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Warsaw in the 1930s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

This year’s London Film Festival opened with ‘Europa’, a rediscovered treasure of inter-war avant-garde cinema. Tom Griffiths assesses the film’s significance.  


EUROPA (1931) by polish filmmakers Stefan and Franciszka Themerson is an avant-garde silent film, lost since 1940 when its only surviving print was seized by the Nazi’s in newly occupied Paris. 

The film is loosely based on the Futurist poem of the same name by Polish writer Anatol Sterne from 1925. Only recently rediscovered in Berlin’s Bundesarchiv in 2019, the film has now received an immaculate 2K restoration and is being screened for the first time since it went missing. Shot on borrowed cameras, and edited in their own apartment, it is a visceral barrage of images, contrasting machinery and nature, with lots of food and eating (eating newspapers), geometric shapes, and footage from the trenches, which creates in its 12 short minutes a powerful experience of capitalism, propaganda, and war in early 20th century Europe. 

The story of the rediscovery of EUROPA reads like a cold-war spy thriller. Made in Warsaw in 1930/31, transported to Paris by the filmmakers in 1938, seized and taken by the fascists and stored in the Reich Film Archive in 1940, captured by the Red Army and taken to Moscow in 1945, donated to the GDR by the Soviets in 1959 where it was then held in the East German State Film Archive, absorbed into the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) during the reunification of 1990, rediscovered in 2019 having been thought lost, then ‘returned’ to the surviving heir of the Themerson estate Jasia Reichardt in England, and then donated to the BFI in 2020, held in storage in Warwickshire and screened in London. 

It’s been a long road from the apartment in Warsaw shared by married artists Stefan and Franciszka to the BFI on London’s Southbank but well worth it. Sadly, both the filmmakers died in 1988 meaning they never knew the film hadn’t been lost forever. 

By opening the London Film Festival 2021 (LFF) with this film, (informally it must be said, as the official ‘opening gala’ was after the Europa screening) LFF organisers, and the BFI are making a clear ideological statement about being a pro-European institution. 

It’s a logical move, as much contemporary film finance and co-productions for independent cinema (as opposed to Hollywood) depend on pan-European connectivity within the industry, which since Brexit looks more fragile than ever. However, whether intentional or not, the film’s complex history and the nuance of its content, also leads us to ask, what do we mean by Europe in a more general sense, what’s the nature of the European state, and what is our relationship to it? 

EUROPA is described in the film notes as an ‘anti-fascist’ film, and while this is surely an important part of its DNA, it’s an oversimplification. The film also offers us a harsh look at European society in a broader sense, which may or may not sit a little uncomfortably with the programmer’s intention. 

Curator, art critic and heir Jasia Reichardt, who played a central role in locating and restoring the film, said in her introduction to the opening screening, that the avant-garde is ‘always anti-status quo’. She may be right in a loose sense, but it’s worth asking, is there a contradiction with the art world’s almost universal mourning of our separation from the EU and this anti-establishment current in this work? 

As ever, the question remains that has been so central and yet so opaque in much of our nation’s discourse in the last few years; what is the difference between Europe, the geographical and cultural entity, and its governing institutions both at the level of the EU and its individual states? Is the EU reducible to the concept of ‘Europe’? Can we be for one and not for the other? Why ‘for’ at all? And can we really be anti-status quo if we aren’t critical of the institutions that rule us? 

This fascinating film object, for its provenance as an object is as important as the film itself, prompts all sorts of questions, not just about the Europe when the film was made, but what is the nature of Europe today. 

The poem

They feed us

They pour down our throats

Food for the spirit! 

Faded tapeworms of 

Newspapers

Stop poisoning us

We are not rats!

O if we could only be

A proletarian swarm of rats

We could bite the

White fleshy fingers

Which incessantly push towards us

The white poisoned dust of powderised pages

Europa, Anatol Sterne (extract)

The poem on which the film is based is by Anatol Sterne, who belonged to Poland’s tiny post-WW1 avant-garde scene and wrote one of Poland’s earliest Futurist manifestos called Primitivists to the Nations of the World (1920). 

While Polish Futurism was more progressive than its Italian counterpart, many of whose leading figures supported the rise of fascism, Sterne was more artistic radical than committed socialist, though his poem is clearly anti-war and peppered throughout with revolutionary language. Politically however, it is characterised by ambiguity rather than unwavering ideological commitment to socialism. 

The intersection in Sterne’s work of Futurism, usually associated with hyper-modernity, technology, dynamism, and violence, with Primitivism, which (from a European, even colonial standpoint) orientates itself toward pre-industrial ‘native’ cultures, ways of life and artistic expression, is significant as there are some lines in the poem which express the author’s equally ambiguous relationship to the concept of Europe.

Shimmy of relativity 

Jig of relativity 

Economic catastrophes

Under which collapses

The parquet floor of Europe

And later on,

The fetish of parliament

And the wisest of mistresses

O! terrible is the death of Europe

O! blessed

Europa, Anatol Sterne (extract)

The death of Europe is both terrible and blessed. What then is the poem saying about Europe? In short, lots of contradictory things, by no means reducible to a pro-European anti-fascism. It is however, a radical, if chaotic (avant-garde!), critique of militarism, and aspects of the European state (including the press which is signalled out for especially harsh criticism as we’ve seen), the nature of capitalism, as well as the rise of fascism. 

The problem raised by the film’s oversimplified description as ‘anti-fascist’ is that the European state and the rise of fascism aren’t easily separable (let alone the European states’ commitment to capitalism), then or now. The current rise of right-wing populism referred to by the film’s new composer, is real and worrying, but it does not come solely from outside the otherwise benign institutions of the European state(s). At the time of writing the poem in 1925, fascism was not only on the fringes. Mussolini was in power, his tame Futurists already singing his praises in their own work. Hitlerism was on the horizon. 

While the EU is by no means a fascist entity, separating it from the many right-wing states that make up its constituent parts, its MEPs, and of course its institutionalised hostile orientation toward (primitive?) non-Europeans, is a huge leap of faith, requiring some intentionally blinkered thinking. In his contradictory, yet still radical poem, Sterne speaks truth to power, not just about fascism, but about the poison at the heart of Europe itself. 

The music

The team behind the restoration, have taken a statement from Stefan Themerson, where he said he’d welcome an original score being composed for the film (though it never happened in his lifetime), as a green light to commission new music for the film. 

Before it’s seizure, the film was originally shown either silent or with an unnamed piece by Shostakovich to accompany it. It’s a shame that we couldn’t see the film in that state as, the new score by Lodewijk Muns, a Dutch musicologist, academic and composer is too busy, mimicking and adding to the freneticism of the images and editing style rather than offering a contrast which would let them pursue their own rhythm. Instead, the score tends to ‘Micky Mouse’ along with the images, making the film seem to rattle along even faster than it would if played silent or with a complimentary but contrasting piece of music. This is a shame and undermines the experience of the film slightly. 

Muns’ attempt to use instrumentation that would be available in the milieu of the Polish avant-garde at the time of the film’s creation, doesn’t entirely fail, and some of it does manage to feel authentic. However, his one break with this self-imposed rule, allows for the strongest sequence in the score, the use of audio from a speech by right-wing President of Poland, Andrzej Duda. In the shocking speech, Duda riffs on one of John Paul II’s most homophobic statements, saying, 

"We may ask if another ideology of evil may not be in play, an ideology that aims to take advantage of human rights against man and family. There are those who violate God’s law. I am thinking of the European Parliament applying pressure to make homosexual unions recognised as families."

While the audio is manipulated digitally so the meaning is obscured, even for those who speak Polish, the effect is uncanny and creates a useful juxtaposition with the celluloid images and allows them to breathe at last.

The images themselves are indeed remarkable and despite reservations about the choice of music it is still a stirring cinematic ride - and it’s fantastic to be a part of the complex and contradictory history of Europe sitting in the dark with this avant-garde gem.

One of the most striking images in the film was shot on the kitchen table of the Themerson’s Warsaw flat. The line from the poem from which it takes inspiration is one of the poems strongest too,

This green blade of grass

Squeezed up between two paving stones

This wreck tearing itself loose on the chequered

Stony Atlantic

Is the messenger of death

Europa, Anatol Sterne (extract)

EUROPA is screening at the BFI Southbank as part of the 65th BFI London Film Festival till Sunday 17 October 2021.

References: 

https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/13160/80-years-looted-nazis-avant-garde-masterpiece-europa-world-premiere-film-of-the-week

https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/news/europa-avant-garde-masterpiece







 

Tagged under: Film Europe Art
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