Interview: Bruce Checefsky on Franciszka and Stefan Themerson


Filmmaker and curator Bruce Checefsky.

The New York Jewish Film Festival consistently presents a diverse array of narrative and documentary films that express the wide scope of the Jewish experience. This year's lineup includes some particularly unique additions, like a program of Jewish horror put together by critic J. Hoberman.

We're particularly excited about Sunday's introduction to the work of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, who made the first Polish experimental films and whose work expresses a politcally fraught Warsaw in the late 1920s and early 1930s. We spoke with the curator of NYJFF's foray into the avant-garde about the Themersons and his work recreating some of their films that were lost during the Nazi occupation.

Can you talk a bit about the context in which the Themersons worked?

The Themersons were active in Warsaw in the 1920s and early 1930s. They left Warsaw in 1938 to go to Paris and when the war broke out they split up. Stefan went to the French resistance and Fraciszca escaped to London and they were reunited two years later in 1940.

They were in the artistic circle of Warsaw in the mid-to-late 20s. Franciszka had studied painting at the Academy of Art and Stefan was a graphic designer. They met in school and were married, and then they started to collaborate on some projects.

One of the early projects they collaborated on was an experimental film called Apteka, which is a short, two-and-a-half minute abstract film that was based on their experiments with photograms. Photograms are cameraless photographs made by placing objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing it to light.

The reason they did this experiment was that they were interested in cinema and they were aware of this avant-garde approach to filmmaking that was taking place in other parts of Europe. Poland at that time had never seen anything like it, so this was really the first Polish experimental film ever.

Apteka is one of the films you recreated. What was the research for that like and what was your process?

It's almost like a curatorial project, since I function as a curator at the Cleveland Institute of Art as well; it was really a combination of a curatorial practice and a studio practice. It involved a lot of research. I dug back into the public reviews in 1930s newspapers and had those translated. The Themersons had talked about the film in a publication they did in the late 70s and early 80s and there were a few images left that were made from the original film. So I relied on those archival materials, though I never used the film stills in my recreation of it, everything in my version of it was created for that.

Part of what I do is I try to get inside the heads of the filmmakers to understand what they were interested in, but also to understand the social and political context in which the film was made. Of course, Poland in the late 1920s and early 30s was just coming out of World War I, there was a great deal of anti-semitism and separatism and the Themersons were working in this cultural milieu. So I tried to really understand what it would be like to make a film under those conditions. Then I used the materials they would have used: the film stock was comparable to the 35mm stock they used in the 1930s, the camera was a hand-wound French animation camera comparable to what they would have used, and I built a design stage like what they built to make the film. The whole production was like that. It took place in an animation studio in Budapest in 2001, and the reason why I did it in that part of the world is that I was able to work with filmmakers who I believe have a sympathetic vision to the film. American experimental filmmakers are very different from European experimental filmmakers and I think working with them added layers to the film that it wouldn't have gotten in the United States.

Of course, the reason for this recreation was that only three of the Themersons' films survived the war, two of which were made abroad.

Yes. The two films that they made in London, Calling Mr. Smith in 1941 and The Eye and the Ear in 1942, were commissioned by the Polish Ministry of Culture. The film before that, Adventures of a Good Citizen was made in 1937 and that film did survive. The film that was probably their most important, Europa, did not survive. The other films, too, are considered destroyed or lost during the destruction of Warsaw in the late 30s. Warsaw was entirely crushed and devastated and a lot of art and artifacts were lost during the occupation by the Nazis.

I was struck by the contrast between the two films made in London, one being so overtly political and the other almost completely aesthetic.

That's the interesting thing and that's what I'm trying to bring to this program. The Themersons' work was political from the beginning. Adventures of a Good Citizen was really a satire on Poland at that time; it was critical of Polish society. Even Apteka, from my point of view, was about the malady that Poland was facing in the late 1920s and early 30s, and they used these pharmaceutical tools so I think you can draw a relationship between the idea of illness and healing and the condition of Poland in 1930. I think it's a highly political film, even though it's not about politics. I think if you take apart those visual metaphors, they point directly to the problems Poland was facing.

The Eye and the Ear, later on, is more formal and takes apart a piece of music and interprets it, but I think there are definitely elements in that film that can be tied back to the Themersons' earlier work. Calling Mr. Smith was obviously the most front-facing political film of all, but I think they all exist within this bandwidth of expressing the political on film.

What do you hope people will take away from the program on Sunday, especially someone new to the work of the Themersons?

Well, that's why I'm doing it. The Themersons are very well known in Europe and especially England, where they set up Gaberbocchus Press and there's an enormous Themerson archive. They are also very well known in Eastern and Central Europe, but less so in the United States. So my hope is to be able to introduce these filmmakers to an American audience, and not just as experimental filmmakers but as filmmakers who were working in a very difficult time and who made work that was an expression of that.

In addition, Franciszka Themerson was Jewish and Stefan's heritage can be linked to the Jewish community and I think putting them in this filmic context is very important. I think the New York Jewish Film Festival is a great place to talk about that and introduce them to the Jewish community of New York. I think you can look at these films and get a real sense of them and the enormous amount of creativity they put into their work. The Themersons were very creative people and their collaboration was hugely successful. So I'm also hoping people walk away from the theater knowing a little more about who Franciszka and Stefan Themerson are and the contribution they made to experimental filmmaking and to culture in the broad sense.

The Films of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson screens Sunday, January 20 at 6:00pm in the Walter Reade Theater as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival.

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