countryside landscape saturated with an intense green colour. Yet as soon as the man gets into the city, the landscape becomes so busy that eventually the human being disappears from our view. He reappears as he steps out of the carriage and crosses the city, only to come back and get the train home.
These are extracts from Banquet, directed by Zofia Oraczewska, and The Journey, directed by Daniel Szczechura, two masterpieces of 1970s Polish animation.
It was a great surprise to see such bold aesthetic choices, existential commentary and social critique amongst the ten cartoons – targeting an adult audience – showcased at the closing gala of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London, Kinoteka, now in its 15th season.
Post-War Poland has an international image of being exhaustively politicised. Yet these animations are proof of the bursting intellectual and artistic life beyond and in spite of the world of politics. They seem to be born out of great existential and absurdist works, by masters from Kafka to Beckett and Ionesco.
For instance, in Tango (Zbigniew Rybczynski, 1980), about 20 people enter one small room performing the same repetitive action, OCD-style, and without seeing the others around them. A boy throws a ball through the window, jumps in, then throws the ball out again – in again, out, in, out, in, out, in… A thief sneaks into the same room and gets a suitcase. A man with a red hat and coat leaves said suitcase on the wardrobe. And again, the thief, the man with the red hat and coat, the suitcase. An old woman, a drunk person, a sportsman, a sexy woman undressing herself join this room, each on their own.
Some saw this cartoon as a critique of communal life. But alienation and the repetitive, mechanical character of daily life are universal themes, transcending communist Poland’s boundaries. The cartoon could easily be seen as depicting the private lives and archetypes of any modern society, not a specifically communist one. It’s a commentary as much on contemporary America as on 70s Poland.
As is Black Riding Hood (1983), directed by Piotr Dumala, a black and white horror animation with psychoanalytic undertones, ending with a graphic sex scene between the granny and the wolf.
Selected and accompanied by the music of the British Sea Power band, the cartoons could easily make waves at contemporary animation festivals around the world. The live music, created specially for this event, boomed with dramatic explosions, which helped bring the cartoons to life.
Their diverse aesthetics, ranging from minimal black and white palettes and messy lines to clean, colour saturated images, are yet more proof of the richness of Polish cultural tradition.
British Sea Power: Music for Polish Animation Classics took place on April 5 at the Closing Gala of KINOTEKA, the 15th Polish Film Festival in London, 2017.