Wild horses: Witold Giersz and the art of animation

The veteran Polish master talks to Alison Frank about Communist censorship, animated animals and the history of painting, from cave to salon.

Alison Frank
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Horse (1967)

Horse (1967)
Credit: Filmoteka Narodowa: en.fn.org.pl / fototeka@fn.org.pl

Of the great traditions of Eastern European animation, the Polish school rivals that of the former Czechoslovakia for pre-eminence. Witold Giersz was among its earliest animators, his work both subsidised and scrutinised by the country’s Communist government. While contemporaries such as Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica created darkly absurd and grotesque films in response to life under authoritarianism, Giersz stood out for the relative optimism and humanism of his work. From his café romance Awaiting (Oczekiwanie, 1962) to his political dystopia The Star (Gwiazda, 1984), Giersz shows that women may be fickle and big brother a bully, yet he maintains an undercurrent of hope through a good-humoured portrayal of universally recognisable feelings and foibles.

Having worked with a range of techniques including stop-motion and cel animation, Giersz is best known for his painterly approach. In Fire (Pozar, 1979), panic is conveyed through an oil painting where brushstrokes quiver with life. Patches of paint, expressive in their simplicity, form the basis of witty wild-west films such as The Old Cowboy (Stary Kowboj, 1973) and The Little Western (Maly Western, 1960). In The Red and the Black (Czerwone i czarne, 1963), two shades of paint are pitted against each other in a bullfight that spills self-reflexively from the page into the animator’s studio. Even his most playful films incorporate sophisticated visual echoes of van Gogh, Picasso, Grosz and de Chirico. For the spectator, Giersz’s films are a refreshing combination of experiment and enjoyment.

With a half-century career now behind him, Giersz has spent the past four at work on his final film, Signum, inspired by cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira. The creative process has required him to painstakingly draw and erase each successive stage of the action on a real slab of stone.

He will present his work-in-progress, alongside a selected retrospective of his career, on 16 March at the National Gallery in London as part of the Polish film festival Kinoteka.

Alison Frank: You spent a large part of your career working under a Communist regime. Was animation subject to less scrutiny from the censors than live-action film?

Witold Giersz

Witold Giersz

Witold Giersz: Animated film has always been treated more lightly than live-action, but some animated films did run into trouble if they contained symbols that the Communist authorities didn’t like. This was the case with The Star. Ernest Bryll based the script on Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I actually made the film in the year 1984.

The cinematography authorities approved the script, but I had serious problems when they saw the completed film. They said it was very good, but told me to cut out a few sequences – the most valuable ones, like the magic eye that keeps constant watch over the citizens. I wouldn’t agree, so the film was withdrawn and denied distribution. I had originally planned it to be a film in three parts, but they wouldn’t allow me to make the remaining two parts.

Can audiences today see the complete version?

It is complete, insofar as I refused to remove the scenes that the authorities didn’t like, though it’s incomplete because the second and third parts were never made. Also, I did have to remove several scenes at the script stage. For instance, I couldn’t directly refer to people queuing for food: I had to do it symbolically by showing a long line of shoes instead. That was an example of internal censorship by colleagues at the studio headquarters: it shows how scared they were.

On the other hand, people have sometimes found unintended symbolism in my films. The Red and the Black was considered by some Western journalists to represent a struggle where the red symbolised Communism and the black the clergy. Someone suggested that the film represented the conflict between Archbishop Wyszyński and [Władysław] Gomułka, the First Secretary of the Party. 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. I didn’t aim to smuggle [in] any political symbolism, but the film was burdened by this interpretation.

One of the distinguishing features of your animation is its painterly quality. Were you already an artist before you became an animator?

From early childhood I did a lot of drawing and painting for pleasure. Once I became an animator, I no longer had time to paint for pleasure, on canvas. My art served one purpose only: it was completely subordinated to film. Animation is very absorbing – it demands complete devotion.

Could you talk about the specific techniques you’ve used, and how they relate to the work of your contemporaries?

In Poland, Piotr Szpakowicz was the only one who was using oil painting for animation at the same time as me. His approach was different, though, as elements in the composition would pass through and merge into one another. It is a figure that is used pretty often in film.

My 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. I used this technique in The Little Western, and incidentally George Dunning used a similar technique in The Flying Man: we had never met before, but we had a chance to meet when our films were competing at the same festival [Annecy, 1962]. His film won: it was charming, and I believe it was better.

In subsequent films I was working more freely, 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: in this way, the viewer had the impression of watching an animated painting.

Some of your work evokes 19th-century French painting. Are there particular artists or animators who have inspired you?

In films like Horse (Kon, 1967) or Fire – my painting films – I was inspired not by one single painter but by a whole group: the French Impressionists. 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.

Signum (work in progress)

Signum (work in progress)

Animals are a common motif in your films. Were they always of interest to you, or was it their graceful movement that attracted your animator’s eye?

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. We are in constant movement, and so are our surroundings. The skill of observing, watching, and remembering this movement helps a lot in re-creating movement on screen.

You’ve said that your final film, currently in progress, is an animation based on cave paintings. Is there any connection with Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams?

I only saw Herzog’s film relatively recently, and I’ve been working on my film for four years now. I’m planning to finish it this year.

Cave painting has fascinated me for a long time, but I wasn’t able to make a film that incorporated it until now. The problem was not funding or technical limitations: I simply couldn’t find a way to approach this art form without reducing its importance. Finally, I decided it would be best to paint in a simple way as our ancestors did: directly on stone, with black, red and ochre, the basic colours they actually used.

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