Still from Walerian Borowczyk's Les Astronautes (1959)
Still from Walerian Borowczyk’s Les Astronautes (1959)

Last Friday I went to the Kinoteka Closing Night Gala at the Union Chapel to see one of my favourite nu-jazz duos, Skalpel, who were reinterpreting the music of Witold Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik, two major names in Polish contemporary classical music. The concert was magical, and the venue’s unique character only enhanced the beauty of the music. But Skalpel’s performance was merely an introduction to the main event, which was a screening of two films by Brothers Quay: the UK première of Kwartet Smyczkovy and In Absentia. The former was accompanied by Arditti Quartet, while In Absentia was created in response to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of pioneers of the twentieth-century musical avant-garde. The animation was based on the film-makers’ response to a 21 minute long fragment adapted from the composer’s electronic music for Freitag aus Licht, which Stockhausen called Zwei Paare (Two Couples). Coincidentally, the narrative Brothers Quay devised for their film, inspired by a collection of artworks and artefacts created by the inhabitants of mental institutions, resonated with the composer to the point of making him cry at the film’s première. The main character in In Absentia is based on Emma Hauck, a deranged woman who wrote letters to her husband, in which she scribbled over the original text again and again until it became indecipherable. At the same time, Stockhausen’s mother was imprisoned in a Nazi asylum, where she died.

Still from The Brothers Quay's In Absentia (2000)
Still from The Brothers Quay’s In Absentia (2000)

Brothers Quay have gained the cult status among stop-motion animators, even though their work is not exactly accessible. Most of it lacks a definite narrative, and the quirky, partially disassembled puppets they use, together with an atmosphere of nightmarish hallucinations, are likely to take the audience on an unsettling journey.

Stockhausen’s music isn’t easy either. This acclaimed and controversial champion of electronic music, aleatory (controlled chance) in serial composition, and musical spatialization, is not likely to please inexperienced ears. Even Stravinsky thought of him as challenging: “I find the alternation of note-clumps and silences of which it consists more monotonous than the foursquares of the dullest eighteenth-century music.”

The result of the artists’ collaboration with the composer is a piece of work which on one hand offers beautiful images of exquisite misty landscapes, and on the other – requires the viewer to invest their energy into processing and synthesising the numerous abstract elements of the film and its score. And this is what I like about it. These days, when we are surrounded by direct, non-ambiguous visual messages, and when Google search engines finish our thoughts the moment we start typing words in the browser, an invitation to make an intellectual effort is a welcome change. Especially when we know that we’re not dealing with a piece of cheap, conceptual art, whose author doesn’t really know what he’s communicating either but with the work of brave imagination and intellect.

Still from The Brothers Quay's In Absentia (2000)
Still from The Brothers Quay’s In Absentia (2000)

In an interview for Offscreen, Brothers Quay talk about the process of creating In Absentia and the challenge of matching the grandeur of Stockhausen’s music and expressing its character through appropriate lighting. They felt the music was “saturated in electricity,” so they decided to shoot the film with natural sunlight, “coming from the window in our studio, then utilizing mirrors and reflecting panels to sculpt the light according to the exigency of each scene. (…) Additionally we simulated the lighting phenomenon of the so-called ‘heat lamp,’ which was in frequent use in many regions, to represent the mental landscape of the suffering protagonist.”

Brothers Quay are known to have been influenced by the champions of Polish avant-garde animation, notably Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica. These two and several other animators have created a high number of similarly challenging and fascinating films in collaboration with experimental composers. All of those names are certainly worth bringing up here.

Walerian Borowczyk, once described by film critics as a “genius who also happened to be a pornographer,” was an extremely versatile artist and film-maker, who would not only script, direct, and design, but sometimes shoot his films. Derek Malcolm from the Guardian said: “Borowczyk’s art, which often looks like a carefully animated painting, and has the pessimistic urge one associates with Franz Kafka, is invariably about sex, love and death.” He often collaborated with Bernard Parmegiani, French composer with background in mime. One of the founding fathers of musique concrète, Parmegiani produced soundtracks for numerous film directors including Jacques Baratier, Peter Kassovitz and emigrés such as Borowczyk, Jan Lenica, Piotr Kamler, and Peter Foldes. Borowczyk’s association with Parmegiani began in 1964 with Les Jeux des Anges, which included some elements from the composer’s first major work for violin and tape, Violostries (1962). They later created Le dictionnaire de Joachim and the full feature film, Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981). For this, Parmegiani reworked passages from his 1972 composition, Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d’Orphée.

Les Jeux des Anges, a dark and foreboding 12-minute animation, which is incidentally one of Terry Gilliam’s top ten animated films, is often interpreted as a metaphor for concentration camps. For me, however, the industrial shapes and body mutilations depict a more universal portrait of pain, similar to the one in Francis Bacon’s paintings.

Still from Walerian Borowczyk's Les Jeux des anges (1964)
Still from Walerian Borowczyk’s Les Jeux des anges (1964)

Walerian Borowczyk often worked with Jan Lenica, another Polish illustrator, writer and film-maker. The two became known for collaborating on cutout and stop-motion animated films, such as their final project, Dom (The House, 1958), which combines those techniques with live action. The soundtrack for the film was composed by Włodzimierz Kotoński, internationally acclaimed Polish avant-garde composer. His Etiuda na jedno uderzenie w talerz (Study on One Cymbal Stroke) was the first Polish piece of electronic music, created at Polish Radio’s Experimental Studio. The house in Dom provides a vague framing device for otherwise disconnected surreal images, punctuated by a woman’s face shown en face. Inspired by Étienne Jules Marey’s photograms, Fernand Léger’s Mechanical Ballet, and the works of Georges Méliès from the earliest days of the cinema, Borowczyk and Lenica’s animation was an important work that inspired independent thinking and expression among film-makers. For me, Dom is a puzzle — I watch it wondering whether the woman is an impartial witness to events which symbolize life in her own house, or whether she escapes from the dullness of existence imagining things and anthropomorphising house objects.

Another composer Borowczyk worked with was Andrzej Markowski who provided soundtracks for Był sobie raz (Once Upon a Time 1957) and Les Astronautes (Astronauts, 1959). The latter was the artist’s international debut, created in collaboration with a science-fiction film-maker Chris Marker. This collaboration had a financial agenda, and except for the astronaut’s pet owl, the French artist didn’t have a significant contribution to the film. Borowczyk created a grotesque and poetic character of an astronaut-wannabe/voyeurist, who constructs a spacecraft on the roof of his house and launches it to the moon. It’s a real visual treat, featuring a series of fantastically crafted images of the astronaut’s adventures in space, which at times resemble video games.

And speaking of computer games-resembling imagery, another science-fiction masterpiece is Chronopolis, created by artist Piotr Kamler and composer Luc Ferrari, with narration by Michael Lonsdale. Made with a 1920′s 35mm Debrie Parvo camera over a five year period, it was Kamler’s first and only full length film. Visually stunning, it shows a bizarre geometrical world, with forms borrowed from archaeological artefacts, Art Deco, and Egyptian mythology symbols. Its inhabitants, monolith figures, are trying to break the monotony of their immortal state by fabricating and destroying balls of time. “It’s as if H.R. Giger made Disney’s Tron without all the bio-horror and Mickey Mouse,” one blogger described it, very aptly, in his review for the Odeon website.

There are plenty more artist/composer duos (many of them happen to be Polish), whose cutting-edge work doesn’t cease to puzzle and provoke today. Oskar Fischinger, the German father of  abstract musical animations from the pre-computer graphics and music videos era, created An Optical Poem (1938). Made entirely from paper, this abstract stop-motion animation was composed to Franz Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody. Jerzy Kucia, another brilliant Polish animator, is the author of Krąg (The Ring, 1978), with soundtrack by Marek Wilczynski. One of the most controversial films at the time — something a little hard to imagine these days — was Daniel Szczechura’s Podróż (The Journey) made in 1970, with music composed by Eugeniusz Rudnik. What was so controversial about it? Perhaps the fact that nothing actually happens in the film — all we see is a man travelling on a train, with a rather monotonous landscape passing in the background. Another great bizarre short film, Tam i Tu (Here and There, 1957) by Polish painter, sculptor and designer, Andrzej Pawłowski, was made by projecting moving objects onto a screen, using a self-constructed magic lantern. The music, composed by Adam Walaciński, enhances the surrealism of the animation. Moving away from Poland to Soviet Russia, a very interesting collaboration took place between director Andrei Khrzhanovsky and composer Alfred Schnittke who created an animation to Ivan Krylov’s In the world of fables (1973). Sadly, both Khrzhanovsky and Schnittke’s works were blacklisted in their country.

When Terry Gilliam spoke about Borowczyk and his Les Jeux des Anges, he said: “It didn’t show me anything specific, just sound and movement from which you create a world of your own.” That’s what avant-garde animation offers: an invitation to go on a journey into the land of one’s dreams, memories and emotions.