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The Films of Franciszka & Stefan Themerson: Why Remake "Apteka"?
Bruce Checefsky


 


Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, perhaps the most influential of Polish experimental filmmakers, produced five films from 1930 to 1937 that rank with the greatest of the European avant-garde. These five—Pharmacy, Europa, Moment Musical, Short Circuit, and The Adventure of a Good Citizen—revealed moving photograms as a new medium. Europa (1931-32) was based on Antol Stern's poem describing in a series of images the current condition of the world while Moment Musical made in 1933 was the Themersons first sound film. This three-minute commercial was set to Ravel's music and advertised the fashion merchandise of Wanda Golinska.


 


Their next short film Short Circuit (1935) was commissioned for the Institute of Social Affairs and warned against the careless handling of electricity. The Adventure of a Good Citizen (1938) was made under the aegis of the Film Authors Cooperative (the organization co-founded by them) and was undoubtedly their most advanced film. In addition to live action, transformed by acceleration, reverse movement, negative images, the film contained abstract reflections of light and effects painted directly on the film.


Equally noteworthy in their own way, as political statements, were Calling Mr. Smith and The Eye and the Ear, filmed in England during World War II for the Film Unit of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in Exile.


Sadly, only the last three films survived the war. We know the rest only from descriptions and single-frame storyboards.


Franciszka Weinles was born in Warsaw in 1907 to the family of Jacob Weinles, a renowned academic painter of large-scale scenes of Jewish life. At 17, she entered the Academy of Art in Warsaw. She graduated 1931, taking the school’s first prize in painting. Later that year, she married 21-year-old Stefan Themerson, the son of a physician. Stefan, born in Plock, had moved to Warsaw to study physics and architecture. Their collaborations began as early as 1929.


In 1937, the Themersons left Poland to work in Paris among an international community of artists. In 1940 Stefan joined the French Resistance, while Franciszka--fearing anti-Semitism, ghettos, and concentration camps--escaped to London. In 1942, they were reunited in London.


For several years, while the Germans occupied Poland, Stefan and Franciszka worked for the Polish government in exile. They produced Calling Mr. Smith to protest the destruction of Polish culture by the Nazis, but Britain's government censors refused to release the explicitly anti-war film.


In 1948, the Themersons founded Gaberbocchus Press in London. Operating until 1979, the Gaberbocchus Press published more than 60 extraordinary titles, including literary works by Alfred Jarry, Pol-Davis, Raymond Queneau, Guillaume Apollinaire and Heinrich Heine; the works of Kurt Scwitters, Raoul Hausmann, Bertrand Russell, and Stevie Smith; and many books by the Themersons.


 



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Stefan Themerson described his earliest film, Apteka (Pharmacy, b/w, silent 35mm, 3 minutes, Warsaw, 1930), as the first attempt to adapt the photogram technique to film:
"The method was simple; in normal photograms objects were placed on light-sensitive paper. We arranged them on semi-transparent paper, using a sheet of glass for support; the camera (an old-fashioned case with a crank) was placed underneath and pointed upwards with the light source situated above the glass. Usually, but not always, by moving the lights (frame after frame) we obtained movement of the shadows and their deformations."
[S.Zahorska "Polski film - dobry!" (A Good Polish Film!), Wiadomosci Literackie No 52, 1932, p.3]


The true subject of this kind of animation was light. The film contained shots of pharmaceutical tools, a siphon, face, clock, and hand. Stefan and Franciszka also used their own photograms made from 1928 to1929. They sequenced the images according to their poetic and visual values. There was no script.

As expected, the innovative film aroused controversy among film and art critics. Seweryn Tross, a writer for the Polish journal Czas who sympathized with the avant-garde wrote in 1932, "Escapism from content into the area of pure art form in Apteka was for us a new and interesting experiment. It showed the Polish public, which did not know of foreign avant-garde films, the emotional value of cinematic image itself, irrespective of the content.” The film generally was not well received, however. It was never fully appreciated until years after it had disappeared.


The story of the Themersons’ lives and their endurance speak of the power of creative thought against systematic repression. They made art from random spills of hidden or neglected truth. They confronted ordinary media and created a powerful new tool of expression. Apteka was an interesting experiment with animation. The subject, like truth, was not objects or drawings, but the elusive nature of light.


In June 2001, a successful remake of Apteka was filmed at a private animation studio in Budapest. PHARMACY (b/w, silent, trt 4:34, Budapest, 2001) was remade using published reviews from the 1930's Polish press, original film stills, storyboards, and notes from Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. Other source materials include an essay by art historian Janusz Zagrodzki, who rediscovered the Themerson avant-garde films in Poland in the early 1970s. His 1981 essay in Visual Researches exhibition catalog from the Museum of Art in Lodz, “Outsiders of the Avant-garde,” briefly describes the Themerson early experiments with film.


 


 

Credits

PHARMACY
A Film by Bruce Checefsky
35mm, silent, black and white, Budapest 2001

Directed by Bruce Checefsky

Produced by

Mark K. Smith

Tina Cassara

Wes and Missy Cochran

Michael Herbst and Fourth World

Laszlo L. Revesz

Animators

Bruce Checefsky

Laszlo Revesz

Tina Cassara

Andrea Kiss

Susana Szabo

Production Assistants

Ferenc Fischer

Antal Kazi

 

Filmed at C.A.K.O Studio, Budapest 2001

Total Running Time - 4:34

 

 

Film Vitae

2003

Leopold Museum, Vienna

Denver Film Society

Cinematique Ontario, Toronto

Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Berkeley Pacific Film Archive

Los Angeles Film Forum

Rotterdam Film Festival (Official Selection)

Beverly Arts Center of Chicago

Media Art Biennal, RO Center for Media Art Foundation, Poland (Prize)

Hallwalls, Buffalo, New York

2002

Hull Short Film Festival, London,

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Wexner Center for the Arts

Munich Haus der Kunst

Berlin Martin-Gropius-Bau

Athens Film and Video Festival

26th Cleveland International Film Festival

Cleveland Cinematique

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

Shaheen Modern & Contemporary Art, Cleveland

2001

Location One, New York City

Lamar Dodd Art Center

Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, Bulgaria

 
















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