Walerian Borowczyk, photo © Juliusz Zamecznik / The Archeology of Photography Foundation
The "cut-out" technique used in his first films with Jan Lenica worked well to convey an amusing message as well as grotesque expression right up to absurdity and horror like that of Ionesco and Kafka. From the start, Borowczyk treated animated film as a form of "highbrow" art. The presence of humour deserves to be stressed, in his animated and feature films - in many cases absurd and evoking associations with surrealism.
No record of the greatest achievements of animated film worldwide would be complete without mention of two Polish artists, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica. Their joint film from 1957, Once Upon a Time, followed by films they made together such as House in 1958, and also their individual productions, triggered a revolution in this peripheral film genre. They turned animated film into an art capable of communicating the most complex, difficult and serious messages.
Borowczyk was born in 1923 in Kwilcz near Poznań, he lived in France from 1959. He died in France in 2006. He was an accomplished visual artist, scriptwriter, stage designer, director of animated and feature films, and writer. He studied painting and graphic arts at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1951. As a student, he made amateur short films including animations. He designed theatre and film posters and, from 1950, published satirical drawings in the magazines Szpilki and later in Nowa Kultura and Życie Literackie. At the National Art Exhibition in Warsaw in 1951, he won third prize for graphic art. With Jan Tarasin, Borowczyk published the picture album Rysunki satyryczne in 1953, maintaining the typical socialist-realist style. In the same year, he received the Polish National Prize for his cycle of lithographs Nowa Huta.
He started a collaboration with Jan Lenica in 1956. They made an animated cartoon in 1957 titled Once Upon a Time, which brought them international fame. After making several more films, including one on his own titled School, Borowczyk left Poland for good in 1959 and settled in Paris, where he went on to make short and feature-length animated films and short feature films. After 1969, Borowczyk focused almost completely on full-length feature films.
Borowczyk was involved in many art genres. Beside animated films, short feature films that the critics hailed as masterpieces, and interesting full-length productions, he was one of the main creators of the Polish poster school and, first and foremost, of artistic erotic cinema. He made satirical drawings, sculptures and film sets, and exhibited his works in Poland and abroad. He received many prizes for his artistic output. He also wrote a volume of short stories, L'anatomie du diable / Anatomia diabła, published in France in 1992 and in Poland a year later, and a book of memoirs, Mes années polonaises / Moje polskie lata written in French and published in 2002.
Borowczyk was awarded the Max Ernst Prize for his life's work in animated films in 1967, and the President of the Italian Republic's Gold Medal in 1971, and was a recipient of awards at festivals of short films, including those in Oberhausen, Mannheim, Tours, Berlin, Venice and Krakow.
Borowczyk and Lenica
Marcin Giżycki was accurate when he wrote that "in animated films ... there were two eras: before and after Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk" (Kino 12/2001). As "milestone works" he mentions their joint projects Once Upon a Time and House as well as Lenica's Monsieur Tète, Labyrinth and New Janko the Musician, and Borowczyk's The Astronauts and School.
Before the films of Lenica and Borowczyk, animated films in Poland were a less valued form, regarded as films addressed to children without any great artistic or visual - not to mention philosophical - aspirations. In Giżycki's estimation,
Lenica and Borowczyk's brilliance did not reveal itself in technical innovation or inventiveness, on the contrary, it was demonstrated in their nonchalant approach to existing techniques and conventions. ... Their films made no secret of the simplicity of means they utilized, camouflaged nothing, their movement and montage as simplified as possible. Just a few pieces of coloured paper, old photographs, junk objects, fragments of found drawings.
The "cut-out" technique they used in their first films worked well as a means of conveying a humorous, amusing message as well as surreal grotesque expression, right up to absurdity and horror like that of Ionesco and Kafka. From the start, Borowczyk treated animated film as a form of "highbrow" art. One example of his serious treatment of this genre is Renaissance (1963), which was shown at the film festival in Krakow in 1964 next to Lenica's Rhinoceros, and which enchanted the esteemed film critic Aleksander Jackiewicz, who judged it even more highly than Lenica's film. It is worth quoting his words, as they reflect the value of Borowczyk's art (Życie Literackie 24/1964):
This is an animated story about the world being ruined as a result of some disaster. The world - a real table, the real objects lying on it, the basket under the table - has physically fallen apart. And then it comes together anew, matter organizing itself into objects again. The trumpet lying on the table starts playing triumphantly. Then a second disaster strikes. The history of matter, the persistence of matter in the face of the forces of destruction - shown on one square metre and a few odd pieces of junk!
The presence of humour deserves to be stressed, both in Borowczyk's animated films and his feature films. This was often black humour, in many cases absurd, grotesque and not without reason evoking associations with surrealism. This was the case with The Magician (1959) and School (1958). Sometimes, though, a film, even an animated one, had an air of peril. The Game of the Angels (1964) is one example, about which Marian Prominski wrote (Życie Literackie 25/1965):
[...] game indeed - a slaughterhouse with streaming dark blue blood, as that seems to be the kind that angels have [...]
stressing the film's "infernal" mood. It is primarily the case with Borowczyk's full-length animated grotesque, Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre - a film in which the animated protagonists become as realistic as real people, which augments the horror of the story. Aleksander Jackiewicz wrote (Film 25/1969) that
[...] the most fascinating thing about this film is that the Kabals are ostentatiously fictional characters throughout. Dashes, dots that portray people. But they portray them realistically and act like living people.
It is also worth noting the way Borowczyk used photographs in his films. Even as a young man, wrote Urszula Czartoryska (Fotografia 11/1961), Borowczyk took a lot of photographs, and liked putting together pairs of photos in such a way as to give the impression of movement when you looked at them. He used photography extensively in the film House (1958). Here, he and Lenica even used photographs made by the pioneer of cinema, Jules Marey, stripping Marey's shots down to their constituent parts and introducing jerky movement akin to the first ever films. In School (1958) Borowczyk used almost exclusively his own photos (taken with Lenica), made specially for this film. After filming on a trick-table, 400 photos turned into a 9-minute film, a grotesque protest against military drill which strips people of personality. As Czartoryska writes,
'School' is [...] the height of succinct and simple means, it is a masterpiece of montage [...] it is an attempt at exploiting photographic material not only placed next to normal sequences shot with a film camera, but replacing them [...]
Divergences, features, erotics
Marcin Giżycki noted (Kwartalnik Filmowy 19-20/1997-1998) that both artists headed toward Melies in their animations. Lenica was closer to Feuillade's films about Fantomas and Chaplin's burlesques. Borowczyk, though he made the colourful, Melies-style The Astronauts (1959), moved towards trick film. It is a fact that photographs often played a more important role in his animated films than drawings. With time, actors appeared as well, treated - as the critics emphasised - just like animated characters.
Borowczyk's full-length feature debut Goto, Island of Love (1968) was enthusiastically received by the critics. The director received the first-ever award named after the French film critic Georges Sadoul for this film. His first all-actor short Rosalie (1966) met with a similarly enthusiastic reception, with Bolesław Michałek (Kino 8/1967) finding it to contain "pure, crystalline form" and "an amazing frugality of means", while the critic who signed his name "wa" called the 15-minute film a masterpiece (Magazyn Filmowy 2/1971).
His next feature films also brought Borowczyk recognition: Blanche (1971), Immoral Tales (1974) and a film made in Poland, Story of a Sin (1975), extremely interesting visually and psychologically, and at the same time faithful to the original novel by Żeromski, a melodrama that the director called an "illustration" of the book. Borowczyk's move away from animation, though, had a mixed reception. Edward Chudziakowski (Student 6-7/1968) wrote about the 1967 film Gavotte that "it turned out to be a pretentious macabre film in which one searches in vain ... for philosophical subtext". He added that Borowczyk's departure from animation "is starting to bring less and less interesting effects". Meanwhile, Aleksander Jackiewicz (Film 19/1969) - seeing the story of a tyrant, death and love as being rather uninteresting and derivative - criticised Goto, Island of Love: "There's a story too many in this film."
Oskar Sobanski (Film 44/1992) wrote that the films made in 1974-76 formed the central part of Borowczyk's output, naming Immoral Tales, Story of a Sin, The Margin and The Beast:
They won the greatest renown and practically exhausted the director's aesthetic and intellectual potential [...]
Films like Immoral Tales and The Beast consolidated Borowczyk's position as a maker of artistic erotic films. Subsequent productions, Behind Convent Walls, Heroines of Evil, Lulu, Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes, Ars Amandi and the fifth part of the Emmanuelle cycle - to quote Oskar Sobanski - "are a collection of erotic themes of no great importance". In these films, from an issue that triggered existential questions about the nature of man - culture versus nature - sex turned into a magnet to draw audiences.
These films were also obviously inspired by de Sade, or more generally by 18th-century French libertinism, where sex was coupled with pain, and also by Italian and Spanish mannerism. Libertinism is also the source of the treatment of woman as an object that is adulated and humiliated at the same time. However, as one can notice after reading Borowczyk's short stories, this inspiration is not only outdated but also lacks artistic value. That includes a lack of film value, as the more unkind critics noted, to mention Jan Gondowicz (Film 44/1992) in a column devoted to The Beast.
Even Borowczyk seemed to assess this part of his work differently. At a retrospective of his films in Kraków in 1999, he did not want to show these particular productions, as Boguslaw Zmudzinski reported (Opcje 2/1999). Zmudzinski wrote that "they call Walerian Borowczyk 'Boro' in Paris". He added that Borowczyk "is an outstanding director of animated and short films", while 'Boro' was associated chiefly with a director of feature films who "gained the ambiguous fame of the creator of French erotic cinema", or even the fame of a "soft porn classic". Many of his films were banned in various countries for years, edited by censors, cut, changed; there were even problems with some of his short films, to mention Collection Particuliere.
Borowczyk did distinguish between pornography and erotic films. Talking to Andrzej Markowski (Kino 4/1975), he said:
Eroticism, sex, is one of the most moral parts of life. Eroticism does not kill, exterminate, encourage evil, lead to crime. On the contrary, it makes people gentler, brings joy, gives fulfilment, leads to selfless pleasure.
Despite controversies surrounding Borowczyk's successive feature films, they always display great visual imagination, great creative inventiveness, absurd humour and a grotesque that is inspired by the surreal. It is worth noting one more thing. Borowczyk was the absolute maker of his films, not only the director and scriptwriter, but also the set designer. He imposed the way the films were shot, and as critics emphasised and he never denied, he was a filmmaker who prepared everything meticulously and was in full control of the production process. Even a great cameramen such as Zygmunt Samosiuk, the cinematographer for Story of a Sin, had to submit to him completely.
One could even say that Borowczyk created not only the film reality but also himself, since the image of 'Boro' was clearly created for the benefit of the liberal critics and French audiences. Perhaps his altered birthplace and date (Wojnowice 1932), different from what can be found in encyclopaedias, which the author mentioned in the afterword to his collection of short stories L'anatomie du diable, was an element of that creation.
Animated films - short and full-length as well as short documentaries and feature films:
- 1946 Sierpień / Mois d'août (approx. one minute). Poland
- 1949 Głowa / The Head short feature film (approx. one minute). Poland
- 1949 Magik / The Magician (approx. one minute). Poland
- 1950 Tłum / The Crowd (approx. one minute). Poland
- 1955 Żywe fotografie/ Photographies Vivantes short documentary made in Paris. Poland
- 1955 Jesień / Autumn, short feature film. A melancholy stroll in an empty park in the autumn, where colourful summer returns suddenly for a moment. Poland
- 1955 Atelier de Fernand Leger short documentary film made in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, at the studio of Fernand Léger. Poland
- 1957 Dni Oświaty / Education Days (with Jan Lenica), for the Polish newsreel service. Poland
- 1957 Strip-Tease (with Jan Lenica) approx. 3-minute animated film for the Polish newsreel service. Poland
- 1957 Był sobie raz / Once Upon a Time (with Jan Lenica), animated film (cut-outs and cartoons). The film was made using the simplest graphic means: geometric figures cut out of coloured paper, together with a collage of figures cut out from old magazines. It played with form, but this play was subordinated to deeper subtexts. (Awards: 1957 - 7th International Festival of Documentaries and Short Films, Venice, Silver Lion of St. Mark in the experimental film category, Polish Festival of Animated Films Warsaw, Third Prize; 1958 - "Warsaw Mermaid" award from Polish critics for the best short film in 1957, 7th International Festival of Documentaries and Educational Films Mannheim, First Prize - Gold Ducat) Poland
- 1957 Nagrodzone Uczucia / Love Requited (with Jan Lenica) in the repollero technique (unanimated boards). About the work of the naive painter J. Plaskociński. A playful tale about the requited love of a shy young man. Poland
- 1958 Dom / House (with Jan Lenica) - combined (some animated shots). Featuring the director's wife, Ligia Branice-Borowczyk. Urszula Czartoryska wrote that House was characterized by "a free, loose structure, preference for inanimate objects and non-artistic creations of man, use of real objects, close-to-surrealist overall atmosphere". (Awards: 1958 - Grand Prix at the Expo-58 Brussels International Experimental Film Competition) Poland
- 1958 Szkoła / School short film, combined technique. Animated photographs (made with Jan Lenica) with elements of animated cartoon. A display of military drill. Aleksander Jackiewicz wrote (Film 27/1967): "an excellent tale made in the technique of animated photographs - about people, drill and the army: a tale about the man robot, always ready, made up of a uniform and a rifle, composed solely of deliberate movements". (Awards: 1960 - 6th International Festival of Short Films, Oberhausen, special mention) Poland
- 1958 Sztandar młodych / Banner of Youth (with Jan Lenica) - animated, approx. 3-minute cartoon encouraging viewers to read Sztandar Młodych, made at the Documentary Film Studio (WFD). Poland
- 1959 Les astronautes / The Astronauts (dir. with Chris Marker), short, mixed technique. Drawings and old engravings. Shots edited and copied into one another, interlaced with drawn elements. A funny science-fiction film about space travel. The story of an amateur astronaut and his tawny owl travelling in a cardboard spaceship. (Awards: 1960 - International Film Festival Oberhausen, FIPRESCI Prize) France
- 1959 Terra incognita animated film in which Borowczyk utilized Alexandre Alexeieff's pioneering idea of using pins to achieve a shadow and movement effect. Black and white. France
- 1959 Le magicien / The Magician animated film. An amusing story about a man and his unruly top hat that changes form. France
- 1959 La tète / Head. France
- 1959 La foule. France
- 1959 Les Stroboscopes: Magasins du XIX Siecle / Stroboscopes: 19th Century Stores. France
- 1960 l'ecriture / Writing. France
- 1961 La Boite a Musique / The Music Box animated film. France
- 1961 Solitude. France
- 1961 Les bibliotheques / Libraries. France
- 1961 Les ecoles / Schools. France
- 1962 Le concert de M. et Mme Kabal / The Concert of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal animated short. Slapstick comedy. France
- 1962 La fille sage / A Well-Behaved Girl animated film. France
- 1963 l'Encyclopedie de grand-maman en 13 volumes / Grandmother's Encyclopaedia animated short. A playful film made using etchings from the Art Nouveau period. Between surrealism and Monty Python. France
- 1963 Renaissance animated short. Featuring real objects that are destroyed, and thanks to reversing the tape are then restored to existence. Aleksander Jackiewicz (Film 27/1964): "This is the story of matter being reborn after a catastrophe". (Awards: 1963 - International Film Festival Tours, Jury's special prize) France
- 1963 Holy Smoke. France
- 1963 Gancia. France
- 1964 Les jeux des anges / The Game of the Angels animated short. Abstract forms in a setting evocative of a concentration camp created by the universe. (Awards: 1964 - 10th International Days of Short Films, Tours, Jury's special prize and FIPRESCI Prize). France
- 1964 Le musee / The Museum. France
- 1965 Le dictionnaire de Joachim / Joachim's Dictionary animated short. The self-destruction of an old wooden gramophone. (Awards: 1966 - International Film Festival Oberhausen, FIPRESCI Prize, International Film Festival Melbourne, Prize) France
- 1965 Un ete torride an episode from the full-length film Le theatre de Monsieur et Madame Kabal / Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre. France
- 1966 Rosalie short feature film based on Guy de Maupassant's short story Rosalie Prudent. Borowczyk's first short film fully his own. A white background, on it a face speaking about the murder of the newly born babies of the heroine - a seduced servant, played by Borowczyk's wife, Ligia Branice-Borowczyk, with one-second stills showing objects associated with murder and the crime in question, including a bundle of newspapers and rags, a garden spade, the seducer's picture, spread out on the judge's desk. (Awards: 1966 - International Film Festival Berlin, Silver Bear, 19th International Film Festival Locarno, youth jury's special mention for a short film; 1967 - 4th International Short Film Festival Krakow, Golden Dragon) France
- 1966 Le petit poucet animated film. France
- 1967 Dyptique short feature film. (Awards: 1967 - International Film Festival Mannheim, Interfilm Award) France
- 1967 Le Theatre de Monsieur et Madame Kabal / Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre full-length animated film. Borowczyk's first full-length animated film "for adult and mature people", as the director said at the screening in 1967 (Film 40/1967). The dark and grotesque story of a married couple: the wife - a mechanical monster made up of iron parts, and her henpecked husband. When Mrs. Kabal eats a butterfly, she gets indigestion and her husband has to travel to his wife's insides to search for the cause of her illness. The film includes colour photographic inserts - Mrs. Kabal's dreams. France
- 1967 Gavotte short feature film (Awards: 1967 - International Film Festival Mannheim, Gold Ducat). France
- 1969 Le phonographe animated film. France
- 1973 Une collection particuliere short documentary. A collection of erotic dolls and gadgets. France
- 1975 Brief von Paris medium-length documentary. France
- 1981 Hyper-Auto-Erotic short. France
- 1981 Hayaahi short. France
Full-length feature films:
- 1968 Goto L'ile d'amour / Goto, Island of Love. On an island that survived an earthquake in the previous century, the bloodthirsty tyrant Goto reigns. One of his favourites, something of a monster, falls in love with the tyrant's beautiful wife. He kills her lover and the tyrant. But the woman of his dreams prefers death to life with a horrible dwarf. At the moment of death, she will find out he truly loved her. Featuring Ligia Branice-Borowczyk and Pierre Brasseur. (Awards: 1969 - Georges Sadoul Prize, France) France
- 1971 Blanche based on the play Mazepa by Juliusz Słowacki. A free adaptation, the setting being moved to mediaeval France. Forbidden love between a stepmother and her stepson leads to family tragedy. (Awards: 1972 - International Film Festival Berlin, Grand Prix) France
- 1974 Contes immoraux / Immoral Tales. Four stories, including one about Erzsebet Bathory - Countess Dracula, and Lucrezia Borgia. The film was banned in France and was only shown after protests from a number of prominent figures. No wonder, because though visually beautiful, it is bloody and saturated with sex (in one of the stories, the heroine has intercourse with a gigantic cucumber). Borowczyk's first financial success. (Awards: 1974 - Le Prix de l'Age d'Or from the Royal Film Archive in Brussels) France
- 1975 Dzieje grzechu / Story of a Sin based on the novel by Stefan Żeromski. A faithful adaptation of Żeromski's novel. Noteworthy for its rich set design and attention to detail. The action took place in real interiors, and genuine paintings were hired for the film. Poland
- 1975 La bete / The Beast based on motifs from Prosper Merimée's short story Lokis. A young American woman is to marry a marquis, but a beast appears and falls in love with her. Borowczyk's variation on the fairy-tale material used in 1946 by Jean Cocteau in his film Beauty and the Beast. While that film was poetic, Borowczyk's is a horror story, or as someone wrote - a study of the power of animal sexuality (a gigantic penis on screen). Polish premiere in 1992. France
- 1976 La marge / The Streetwalker or The Margin. France
- 1977 Interno di un convento / Behind Convent Walls based on motifs from Henri Stendhal's Promenades dans Rome. Sexual life and nuns' fantasies behind convent walls. Italy
- 1979 Les heroines du mal / Heroines of Evil. France
- 1979 L'armoire a segment of Collections Privees / Private Collections. France
- 1980 Lulu based on motifs from the play by Frank Wedekind. France-Germany-Italy
- 1982 Docteur jekyll et les femmes based on motifs from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Erotic horror film. On the eve of his wedding, mysterious murders take place at Jekyll's house. All this is accompanied by sex and a gigantic penis on screen. (Awards: 1981 - Catalonian IFF Sitges, Catalonia, Clavel Medalla Sitges en Plata de Ley Dorda) France
- 1983 Ovide: L'art d'aimer / Ars Amandi. An interpretation of the famous poem by Ovid. France-Italy
- 1986 Emmanuelle V (directed with Steve Barnett, script written with Alex Cunningham and Howard R. Cohen) based on Emmanuelle Arsan's novel Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman. Emmanuelle is kidnapped from her yacht in Cannes and imprisoned in a harem by an Arab sheikh. France
- 1986 Almanach des adresses des demoiselles de Paris and Un traitement merite, episodes of "Série Rose". France
- 1988 Ceremonie d'amour / Love Rites. A prostitute's client starts obsessively spying on her. France
- Together with Szymon Bojko, Walerian Borowczyk also co-wrote the script for the documentary Sztuka ulicy [Street Art] (1958), directed by Konstanty Gordon. He made trailers for his feature films, including Goto, Island of Love and Blanche.
Author: Jan Strekowski, April 2004; updated February 2006.
Through Italy, Poland and Russia, the author of intellectual, deeply philosophical films such as...