Away from the vast studios and huge budgets of animation behemoths like Disney in the U.S., or Studio Ghibli in Japan, the 20th century saw some equally pioneering moving image work emerge from some far less visible corners of the world. One of the most fascinating of these is Poland, a European country with a painfully blighted political past that saw it not only invaded by the Nazis in the first of Hitler’s rampages, but later fall under Communist regimes that made production of non-state sanctioned creative work, film especially, a tricky beast.

What’s remarkable is that even with this backdrop of war and political oppression, Poland has still marked itself out as one of the most influential and innovative countries in terms of animation production: one of the world’s first animated cartoons (and the first ever stop-motion animation)  Piękna Lukanida (Beautiful Lukanida) was created there  in 1910 by Władysław Starewicz; and a few decades later the renowned Polish Film School movement was born, which produced the likes of Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda.

Wajda, who passed away aged 90 in October last year, is at the heart of a London-based showcase of Polish moving image past and present this month. For its 2017 edition, Kinoteka is celebrating 70 years of Polish animation through a collaboration with the band British Sea Power, who will perform a show at London’s Barbican centre featuring Polish animation snippets from films including Zbigniew Rybczyński’s Oscar-winning Tango, and Daniel Szczechura’s MC Escher-inspired Journey.

Even a brief dive into the YouTube archive of the past seven decades makes you realize what a rich and bold animation history Poland has; one characterized by unusual collages of hand-drawn imagery and live action, constant experimentation with techniques, and a highly interdisciplinary approach that saw many directors taking care of every single step of the animation process.

Uniting many of Poland’s productions is an esoteric approach to filmmaking: “Polish animation in many ways is less attached to traditional narrative,” says Kinoteka’s artistic director Marlena Lukasiak. “The filmmakers were much less concerned with engaging the audiences in a narrative way and more concerned with the different emotions or different states of mind the audience can experience. Journey was a kind of statement: it’s just a man travelling in a train, and for most of the film we just see the train passing different places and the man standing there.

“There’s basically no narrative but that’s his statement: he’s saying animated film can be about something else.”

But why start in 1947? “Of course, taking it from that date was debatable,” says Lukasiak. “There are different estimates of when Polish animation started being made: in the early 1900s for instance Vladislav Starewicz was one of the first people to make animated filmsusing insects, which he prepared so they could ‘act’ in the films. He was born in Moscow, so not everyone considers him to be a Polish animator, but both his parents were Polish and at that time Poland was sort of non-existent [from 1795 until 1918, no truly independent Polish state existed.] He’s a sort of a father figure, but the first properly-made animated film in Poland was in 1947; Zenon Wasilewski’s In the Time of King Krakus. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated story, it was more for children than adults.”

To explain Polish animation history, it’s important to understand the many political and social upheavals the country experienced in the 20th century. Poland only became an independent state in 1918 when the Second Polish Republic was founded after World War 1, which lasted until the Nazi invasion in 1939. During World War 2 Polish soldiers fought on both the eastern and western fronts alongside the Allies, but after the Allies’ victory in 1945, Poland became a Communist satellite state of the Soviet Union, known from 1952 as the Polish People’s Republic.

The scars Poland bore of WW2 were many and varied: the country’s physical center shifted thanks to mandates put in place by the Allies, and its former multi-ethnic society was shattered through migration, extermination, and forced expulsion by the Nazis’ persecution of various groups, which continued even after the war was over. Poland remained a Communist state until 1989 with the formation of the Capitalist Third Polish Republic.

Thanks to these shifts, much pre-war Polish art, including animation, was lost or destroyed. Much of the early work of  Themersons—a couple named Franciszka and Stefan who created art throughout both war periods—is among that which was lost. The pair collaborated from their meeting in 1929 until their deaths in 1988 on multidisciplinary, boundary-pushing work, including paintings, drawings, books, and film, alongside their animations. Throughout their oeuvre runs a thread of peculiar naivety that belies the more academic and conceptual concerns.

They stayed together as partners in life and creative collaboration throughout those six decades; volunteering for the Polish army during WW2 together, separated while Stefan served briefly as a soldier in France and Franciszka moved to London. In their filmmaking, Themersons illustrated, wrote, designed, and shot their own animations; and their pre-WW2 work is seen as crucial in paving the way for all subsequent Polish experimental cinema. Their most famous work is 1945’s The Eye and the Ear, a strange and compelling animated analysis of four songs composed by Karol Szymanowski for Julian Tuwim’s poem Słopiewnie.

The most internationally renowned Polish animators of the 20th century were Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, who were aided by the 1956 political thaw that meant fewer governmental restrictions on creativity and the work they were making. The following year saw the release of their seminal film Byl Sobie Raz (Once Upon a Time), an improvised animation delineating the adventures of an ink blot that comes to life and busies himself; trying to chat up a disinterested paper cutout lady, visiting an art gallery, and prodding a hippopotamus. The duo’s 1958 film House won them accolades at the International Competition of Experimental Films in Brussels, and has since been seen as a pivotal moment in showing the world that Polish animation was something to be taken seriously.

According to Lukasiak, Borowzyvk and Lenica were the reason that by the 1960s, animation “started being considered as a form of art.” She explains: “They’re considered the gurus of Polish animation and art. They were making very different sort of animated films using cutouts, and the idea was that it isn’t only about the narrative, but creating something of meaning and something for people looking for intellectual ideas.

“They weren’t political, but they showed that these [animation techniques] were the tools we had to be able to tell completely different stories. They could express things that couldn’t be expressed in a very direct way because of censorship and politics in Poland.”

House was the last film the pair made together (and the last Borowczyk would make in Poland). Borowczyk went on to make his most famous work, The Astronauts, with French artist and filmmaker Chris Marker. The action centers around a man with dreams of flying into space and his pet owl, set to a hypnotic percussive rhythm that creates an odd and compelling tension in the otherwise ludicrous proceedings.

The film uses an eerie technique of animating photographs using a rostrum camera held vertically over the images and shot frame by frame. Borowczyk made it clear the film was a tribute to French pioneer of moving visual trickery Georges Méliès, and like the director before him, took all shots from a fixed frontal position. This creates a strange theatrical disconnect from the action, and seems to somehow compound its poignancy.

The 1960’s has been dubbed a “golden age” in Polish animation as the influence of Borowczyk and Lenica informed new generations of animators—thanks in no small part to the work of the prolific Witold Giersz, Mirosław Kijowicz, and Daniel Szczechura. Giersz worked across children’s cartoons, educational films, and moving image art projects over his career. Kijowicz and Szczechura both made animations of a politically-charged nature. Censorship was rife throughout the years of Communist rule in Poland, and meant that creating animation, or indeed art of any kind, was a closely scrutinized and often dangerous task. Directors had to use coded imagery and metaphor to express their criticisms: Szczechura’s The Machine uses cut-out animation as a barely-disguised lampooning of his country’s industrial ambitions through allusion, and deceptively naive aesthetics in its character design.

“Borowczyk and Lenica were big influences on Szczechura,” says Lukasiak.”When you bear in mind the social issues, he developed this sort of language of using a lot of metaphors and ways of talking about the political system in an indirect way and with a great sense of humour. It wasn’t completely serious–the subject matter was serious, but the way he shows it was through anecdotes. He was a teacher and supervised a lot of filmmakers in Poland who used a similar language.”

This is a common theme in Polish animation; along with philosophical musings more usually explored through literature.

“There was a big school of thought that took a philosophical approach to animation, so film is just a way to convey the meaning of existence—or the lack of meaning.”

For Lukasiak, another commonality that set Polish animators apart from their global contemporaries was their surrealist leanings. “They wanted  to show things that were as far from reality as possible, so it’s all about imagined things—a little bit like stream of consciousness,” she says. “There are lots of rapidly juxtaposed shots to bring one thing to your mind, then something different, then something different again.” The idea was to shift the focus away from narrative, and into a more esoteric function: to use moving imagery to elicit emotion in the viewer.

Józef Antoniszczak was one of the masters of this style, his films described by writer Jan Strękowski as “vibrating, pulsating, full of motion and the ineptitude of some plasticity that hides the fact that it is intended,” and teeming with an “ingenious, surprising, absurd, and illogical sense. They are grotesque and ripe with satirical commentary, full of rough sounds as the narrations are rough, read mostly by amateurs, full of mistakes and linguistic screw-ups.”Antoniszczak’s contemporary Jerzy Kucia (who aged 75, still works in film today) used similarly poetic approaches to underpin his filmmaking: his poignant 1972 debut Return is a moving elegy to loneliness, showing a man taking a train journey back to his past. 

Lukasiak cites this sort of dream-like approach as a vital component in Tango by Zbigniew Rybczyński—Poland’s first ever Oscar when it scooped  the 1982 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. “He was an important figure as he was the one really looking for innovation,” says Lukasiak. “He was a teacher too, and he always said that animators and artists had to use technology to be able to say more meaningful things. Why was it being used by business, but not by art? Obviously technology is the main tool for animators now, but back in the late 1970’s people were still using traditional methods in Poland.”

Though still relatively obscure even within its birthplace, 20th century Polish animation has had a profound impact on global cinematography. It’s hard not to see its influence in Lynch’s first experiments with film, and the bizarre and frequently unnerving work of the Quay Brothers owes a debt to Walerian Borowczyk.

“Animation was such an important tool for filmmakers to convey different messages, because it wasn’t deemed as important as documentary or even fiction feature films in central European countries,” Lukasiak explains. “It was considered such a niche thing so there was a freedom that allowed animators to be incredibly imaginative. Anything else happening in Poland was rather uninspiring: cultural life was so controlled under Communism that if you wanted to make films, they had to be done in a certain way and talk about certain subjects.

“For animators, it was like being child that can go wild. The fact we had over 40 years of a state funded film industry allowed animators to do whatever they felt like: they didn’t have to worry about what would happen to their films: ‘why am I making it? Where will it be shown? Who’s going to watch it?’ There was state money for these activities.”

After Poland emerged from under Communist rule in 1989 and this state money ceased, most of the animation studios in the country closed in their struggle to adapt to working in a free market economy. “I think it was very hard for Polish animators to understand that in order to survive you need to make things like advertisements and short promo films,” says Lukasiak. “They found that quite an abstract idea, and a lot of the old traditional studios went bust.”

One studio that did adapt by operating as a private company is Se Ma For, an animation studio founded in Łódź  in 1947. A few animators have continued there in the innovative spirit of their forebears: Piotr Dumala has gained a reputation for “tackling super serious subjects with a technique that allows him to do it in a very gentle way, so that it looks like a dream rather than reality.” More recently, Tomasz Bagiński has channeled computer generated imagery and experimental production techniques to explore his country’s past, as in Animowana historia Polski (Animated History of Poland). Like the Polish animators that came before him, Bagiński always takes his sense of Polish identity (ambivalent or otherwise) as a starting point for his films.

What’s remarkable is that in the face of Poland’s war-torn past, its animation has forged a unique path, characterized by innovative techniques that bear the hand of their maker; hand-made puppets, painting on glass, crude cut-outs, and the eschewing of narrative for feeling and dream-like qualities. To turn these hard realities into escapist reveries is a testament to the skill of Poland’s animators, who collectively made a body of work that deserves far wider visibility.