Daniel Szczechura
Jerzy Armata: More of a hobby than a profession
Jerzy Armata: More of a hobby than a profession

Daniel Szczechura, a world master of animation, began his artistic education at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Many years later, he returned there to teach, running the Animated Film Workshop at the Faculty of Graphic Arts for more than thirty years. This was a year-long unfortunate episode - was his comment on his studies at the Academy many years later. He found much more satisfaction in his studies at the Faculty of Arts History of the University of Warsaw which he completed in 1958. In those times he was involved in the very popular Student Satirical Theatre (STS) where he painted posters and prepared stage designs for them.

Cooperation with the STS was very important for Szczechura. This was where he encountered the young intellectual elite of those times. He became sure that - as one of spectacle titles ran - thinking has a colossal future. At the Student Satirical Theatre he met Agnieszka Osiecka and Wojciech Solarz, with whom he later cooperated at the National Film School in Łódź. Working as a cinematographer on their etudes, Szczechura created his first independent works as a student of the Cinematography Department. Together with Solarz, he made short features: The World is Waiting for Us (Świat na nas czeka - 1959), Death and the Maiden (Śmierć i dziewczyna - 1960) - an etude based on a short story by Stanisław Dygat, made in cooperation with their acquaintances from the STS: Elżbieta Czyżewska and Krystyna Sienkiewicz, The Visit (Wizyta - 1962). With Agnieszka Osiecka: the feature Wooden Poster (Plakat z drewna - 1961) and documentary STS '58 (1959).

STS '58 is a staged documentary etude about the Warsaw group's work on a new programme of the STS. It starts with overlapping posters (some of them by Szczechura) edited in the rhythm That's Good that You Came Here Today, I Know What You're After and What You Want (Dobrze, że właśnie przyszedłeś tu dzisiaj, wiem, czego szukasz i chcesz) sung by Krystyna Sienkiewicz and it ends with a close-up of the front facade of the main office of the communist censorship authority. The audience can hear a statement: This performance will not be shown, with an excellent commentary on a cabaret sketch and a fragment of the same song, edited as a chorus.

Szczechura selected the problem of limited freedom of expression (censorship) as the theme of his first own etude Conflicts (Konflikty - 1960), made at the Cinematography Department of the Łódź Film School. He also worked as a cinematographer for short features: by Stefan Szlachtycz - Don't Sleep or You'll Be Robbed (Nie śpij, bo cię okradną - 1959) and by Krzysztof Zanussi - Girl and Uhlan (Ułan i dziewczyna - 1961). To a great extent, his first professional films: The Machine (Maszyna - 1961), The Letter (Litera - 1962) and The Chair (Fotel - 1963) were based on the specific, STS-style understanding of satire and its social function. The Machine ridicules absurdities of everyday life, The Letter mocks human stupidity and over-zeal, while The Chair is a short, concentrated tale (or instructional film even) on gaining power.

The animated feature Conflicts are undoubtedly one of the most interesting student etudes in the history of the Łódź Film School. This is a romantic drama about a love triangle, stylised as silent cinema. It is a film about a film, about the difficulties of creation and dangers from the outside, threatening every artist working in the People's Republic of Poland.

During the premiere, the audience loved the film. The director bowed to the applauding audience - only three sad gentlemen in the middle row did not applaud. The film's distribution was stopped (making one think of the off-voice comment at the end of STS '58: This performance will not be shown). The artist changed the bloody ending for a more optimistic one. At the second premiere, no-one applauded... only the three sad gentlemen: the animated anonymous figures.

Conflicts obtained the Audience's Award at the 4th Student Etudes Festival of the Film School in Warsaw (1961), and DKF awarded the Zygzak Prize to Szczechura for the best socio-political film.

The substance, shown in an uncompromising yet funny way is doubtlessly the most important, but the form of the film is very significant, too. Conflicts is a great combination of feature cinema and animation.

The Machine, the screenplay of which was written by Mirosław Kijowicz, is a typical animation: we watch the creation of a giant and complex machine designed - as we learn after the ceremonious inauguration - to sharpen pencils. Both on the screen and outside the cinema hall, the audience can see the Polish communist mania of exaggeration. To use the terminology of the Marxist philosophy, pronounced in the so-called real socialism, The Machine should be described as a story about the base, and Szczechura's next film (The Letter) can be called a story about the ideological infrastructure: there's a letter N, which causes the enthusiasm of a crowd only to turn out to be a part of the inscription THE END.

The Chair, made in 1963 is among those films in the history of Polish animation that have won the most awards (three prizes in Oberhausen, Grand Prix in Montevideo, special awards in Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Paris, Golden Dragon in Cracow and Warsaw Mermaid).

The plot is simple and the narration is clear: we watch a fight for a place at the presidential table, which was vacated. Running to the chair, the candidates push each other, block passage, trip each other up. Szczechura showed the striving for power, from above, drawing the figures as straight as possible, which made the images almost abstract and therefore universal.

The cycle of Szczechura's satirical films is completed by Charles (Karol - 1966) - a funny story of a man painting furtively a slogan on a wall and law enforcers who try to stop him (when they see him writing "Go away, C...", he continues to write: CHARLES) - and The Landing Operation (Desant - 1968) - a pure nonsense, brilliantly humorous tale of two soldiers falling through the air: a corporal and a private who jumped off a plane forgetting their parachutes.

The Landing Operation, based on a monologue by Andrzej Warchał of the Cracow cabaret Piwnica pod Baranami (who was also a screenwriter and director for the Cracow Animated Film Studio) had the owner suspended by the censors for the longest time in the history of Polish animation. Made in 1968, it premiered nineteen years later (to be distributed only in small cinemas and film clubs).

Differenzen (1971), somewhat Orwellian in its message and yet funny, was made by Szczechura in Austria: a man running after a colourful butterfly stops suddenly, shocked, as he almost crashes into a giant boot standing on his way; he rises his eyes to see a giant, and behind the giant...

Szczechura applied the similar geometric aesthetics in The Graph (Wykres - 1966): a small figure, drawn carelessly, ascetically, and an ever denser web of segments of the title chart, which covers the entire screen by the end. This time, the artist does mean a critical interpretation of human faults or social absurdities, as in his previous films. The satirical sarcasm is replaced by philosophical reflection on the meaning of human existence. The main character of The Graph runs for something that can't be reached, he sacrifices all his life in striving for the elusive.

The Graph is a kind of a road movie (quite literally), the film's title signifies an existential pathway of the main character, one could say: his life's ECG. This is an extraordinarily intense story (the film lasts only three minutes).

The road movie stain is maintained also in the funny impression First, Second, Third (Pierwszy, drugi, trzeci... - 1964) (made two years before The Graph in a black-and-white stop-motion technique) about a ski-jumper, who unexpectedly flies around the world during a contest and after going around the entire globe, he lands to take the last, third place.

The existential reflection of The Graph is continued in The Voyage (Podróż) and The Leap (Skok), made six years later. It is worth noting that in both films the animated character is not anonymous at all, his face is very similar to the face of the director himself. These are very intimate films, probably the most important films by Szczechura.

Seemingly nothing happens in The Voyage. The main character is travelling by train, looking outside through the window, where the same monotonous landscape is visibly moving. A rail audio-visual cacophony. When the man arrives at his destination, he gets off the train and goes along an alley toward a white-coloured house. He stands in front of it and turns back. An autumn leaf falls down. The man gets on the train again. He returns to the place where he came from.

The Leap (1978) is also a one-way journey film. This is a remake of a live-acting etude by Ryszard Czekała - The Accident (Wypadek - 1971). This is probably one of the most poignant works in the history of Polish cinematography.

Morning. Chilly interior of a flat in a block. The main character gets up, washes himself carefully, takes his breakfast, reads a newspaper, dresses, straightens his tie, checks his watch (it's 7.50 a.m.), he'll probably go to work soon. He's in a hurry not to be late. Suddenly, instead of going to the door, he goes to the window. He jumps. The protagonist of The Accident committed suicide, too, but that happened in an old, neglected tenant house and he was a sick man tired with his life. The main character of The Leap - on the contrary - seemed to be satisfied with his life, as evidenced by his perfect attire.

The Chair's record of awards and special prizes was almost squared by the grotesque Hobby, made five years later (awarded in Oberhausen, Miami, Philadelphia, Buenos Aires, Adelaide, Auckland and other festivals) - a spectacular, surreal parable of an evil, cold-hearted woman and naive men (this could also be a story about freedom and restrictions). The visual concept of Hobby is very different from the ideas visible in Szczechura's previous productions, but it is very adequate to the metaphorically presented content - bright colours, references to surreal paintings.

Hobby began a new path of Szczechura's work. The realist description, simplified to the edge of abstract forms (as in the case of The Chair or The Graph) is gradually replaced by loose imagination play, a linear plot is replaced by insight. Three years after Hobby (soon after The Voyage), in 1971 Szczechura made a pure-nonsense, pop-art-style impression on longing for the unattainable, entitled If You See a Cat Flying in the Sky... (Jeśli ujrzysz kota fruwającego po niebie...), a visualisation of a funny statement by Andrzej Krauze: If you see a cat flying in the sky, don't be surprised: it's a cat that likes birds. Szczechura has already played with inscriptions five years earlier, in Charles (Go away, C... - meaning the main character's name, of course). A cat (although an entirely different cat) will appear also in one of the last films by Szczechura: Being a Fish (1988) - a funny story about a fish, who checks the fisherman's ID and starts a party, which ends up with a police intervention (and the said cat, who suddenly walks off the TV screen).

It should be mentioned that Daniel Szczechura's output includes an episode of international series (made for an Italian production company) Tales of All the Nations: About Popiel the King (Bajki narodów świata: O królu Popielu - 1974), two parts of Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza) - Stella's Crime (Zbrodnia Stelli - 1969) and Sinbad Buried (Sindbad pogrzebany - 1969) and one episode: Polish Legends: A Castle in the Forest (Klechdy polskie: Zamek w lesie - 1971). It is also in ancient legends and myths where you can trace the origins of one film meant exclusively for an adult audience: Burning Fingers (Gorejące palce - 1975) - a suspenseful and horror-style mysterious story about a forest brigand taking revenge on people whom he believes were responsible for his friend's death.

Expressive colours. Drawing reminiscent of Roland Topor and his work. Five men hang the sixth one on a naked, leafless branch of a huge tree. The execution is observed stealthily by the seventh man. When the others leave, he cuts off the hanged man's hand and makes a candlestick out of it. At night, he creeps into the executors' houses to avenge his friend's death. Killing one of them means one finger of the burning hand put out. But the revenge won't be complete - one finger remains on fire. This is a strange story, breath-taking, with the suffocating atmosphere of constant threat, hiding a terrible, undisclosed mystery.

The surreal style is maintained in the Film Diptych by Daniel Szczechura (Dyptyk filmowy Daniela Szczechury): Mirage (Fatamorgana - 1981) and Mirage 2 (Fatamorgana 2 - 1983). This is specific road cinema, but it's about objects moving, not people. In the first film, the main character (a block of flats) suddenly budges its foundations and starts on a journey that ends submerged in a lake. In the second part of the Diptych, the block comes out of the lake (while its inhabitants enjoy a morning on the beach) only to submerge again at twilight. In this film (made of modified photos), cause-and-effect logic is mixed with the dreamy style (on the one hand the audience watches ordinary life, and on the other events which are positively surreal).

XYZ... (1983) is a similar story about a journey (reminiscent also of Szczechura's earlier film - First, Second, Third). However, this time it's not a block of flats or ski jumper moving, but a clerk reading a newspaper in the morning is suddenly lifted away (together with his chair) and floats among the clouds.

Travelling is also the theme of the poetic and nostalgic A Good Night Story (Dobranocka - 1997), inspired by the art of Stasys Eidrigevicius.

So bad thoughts don't bother us any more

With strong and bright friendship one can start

Into the depths of the horizons:

None of us is afraid

And let us be cheered

By the simple moral

That Happiness is not motionless

That it is looking for us, too...

These words by Jan Wołek (in the rhythm of ear-catching music by Jerzy Satanowski) close this impression on a search for happiness, based on the free play of the imagination. This time, the director is completely hidden by the visual design by Eidrigevicius, his own activity limited to setting the previously static, melancholic and magical visions in motion. Humility can be impressive, too.

His latest film (made in 2002) is entitled Hobby. Daniel Szczechura. Several animated films by one man (Hobby. Daniel Szczechura. Kilka filmów animowanych jednego autora). This is a feature-length film and the artist's sequence of his own works. These are several animated films by one man - as the subtitle says - linked by the director with newly-made shots: at the beginning, we see an empty cinema hall, we can hear the cine projector and on the screen the student etude Conflicts begins a retrospective of Szczechura's films. By the end, the auditorium is filled... with one person. The director himself.

Szczechura has always been ironical and somewhat coquettish. It seems that gathering his best works in a single film is a good idea to draw someone to the empty seats.

Szczechura is not easily labelled: he changes themes, visual concepts, styles and the form of depicting his artistic message.

The chronological sequence of films in Hobby somehow undermines this opinion. Many of his early films are not based on original screenplays and their artistic form is treated by Szczechura as secondary, somewhat subject to the content. But still, he makes strictly original cinema, operating his own, individual visions. Provided, however, that it concerns not substantive form (although this is, of course, essential), but primarily the thought.

Szczechura's cinema began with depicting reality in a satirical, exaggerated, sneering way. Soon the buffo tones were replaced by a more serious impression, and documentation of the superficial, external was dominated by an insight into what is hidden deep inside man. A Good Night Story, his latest animated short film, begins with a poem by Jan Wołek:

When the eyelids fall as a curtain

And dreams take reason out of facts

Enter Man

The real one - not an actor

So lead us, lead us to happiness

We whisper, lonely among men

Don't let yourselves go mad!

Don't let yourselves wake up...

Szczechura's films depict the life of the real one, and not an actor, of a man, for whom the act of creation is a hobby and only then a profession. Just like life itself.

Jerzy Armata

(this article is a condensed version of the text "Hobbysta filmu, hobbysta życia" from the book by Jerzy Armata "Hobby animacja. Kino Daniela Szczechury", published in 2009 by the Studio Emka publishing house in Warsaw)

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