The Necromation of Ladislaw Starewicz
The etymology of the word ‘animation’ comes from the Latin animātiō, which means the act of giving life to something. I have always felt that the true Latin meaning has a slight Frankenstein vibe to it because before bringing life to something, the something in question must first be without life. It must be something static, inert, inanimate and in other words… dead. In the history of the medium, never has the literal meaning of the word applied more than in the silent era animation of Ladislaw Starewicz and his beautifully unsettling amalgam of claymation and taxidermy.
Starewicz’s first foray into animation came in 1909 while he was the director of the Natural History Museum in Konvo, Lithuania. While creating a series of short nature documentaries, Starewicz encountered the problem of filming a battle between two nocturnal stag beetles which would freeze in place as soon as they felt the heat of the camera lights upon them. Starewicz’s solution was as ingenious as it was appallingly unscientific. He elected to kill off the uncooperative subjects of his documentary, preserve their bodies with wax, replace their limbs with wires and stage a version of the desired insect battle using the technique of stop-motion photography. Although this creative approach did very little to further humanity’s understanding of insect behavior, Starewicz’s morose innovations did push the art form of stop-motion forward by leaps and bounds.
Following that first film, Walka żuków or The Battle of the Stag Beetles (1909), Starewicz moved away from non-fiction towards fantasy and fables like The Grasshopper and the Ant (1911) but his background in the natural sciences meant that his animated films continually featured the carefully articulated carcasses preserved animals. In children’s fairy tales like Starewicz’s later Les Grenouilles qui Demandent un Roi also released as Frogland (1922), there is a fascinating macabre to watching a chorus of dead amphibians being skillfully orchestrated to create the illusion of life. Even the choice of subject matter, in this case an animal fable from Aesop, reflects the omnipresence of death; when the frogs of Frogland pray to Jupiter for a new king they receive instead a hungry stork which proceeds to gobble them up one by one.
Starewicz’s most well known film is also one of his most perplexing creations entitled Miest Kinomatograficheskovo Operatora or The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). Like The Battle of the Stag Beetles, it is another stop-motion concerned with the invented battle between dead insects, however this time the conflict is more interpersonal and surprisingly emotional. It should be stated that The Cameraman’s Revenge is a fundamentally odd film and I imagine that has been part of its appeal over the last century, but it is best to consume it as an early attempt at comedy of the absurd – even though it has the appearance of melodrama that might be staged by Count Dracula’s bug-eating assistant Renfield. In The Cameraman’s Revenge Starewicz weaves a lascivious tale of marital infidelity, wounded masculinity and public humiliation full of shame and recrimination – all which wouldn’t be in the least bit humorous, save for the fact that the torrid drama is being performed by a collection of deceased invertebrates.
When the Russian monarchy was toppled in October of 1917 Starewicz’s family found themselves on the wrong side of the revolution and were forced to leave their homeland, eventually settling in Paris where Starewicz began the second phase of his animation career. It was in France that Starewicz created his most visually impressive films including Frogland, The Magic Clock and his masterpiece Fétiche Mascotte (1933) also released as The Mascot, Duffy the Mascot and Puppet Love. Like a delicately balanced synthesis between Pixar’s Toy Story and De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Starewicz’s The Mascot is a heartfelt short about a plush dog named Fétiche that comes to life when anointed with a teardrop from the cheek of his creator; an impoverished mother weeping for her bedridden daughter. Fétiche overhears the ailing daughter ask for an orange and when the mother tells her they cannot afford it, the little stuffed mascot sets out into the city determined to find some fruit for the sick girl. After successfully pilfering an orange, Fétiche eventually looses it to a laughing devil in the process of summoning up the creatures of the night for a graveyard banquet. ‘The Devil’s Ball’ sequence allows Starewicz to once again indulge his creative necromania by giving new life to the skeletons of birds and fish.
In 1969 many of Starewicz’s stop-motion masterpieces including Frogland and The Mascot were compiled into the feature-length “The Cameraman’s Revenge and Other Fantastic Tales: The Amazing Puppet Animation of Ladislaw Starewicz”, which continues to be a delight to all and any interested in the origins of animation. In 2001, The Mascot was included in a list of The 10 Best Animated Films of All Time as selected by director Terry Gilliam and punished by The Guardian newspaper. Gilliam says of Starewicz; “His work is absolutely breathtaking, surreal, inventive and extraordinary, encompassing everything that Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk and the Quay Brothers would do subsequently… It is important, before you journey through all these mind-bending worlds, to remember that it was all done years ago, by someone most of us have forgotten about now. This is where it all began.”