Witold Giersz: Poland’s Animator-Painter (Part 1)

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Among the most prolific Polish animators of the past century, and certainly one of the most accessible, is Witold Giersz. His defining trait, in several of his more ambitious films, is his painterly, visuals-focused approach to animation: his characters are unabashedly the medium with which they were created, whether paint or crayon or even tissue, brought to vivid life. He moreover instills a gentle, biting humanism into several of his films: he depicts how people can be idiotic, imprudent, and spiteful, if not downright malicious, but does so with such warmth and humor that it’s clear he does not think humans as a whole are irredeemable so much as they are well-meaning, if ultimately flawed in a variety of ways and often prone to being doomed by their own vanities and those of others.

The Neon Trifle / Neonowa fraszka and A Dwarf’s Spring Adventure / Wiosenne przygody krasnala (1959)

the trifle dwarf

In 1956, Giersz, Leszek Kałuża, and Mieczysław Poznański, staffers at Bielsko-Biała-based Studio Filmów Rysunkowych, moved to Warsaw and founded what began as that studio’s Warsaw-based Production Group. This branch was eventually spun off in 1958 as Studio Miniatur Filmowych, a state-owned animation studio in its own right.

Giersz’s first film for the new studio, released that same year, was the lamentable The Sailor’s Adventure, with its tasteless and racist story featuring stereotypical black cannibals as the villains, pedestrian gags, and lackluster stylized design and animation (this was the same year as Władysław Nehrebecki’s Mouse and Cat, a film far more daring and unique in its stylization). In a perverse way, the short reflects how dissatisfied Giersz had become with traditional 2D animation at this time, even as he once thought he was skilled at animation and did not intend to use any other mediums: “I came to the conclusion that all I knew about workmanship did not mean much, that what really counted in animation and was pleasing to the eye was novelty.”

The Neon Trifle, released the following year, was Giersz’s first attempt to strike out a different path; its main conceit is that of neon signs in a city literally coming to life at night. Giersz manages to create the impression that his characters are made of neon tubes simply by rendering them only in colored outlines, his drawings being done with a brush; the character animation, by Piotr Szpakowicz and Kazimierz Janek, is not extravagant, but it’s convincing enough to get the signs’ human feelings across. He and co-writer Zofia Kaiser moreover embellish the fairly worn, tired plotweak man loses girlfriend to strong man, commits suicidewith ideas and situations specific to their neon medium: a hotel’s bellhop sign, having fallen in love with a neon hairdresser’s head, gives her a body using the text below her and clothes using tubes from his own figure, and the two cavort around the city’s dancing neon nightlife, supported most prominently by a toy store’s trumpet-playing, train-riding teddy bear and a meat shop’s pig, until a booze-drinking centaur sign decides to get in on the action and attract the hairdresser for himself, intimidating the now-flimsy bellhop away. When the bellhop, witnessing the centaur giving the hairdresser a ride, succumbs to his despair and throws himself from the top of the hotel, the next morning two men find his broken remains at the bottom; the scene works as a reminder that he is just a neon sign, and in turn highlights the intrinsic absurdity of failed romantic affairs like the one that ultimately doomed him. Włodzimierz Kotoński’s jazzy score throughout the film gives the proceedings an appropriate nonchalance.

In that regard, the short introduces a theme that would run through quite a few of Giersz’s films afterwards, namely that women are fickle in matters of romance. In this case, the hairdresser cruelly abandons the bellhop in favor of the centaur’s manlier physique and confident demeanor, with nary a thought to how the bellhop had given up parts of his body just for her. Ultimately, for all its handful of virtues and mild entertainment, The Neon Trifle is just that, a trifle; it nevertheless deserves recognition as the first step Giersz took towards his distinctive vision, even if only a “very timid” one, as he put it.

Far more important in that regard is A Dwarf’s Spring Adventure, also released in 1959, based on the children’s book Z przygód krasnala Hałabały by Lucyna Krzemieniecka. Plot-wise, as penned by Krystyna Porzycka, it is even thinner than Neon Trifle: the dwarf Hałabała spends a nice spring day wandering through nature, interacting with various animals along the way and often helping them solve their odd dilemmas. The film is a marked improvement over the earlier effort, however, owing to its exceptional art design and technique.

For this short, Giersz chose to render all the visuals in crayon against plain white paper. The striking amount of detail put into drawing and coloring in the characters and backgrounds (the latter by Stefan Janik), along with their exquisitely sketchy, minimalistic appearance and lovely color styling, are in large part responsible for the short’s vitality; a nice touch is the occasional use of live-action page-turning as scene transitions, aiding the impression that the events are literally playing out in crayon drawings. Working in tandem with the aesthetic to make the short memorable is the detailed animation by Kazimierz Janek, Aleksander Piątkowski, Piotr Szpakowicz, and Edward Wszołek; in addition to the spirited character animation of the affable dwarf, the animals themselves are superbly animated in such a manner that, while they move around realistically, they emote and behave as distinct, human characters in themselves.

This focus on convincingly-animated animalsparticularly horses, although they do not appear in this film—would be an element of several of Giersz’s best films afterwards. It was integral to his ethos as an animator; as he said in a 2015 interview with the British Film Institute’s Alison Frank: “I love animals in general – I always have. Horses especially, as they were a constant part of my childhood. My father was a cavalry officer, so horses were always involved when he told stories of his adventures. I lived in the country for eight years, and at that time almost all of the vehicles were horse-drawn. I was surrounded by horses, birds and other animals; maybe that gave me some innate skills, or at any rate a readiness to observe nature, and that’s something which animators need very much.”

Complementing the film’s visuals perfectly is the delicate, atonal, largely woodwind-and-string-dominated music by Polish female composer Grażyna Bacewicz (the “ówna” suffix with which she is credited was historically an indication that a woman was not married, though Bacewicz was married at the time). To wit, A Dwarf’s Spring Adventure is the earliest film of Giersz’s that is distinctly his work, demonstrating his affinity towards animals and his budding sense of what he could do in animation; while enjoyable in its own right, it is, like The Neon Trifle, still only a glimpse of what was to come.


The Little Western / Mały western (1960)

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Giersz’s long experimentation with paint as an animated medium began just a year later, in The Little Western. Right off the bat, the film opens with pixilated animation of a live-action hand painting the title, out of which the charactersa red cowboy and two blue and white (later yellow) rivalsdrip down, and the blue and white cowboys’ bullets as they try to shoot the red cowboy come out only as splotches of their own paint.

The wild-west setting serves as the backdrop for a number of inspired gags that arise from how all the onscreen elements are literally just applications of paint, accompanied by a minimally-orchestrated, theme-based, often Western-styled score by jazz musician Jerzy Matuszkiewicz. After discovering gold in the edge of a river, the red cowboy simply lifts the rivers’ waves up like a carpet to take the remaining gold with ease, and in turn the two rivals attempt to dig under the rest of the wavy carpet-river only to find nothing. When they decide to ambush the cowboy in an area with two rock formations to steal his gold, the blue rival uses the yellow rival’s paint to draw a rope on-screen between the formations, bringing the cowboy to a stop as he arrives; the ambush happens just as he himself cuts the rope simply by elongating his fingers into a pair of scissors. The best sequence is undoubtedly the climactic final brawl, in which, after the cowboy punches out the robbers out so hard they splatter on the ground as puddles of paint, their respective blue and yellow puddles mix to form a large green cowboy; in an inversion of the opening, the cowboy’s own bullets also turn out to be ineffectual splotches of his paint. The film goes delightfully off the rails when, seeing he is outmatched, the cowboy outright pulls in a live-action tube of red paint and squeezes more paint out, jumping into the resulting puddle to become an even larger cowboy; in short order, he breaks the green cowboy back into its blue and yellow constituents and, with nothing left to do, tosses them up, turning them into the end title’s letters.

From The Little Western onward, Giersz would design and animate his most significant films entirely by himself, giving them a personal flavor lacking in his earlier films; this was a further means of going in a different direction from his training in traditional cel animation. “Group work hinders one’s approach in the visual sphere.” he said in 1980. “One’s own individuality must be given up in favour of a homogeneous final effect…visually, there is no room for shining out.” In the case of Little Western and most of the paint-based films he made afterwards, his “approach was to paint directly onto sheets of celluloid, creating each phase of the action on a different sheet, and using the camera to register each touch of the brush.” Here, his talent is evident in the animation not just of the characters, but especially of the cowboy’s trusty steed, a white stallionthis was Giersz’s first opportunity to animate horses, and the way he is able to use paint to simultaneously capture the stallion’s natural movements and give the stallion a personality of its own is impressive.

Common to these films is an improvised, rather haphazard story structure, almost as if the gags were playing out in real time based on the characters’ whims at the moment; this accurately reflected their troubled production. Giersz believed that the starting point for the story and gags should lie in the medium he was using: often, though, ideas like the climax in The Little Western only “came to me when I was already working on the film and that is why they could not be the starting point for the script. I regret that they did not occur to me earlier, then I could have subordinated the entire plot to them.”

Coincidentally, George Dunning used a similar painterly technique in his film The Flying Man; he and Giersz were not aware of what the other was doing until both The Little Western and The Flying Man screened at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 1962. It was ultimately the latter that won the festival’s Grand prix; as Giersz conceded, “it was charming, and I believe it was better.” Dunning’s film is indeed the more free-wheeling, abstract, and beautiful of the two, but by no means is Giersz’s own effort shabby or even mediocre; if anything, The Little Western is Giersz’s first truly successful short, and in the coming years he would build on its integration of animated painting and subject matter with more delightful, playful, and at times truly masterful films.


Awaiting / Oczekiwanie (1962)

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On occasion, Giersz would foray into other distinct visual styles and mediums besides paint. His first such film, Awaiting, made in collaboration with live-action filmmaker Ludwik Perski, would be his most drastic departure in that regard—a largely black-and-white, stop-motion (with slightly tinted live-action wraparounds) romance featuring puppets made of tissue, it is a result of Giersz taking his medium-based approach even further. “[F]rom the very beginning I kept thinking about a plot in which to involve the figures made of tissue paper made by Ludwik Perski. What drama, what tragedy can be designed for a tissue ballerina? Crumpling, tearing or, in the worst case, burning? What can her sensations be? Light, banal, for she is only a paper dancer. This gave rise to the whole plot.”

Thematically, Awaiting is a continuation of The Neon Trifle in its depiction of a troubled romance; here, a man waiting for his girlfriend at a café decides to create two male and female figures out of tissue, using them to enact a tale in which they fall in love after the dapper tissue-man rescues the paper dancer from a wine glass only for an aluminum-foil villain to woo the dancer for himself. It is a lyrical depiction of the man’s own despondency and fear that he has been betrayed by his love; Giersz’s description of the dancer’s feelings as being only light and banal is significant in this regard, as if, by her very nature, she will never be able to truly appreciate what her companion has done for her, and so will easily be led astray by other suitors. Eventually, however, the man’s girlfriend arrives after all, and in a heartwarmingly metaphorical ending they reunite the two tissue figures; in this way, Giersz holds out hope that women are nowhere near as romantically fickle, let alone emotionally shallow, as he and others may think.

Even though Giersz was unfamiliar with working in stop-motion, his skill at characterization comes through in the puppets’ graceful movements, clear posing, and believable acting, particularly those of the tissue-man as he shifts between emotional states over the course of the film; Perski’s puppets are pliable enough to be manipulated every which way, yet solid enough to retain their forms even then. Jan Tkaczyk, too, must be commended for his fantastic cinematography, which works so perfectly in black-and-white: much of the film takes place in almost complete darkness, with sparse lighting that only minimally illuminates the characters and objects while creating reflections of them on the floor, resulting in a shadowy, theatrical atmosphere. Composer Zbigniew Rudziński appropriately shifts between minimal, café-like, trumpet-dominated jazz for the live-action scenes and balletic orchestral music for the stop-motion scenes.

Tkaczyk’s collaboration with Giersz and Perski results in a number of elegant, at times dramatic set pieces that, typical of Giersz’s films, arise conceptually from the available elements. When the tissue-man and the ballerina begin dancing (reflected nicely by a tissue container with a mirror), they spin the remains of the shattered wine glass around, turning them into plastic-wrap ballroom dancers in their own right, and the dance scene culminates in the tissue-man throwing cigarettes out as pillars for everyone to dance around. The aluminum villain manifests himself out of a steaming cup of coffee on the table, almost as if he were evil incarnate; the climactic duel between the tissue-man and the villain has them using matches as swords, with the plastic dancers as onlookers, and indeed, just as the tissue-man has won out, the villain lights his match and throws it at the tissue-man, distracting the latter with putting out the fire just long enough for him to take the ballerina away once and for all. As the tissue-man looks on in dejection, the paper swans that accompanied his initial courtship with the dancer leave, and the plastic dancers revert to being shattered glass pieces—a representation, perhaps, of his romantic worldview collapsing. To top it all off, there is in fact one colored object over the course of the film, namely the blood-red rose that adds to the short’s romantic, somewhat melancholic tone.

Awaiting ultimately stands as an interesting curio within Giersz’s career—an experiment, as it were, to branch out into a medium he had never tried before, and would never work with again. As charming as the short is, it was undoubtedly for the best that Giersz did not go further in this direction, choosing instead to further hone his skills at animating paint. By the end of the decade, his determination would pay off.


The Red and the Black / Czerwone i czarne (1963) and Ladies and Gentlemen (1964)

black and blood

With these two films, Giersz took the painterly, improvised, and self-referential aspects of The Little Western even further. Both begin the same way as the earlier film, with the characters dripping out of the painted title—in due time, though, as the gags become increasingly absurd, the events spill out of the artwork into the studio itself, and Giersz himself ends up having to deal with the messy situations.

The Red and the Black focuses on the conflict between red paint in the form of a lanky torero and black paint in the form of a bull, as they find themselves in an abstract bullring; the accompanying music by Waldemar Kazanecki is largely responsible for any Spanish flavor the film has. The first third of the film is only mildly amusing, carried by the appealing vivacity and color (literal and figurative) of Giersz’s animation: particular highlights are the bull’s graceful movement and a blue man infuriated at his yellow lady pandering to the torero, not to mention the ridiculous petulance of the multi-colored crowd as a whole when things don’t go their way. But then a blue bartender arrives with mugs of beer for the two enemies to enjoy, and soon enough their drunkenness, as evident in some hilarious character animation of the two staggering, overtakes the film as a whole; the splendid fourth-wall-shattering gags that follow come off as particularly refreshing in light of the earlier part of the film, which gave the impression of being just a standard bullfight cartoon with more stylish visuals.

The torero drags in an empty paint bottle and traps the bull inside it by turning his cape into a funnel; this only lasts long enough for the torero to gain some applause, however, for soon the bull splashes out and the two are back to running in circles like earlier in the film. This time, though, the camera pulls back to reveal the studio surrounding the artwork, and in desperation the torero jumps out into the studio—which only makes his situation even worse, as the bull is nigh-invisible against the black table, allowing him further opportunity to torment and humiliate the torero. Back in the bullring, with the cape now in the bull’s possession, the torero attempts to distract the bull with a mirror, only for the bull to turn it towards the screen to reveal Giersz and (presumably) cameraman Jan Tkaczyk filming the events!

With the audience, even the yellow lady, growing more livid by the minute, the torero decides to pull out his sword and strike the final blow as the bull charges towards him. By this time, though, any pretense of adherence to convention has been so thoroughly subverted that the bull gets wise and, again taking the torero’s cape, takes the role of torero for himself, with the actual torero charging into the bullring wall. The bull emerges as the ultimate victor when, using the sword stuck in the wall, he springs the torero out of the bullring (ripping a bit of his paint clothes off in the process!) and back into his bottle of red paint, which Giersz himself promptly caps; the bull, too, in his brief moment of vanity (even winning the heart of the yellow lady, much to her blue husband’s disgust), is forcibly brushed by Giersz back into his bottle. Amusingly, even back in their bottles, the enmity between the red and black paints continue, so much that Giersz is forced to separate them out; with blue, yellow, purple, and green paint canisters between them, the film neatly ends with the paints becoming the end title’s colors (except the black becomes a white letter, owing to the black background).

The Red and the Black is representative of the meta aspect of Giersz’s directorial vision, with the gags featuring a bit of his usual scorn towards pridefulness. Understandably, the film’s rather esoteric nature caused some Western critics to try reading more into the plot: in this case, they saw the film as a political allegory representing the Catholic clergy’s struggle against Poland’s then-ruling Communist government, with at least one person suggesting the red torero represented First Secretary Władysław Gomułka and the black bull represented Archbishop Stefan Wyszyński. Giersz felt that the film was “burdened” by this interpretation, and claimed that he did not intend any political symbolism: “It’s true that the colours red and black were in rivalry all through the film, but this was incidental because it was a film about a fight between a black bull and a red torero.”

Its follow-up, Ladies and Gentlemen, is surely the culmination of said meta aspect, and easily the most playful of Giersz’s early-1960s films in that regard. In a no-frills break with the earlier paint films, all the gags take place largely on a plain white paper rather than any defined setting; the story begins almost immediately when a lady drips down and forms from the green “LAD” part of the title, as the two men who dripped from the “AND GENTLEMEN” side—blue and orange—vie for her affection.

Using the ensuing creative chaos that renders the boundary between paper and studio nonexistent right from the get-go, Giersz treats his perennial theme of fickle romance with a particularly cynical edge. Throughout the film, the two men each manipulate the situation to their own advantage by unusual means, with the green lady constantly abandoning one man if the other is in a better situation; the sting is especially pronounced in how she often jocularly kisses the previous man before leaving him, implying that she is deliberately enabling the competition.

In keeping with the even looser structure compared to his earlier paint films, Giersz varies the conceptual basis of the gags, the common thread being their visual ingenuity and commentary on animation’s strange nature. Initially, he draws attention to the fact that the characters themselves are made of paint: when the red “IES” part of the title is unable to release a drop of paint to form a red lady, the blue man paints a rain cloud using his cane and releases it upon the green lady and the orange man, luring the lady away by holding an umbrella for her. Giersz then infuses a degree of pop art into the story when the orange man, angered, re-enters with a paint motorcycle, allowing him to give the lady a ride, only to be again foiled by the blue man, who gets the lady jumping into his life-like, sleek 60s car; the sudden infusion is taken even further as the blue man talks up visions of the two traveling around the world, represented by a collage-like airport and photographs of various cities. But the car is just a paper cutout in the end, no matter how real it seems: unbeknownst to the couple, the orange man has dragged a box’s worth of tacks onto the paper background, and while this damages the car in a manner not unlike how an actual car would be damaged, the orange man proceeds to crumple the car up.

Most of the gags afterwards, in turn, are based on paper’s multifaceted potentials. The orange man saws the paper in half, putting the green lady on his side and the blue man on the other, and separates the halves; when he staves off the incoming blue man by spilling a bottle of blue paint against him, the blue man runs back and folds his half into a paper boat—this sudden creativity is successful against the growing “sea” of paint, and allows him to gain back the lady when the sea begins overtaking the orange man’s half of the paper. But enough paper can absorb even an excess of paint, and paper against a flame is dangerous: the orange man, after being booted off the boat, brings in a second sheet of paper to absorb the paint sea, and then lights a match to burn the boat! In a further display of cynicism, while the orange man catches the lady when she jumps off the burning boat, he lets the blue man fall to the ground after feigning a willingness to catch him as well.

By this time, the film is starting to peter out, as evidenced by how the blue man simply canes the orange man as he runs off to regain the green lady. At the climax, the orange man resorts to drawing a telephone on his cel, using it to call up Giersz directly and rant angrily about his life, most notably about how there is no second lady even though, as noted earlier, a red one should have appeared from the “IES” in the title; Giersz begrudgingly complies and draws a red lady. In an ironic twist, the blue man takes notice and leaves the green lady to try and attract the red, thus restarting the cycle of rivalrywoman may be fickle, but so are men.

The Red and the Black and Ladies and Gentlemen get to the essence of animation: as a means for an artist to give otherwise inanimate objects or media a life of their own. As Giersz likely recognized at the time, poking fun at the concept could only take one so far, and he did not do any more such shorts; thanks to this abstention, these films remain bold and original viewed today. Even so, animated paint was capable of more than this kind of novelty, and soon Giersz would follow through on that.


Files / Kartoteka (1966)

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For the time being, Giersz decided to continue exploring different visual modes and subject matter with this darkly humorous, sci-fi-tinged satire of modern humanity’s achievements; in contrast to The Red and the Black, Files actively ridicules the politics of the Cold War era. An unknown detective-like figure looks through his drawer of what man has accomplished; through various quirky little sight gags, several of these advances are shown to be dubious at best. The twist comes at the end, when the detective is revealed to be a four-eyed alien—and one who, as directed by the final file, observes Earth in the midst of a nuclear war from his window.

The file gags are drawn in a minimal sketchbook style, with the outer world rendered in a manner reminiscent of engravings, and the color scheme is largely monochromatic with a blue-green tint. This economy of means, befitting the idea that mankind’s doings have been meticulously labeled and organized alphabetically for easy reference in an office, works well with the film’s consistent pace to highlight the absurdity inherent to the human situations mocked in the gags, with no embellishments needed.

The gags themselves are literally a mixed bag, varying in their topics: they tend to be quite cynical and often comical, even bearing in mind the Cold War context in which many of them originated. In that regard, Giersz plays with having two or more files as part of one long gag with his usual visual deftness: for his first gag, the A file’s atom drops down and explodes into a mushroom cloud in the B file (bomb), which in turn is folded up, torn into slices of noodles, and consumed by a robot in the C file (cybernetics). Much later in the film is a mockery of both the capabilities of rockets and the divergent attitudes of the period: the R file for realism features astronauts boarding a rocket, only for a military general in the P file (pessimism) to replace the human vessel with a nuclear warhead, his incoherent barking as he and his underlings prepare the launch making the situation more blackly comedic; ultimately, though, the O file (optimism) peeks up and causes the rocket to deflate as if it were a balloon all along, much to the anti-war pleasure of even the soldiers present.

For the D file, Giersz pokes fun at diplomats as they practically yawn their way through debates on severe and deadly crises, their speech being mere bubbles; the Y file, featuring a yeti trying to recite the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, may be a slight nudge at Western cultural imperialism. The H file for humanism lambasts the intellectual snobbery and even hypocrisy of certain philosophers: a snooty old professor is shown pondering Roman playwright Terence’s quotation Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, translated in English voiceover as “I am a man, I count nothing human indifferent to me”, while taking no heed of the barefooted shoe-cleaner at his feet. The film’s stance on humanity at large is perhaps best summed up by the L file, logic, which is completely empty—except for a question mark that the detective draws on the file, a testament to his bewilderment.

Not every gag is a merciless dig at the atmosphere and culture of the period. The F file for film is a nice little showcase of Giersz’s more purely jocular side, with the camera zooming out to reveal a filmstrip of several frames featuring the file and panning through each frame individually before zooming back into a frame with the aforementioned H file. Giersz also knows when to wisely hold back if the subject matter is sensitive, as is the case with the K file for concentration camps, in which a stark close-up on the “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” sign and the screen turning a blood-red shade suffices; Waldemar Kazanecki’s music is a key component of the film in general, tailored as it is for each gag, and for this scene he resorts to unpleasant, eerie orchestral drones to let the horror sink in. The implication alone is enough—and with that, the detective gives the drawer label a red underline.

The M file, medicine, is a rather bland gag that’s saved a bit by the character animation: after a shirtless man takes disgusting medicine, his condition improves to such an extent that he curls up a mustache fashionably before strutting off (still shirtless). The N file for narcomania is conceptually funnier, with a man worn out by his literally multi-armed addictions to smoking, gambling, alcohol, and even coffee.

The S file is sztuka, meaning “art”and said high art turns out to be a typical magic show. In an example of Giersz using the transition between files as a statement in itself, this live stage show is edged out by the advent of television in the T file; yet even TV has the drawback of poor reception, as a boy, a music fan, a perverted old man, and even a skeleton find out (with the skeleton, in a funny moment, finally throwing his skull at the screen in rage). This all leads up to the alliterative Z file, “ziemia z zewnątrz” (Earth from the outside), bringing the alien detective to the exploding planet just outside his window; in the end, all the alien can do is shrug at the strange ways of humans.

Files works both as an animated stylistic experiment and as a mischievously misanthropic Cold War satire in its own right, showcasing Giersz’s knowledge of culture and history. Although it may pale in comparison to his best films, it is still bitingly amusing and visually unique, and certainly representative of an irreverent side of Giersz that is not as prominent in most of his other work.


The Horse / Koń (1967)

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Now here is Giersz’s first true masterpiece and arguably his most personal film: an ode to the beauty, elegance, and ferocity of wild horses, and mankind’s failures to tame them. With this tour-de-force, Giersz took his painting skills to a dynamic, free-spirited level: by “painting on a single sheet of glass or cardboard, modifying the image to reflect the changes of motion, and using the camera to register each change”, he would give “the impression of watching an animated painting.”

The Horse was the first of three films in which Giersz worked in this manner, inspired by the French Impressionist painters: “I was always attracted to their work, especially because it seemed to be three-dimensional, incorporating both convex portions and deep relief. Van Gogh’s work also offers a particularly good example of this. By drawing in paint with a blade I was able to achieve even deeper relief. I also admired the French painters for putting colours next to each other rather than mixing them: the resulting impression is much more interesting.”

Indeed, what is most visually striking about The Horse is Giersz’s own extraordinary ability to recreate those elements he found so appealing in the Impressionists’ work: through his careful animation of various strokes of oil paint, he imbues his charactersa majestic steed and an ancient soldier—with a frighteningly real presence on the screen. The horse moves with grace and power as it jumps and whinnies and gallops along, particularly when it gallops in such a manner as to glide through the air for a few seconds, its back legs left hanging; its fright at even the slightest presence of a human is palpable, and especially dangerous if one tries to mount the horse. The soldier himself is determined, guided by his dream of riding the horse; in spite of his burly appearance, however, he soon makes an effort to act covertly lest he trigger the horse’s flight, and ultimately is not fierce enough to tame it.

Giersz’s impeccable animation works brilliantly with the paint strokes’ own distinctive textures and bold, at times shifting colors to create the impression that the horse and the soldier are solid, living creatures inhabiting the film’s equally painted world; said world as a whole, not unlike the real world, constantly undergoes subtle changes in form and color in response to or even independently of the characters’ actions. The textures and color styling are particularly stunning in the darker scenes, where a more limited yet effective application of paint creates the impression of shadows being cast over the characters’ forms, adding to their dimensionality.

The film’s fresh, awe-inspiring Impressionist techniquespecial thanks must again go to cameraman Jan Tkaczyk for sticking with Giersz on the laborious effort of shooting every paint changewould not be quite as effective without Kazimierz Serocki’s foreboding score, with its perpetual tension and eerie strings. Together, they bring a sense of compelling drama to the proceedings, as the soldier edges closer and closer to the horse; by representing the conflict between the two in such visual and aural terms, the film becomes an epic allegory for the seemingly perpetual conflict between man and nature, and how, in the end, the latter will always win out—at the climax of the film, after a ferocious and desperate struggle, the horse succeeds in throwing the soldier off, and the latter proceeds to witness the spectacle of a massive herd of horses galloping chaotically past him. At this magnificent sight, the soldier realizes it is futile to attempt to control horses for his own ends….and with that, he fades into the darkness of the black paint surrounding him.

With The Horse, Giersz firmly established himself as one of animation’s greatest masters. Its form of paint-on-glass animation was unlike anything seen before in the medium, and on top of that Giersz pulled it off with an astonishingly high degree of technical proficiency; to this day, it remains a landmark film in the history of paint-on-glass animation, and certainly an achievement far more significant than any of Giersz’s earlier films, as good as they are. It is unfortunate that Giersz only experimented with its technique for two further films, yet understandable given how time-consuming it was (and is); his next such film would come two years later.

To be continued…

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