Polish Bloc-Busters Craft Fairy-Tale Theater of the Absurd


In Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel proposes that Communist-era Eastern European cinema functions by means of “Aesopian metaphors.” “Unable to pose questions head-on,” he writes, “the artist is forced into allegory, metaphor and indirectness—secret communications to be decoded by the viewer.” This blossoms into exotic strains of surrealism in the works of Polish animators and experimental filmmakers. Richly colorful, ambiguously fabulistic, and deceptively childlike, the post-war Polish avant-garde spun grim fairy tales for adults. Though frequently premised on evoking the brutal absurdities of Communist life (and, by extension, that of all 20th-century bureaucratic regimes), they nonetheless express redemptive humanity via the resilient ingenuities of their own exquisite making.

The paradigmatic work in this regard is Jan Lenica’s Labyrinth (1962), a cutout fantasy that works as the Dada-Pop missing link from Max Ernst to Yellow Submarine. In a city crafted from 19th-century engravings, chimera-citizens enact rituals of power on empty De Chiricoesque streets, while the bird-winged protagonist attempts to escape the literal machinations of a gear-bodied autocrat. More abstract struggles are evoked in Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk’s House (1958), a jittery pre-Svankmajer catalog of anxious animation styles.

Socialist ambition-squelching is spoofed in Daniel Szczechura’s A Chair (1963): A teeming line-drawn audience tackles anyone who tries to ascend the stage. More oblique parables of violence are proposed through Jerzy Kucia’s Reflections (1979), a delicate photo-realist depiction of water bugs caught in a life-or-death struggle, and Zofia Oraczewska’s black-humored The Banquet (1974), in which a table of food consumes the human partygoers around it.

Though not always as engagingly crafted as the animation titles, the avant-garde selections nonetheless fill in interesting historical gaps. Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’s Adventure of a Good Citizen (1937) shows that Polish filmmakers gravitated toward surrealism when their comrades still pushed social realism; Roman Polanski’s early amour fou tale, Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958); and Zbigniew Rybczynski’s pixelated music video for the Art of Noise, Close to the Edit (1984), a tiny gem of hypercapitalist, piano-smashing, Iron Curtain- crossing irony.