The Painterly Animation of Witold Giersz

Imagine if a painting came to life: brushstrokes rippling across the canvas like muscles and shimmering like the surface of a wind-swept lake, drips of paint resolving themselves into heads and limbs. Audiences at this year’s T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival in Wrocław, Poland, had the chance to experience this magical impression in a retrospective of veteran animator Witold Giersz. A member of the Polish school of animation, Giersz began his career in the 1950s. Since then, he has made almost 50 films, and received more than 60 awards and honours from international festivals including Cannes and Oberhausen. This year, Giersz is set to complete what he says will be his final film, one based on the Lascaux and Altamira cave paintings. Giersz started work on this film four years ago, well before the release of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Both directors noticed the dynamic quality of this ancient art form, but Giersz was inspired to actually bring it to life through animation, drawing his own figures with charcoal on real slabs of rock. 

The New Horizons retrospective included some 40 of Giersz’s animated shorts, as well as two short documentaries showing the director at work in his studio. Giersz was a pioneer in painterly animation, applying translucent patches of colour directly onto the celluloid. He might also work on paper with oil paint, building up the brushstrokes in layers, or etching into the impasto with a palette knife; he would use the camera to capture regular images of his work in progress, so that viewing the images at high speed creates the illusion of a painting that changes by itself. While these techniques are Giersz’s most notable, his career has been marked by an openness to different approaches, which have included animated line drawings, traditional cel animation and stop-motion puppetry.

One of the finest examples of Giersz’s oil paint films is Pożar (Fire, 1975). The camera pans across a skillfully rendered painting of a forest, where brushstrokes tremble with life to reflect changing light and shadow, the wind rustling through the leaves, and even the concentric sound waves of bird song. Giersz’s careful observation of animals is evident in the true-to-life shape and motion of squirrels, rabbits and deer as they sense that something is amiss, even before curls of smoke begin creeping through the forest. The gentle greens and yellows of the forest are replaced by the angry orange and red of fire. The dynamism of brushstrokes that evoked life in the forest now portrays the devastating destructive motion of the flames. After the fire burns itself out, a rainstorm is depicted in a profusion of diagonal white strokes. Following a cyclical pattern common to many of Giersz’s films, Fire ends on a hopeful note as the first tiny sprout of new growth emerges from the ashes.

In contrast with the thick layering of paint in Fire, the red toreador and black bull in Czerwone i czarne (The Red and the Black, 1963) are rendered in simple yet expressive strokes, reminiscent of Picasso’s aquatints of bull fights. A large part of the comedy in this film derives from creative self-reflexivity: halfway through the film, the camera draws back to reveal the animator’s drafting table. Bull and toreador run from the page onto the black work surface (where the bull derives a devilish advantage from the camouflage). Later, the bull arms himself with a mirror, which he turns on the director, catching Giersz unawares as he smokes a cigarette alongside the cameraman.

Gwiazda (The Star, 1984) is one of Giersz’s few openly political films. The film’s year of production is telling, as its world of surveillance and oppression is clearly Orwellian. Audiences may be surprised that it was even possible to make this film during Poland’s communist period, but the completed film was banned, and Giersz forced to abandon the 4-part series he had originally planned. Different again from either Fire or The Red and the Black, The Star has the two-dimensional appearance of cel animation. The film’s opening scene, set at the North Pole, looks like an animated Christmas card or children’s storybook, but when the focus shifts to the totalitarian state, the eerie, empty streets are reminiscent of a de Chirico cityscape, while their futuristic quality harkens back to Fritz Lang’s cinema classic, Metropolis. Spying on their subjects from an all-seeing citadel, a grotesque group of identical fat, bald men recall Grosz’s inter-war caricatures.

Fire, The Red and the Black and The Star offer a snapshot of the sheer variety of visual styles and narrative genres that Giersz has worked with throughout his career. As Giersz approaches completion of his final film, film programmers at other festivals and film institutes worldwide should see a valuable occasion for a retrospective of this talented animator’s entire career.

Text: Alison Frank

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