Russian animator Wladislaw Starewicz (1882-1965) was an early pioneer of stop-motion animation, the technique of using hundreds of individual frames or photographs to create the illusion of movement. His first works used dead insects whose limbs had been reattached with glue so that they could be manipulated into different poses, but by the 1920s and 1930s Starewicz was creating elaborate animal puppets for his fairy-tale-based fables. “Though often bizarre and not infrequently unsettling, Starewicz's work is exhilarating in its energy, inventiveness, and sardonic humor,” noted an International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers essay.
Starewicz was born in Moscow on August 8, 1882, to Polish-Lithuanian parents whose ancestry included Russian and French relatives. Both parents, Aleksander and Antonina Legiecka Starewicz, were from landowning families in what later became Lithuania; at the time, the area was part of imperial Russia. He was raised by his grandmother in the city of Kaunas, and later attended a high school in Tartu, Estonia, where he was allegedly expelled for insubordination.
Made First Film
As a young man, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, worked as a bookkeeper in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, and was a cartoonist for newspapers. He married Anna Zimmerman in 1906, and their daughter Irina was born a year later. In 1913 another daughter arrived, whom they called Jeanne but who was sometimes credited as “Nina Star” in his films. By 1909 he was working at a museum of natural history in Kaunas, and shot his first film, Nad Nyemen (Beyond the River Nemunas), that same year. Two more films followed which featured insects taken from exhibitions at the museum: Zycie Wazek (The Life of the Dragonfly) and Walka Zukow (The Battle of the Stag Beetles).
The Battle of the Stag Beetles was notable for being Starewicz's first foray into stop-action animation. He was fascinated by the fighting that the beetles engaged in, but in order to film them he had to use light, which caused the nocturnal creatures to fall into sleep mode. Finally, he took a pair of dead beetles and sliced off their legs and mandibles, then reattached them using wax so that he could move their limbs freely into various poses. This film became the first animated work in Russian cinema history. Film historians believe he was probably inspired by Les allumettes animées (Animated Matches), a 1908 film from French animator Emile Cohl (1857-1938).
Moved to Moscow
Word of Starewicz's talents reached Moscow, and he was offered a job with the film company of Aleksandr Khanzhonkov (1877-1945), the first film studio in Russia. One story holds that the highly regarded Khanzhonkov had contacted Starewicz about a documentary project on Kaunas, but another version noted that Starewicz had won the Christmas masquerade in Vilnius for three years in a row, and word of the eccentric who collected insects and devised outlandish costumes piqued Khanzhonkov's interest enough to offer him a job. Starewicz resettled his family in Moscow in 1911 and made about two dozen films at the Khanzhonkov studio. These included The Beautiful Leukanida, a 1912 beetle fairy tale based on the ancient Greek story of Helen of Troy, and Mest' kinematografičeskogo operatora, or “Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman,” a tale of adultery and betrayal among insects. He also began working with live actors, including his daughter Irina, who starred in 1913's The Night Before Christmas, a 41-minute adaptation of the short story by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). Another film from that same year, Terrible Vengeance, took a gold medal at an international film festival in Milan, Italy, a year later.
During World War I, Starewicz worked for several different film companies as a director of live-action movies, making about 60 in all. With the onset of political turmoil in Russia that began with the October Revolution of 1917, Starewicz and others in the film community who were wary of the revolutionary Bolsheviks decamped from Moscow to Yalta, a Black Sea port in the Crimea. As the Bolsheviksupporting Red Army advanced, Starewicz and his family fled the country permanently. They settled first in Italy, then went on to Paris, where there was a growing community of new Russian émigrés. For a time, Starewicz was a partner in a film company with several other expatriates, but their venture produced just one film, L'Epouvantail (The Scarecrow), in 1921.
Starewicz eventually moved to a suburb of Paris called Fontenay-sous-Bois, and devoted the remainder of his career to making puppet films. His now-teenaged daughter Irina became his closest collaborator on the two dozen or so films that followed. One of his most visually stunning was Les Grenouilles qui demandent un roi (The Frogs That Demand a King, or “Frogland” for its American release), from 1922. It was based on the Aesop fable about a community of frogs who, unable to govern themselves, ask the god Jupiter for a king. Jupiter sends a stork to rule over them, but this places them in danger, because storks eat frogs, and the amphibians must flee underwater. Starewicz probably shot the underwater scenes with the help of an aquarium. Brief clips from it later appeared in the 1996 film Basquiat, about New York City artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988).
Starewicz's daughter Irina appeared in 1923's La Voix du rossignol (The Voice of the Nightingale), a hand-tinted film about a young girl who frees a nightingale. Later in the decade he made his first full-length animated feature, Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). It was released several years later in Berlin in 1937, then in France in 1941. It was only the third animated feature film made with sound, preceded by Peludópolis, a 1931 film from Quirino Cristiani, and The New Gulliver, a 1935 Soviet project. Shot in Paris between 1929 and 1931, The Tale of the Fox proved an astonishing achievement for other reasons, too. The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers noted that “one three-minute sequence alone, during the final siege of the Fox's castle of Malpertuis by the forces of King Lion, required 273,000 different movements.”
Films Featured Surreal Violence
Another noteworthy work from Starewicz's studio during this era was 1934's Fétiche Mascotte (Duffy the Mascot, also known “The Mascot,” “Puppet Love,” and “The Devil's Ball”). The story centers on a young girl who is ill in bed with scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. Her grandmother sews a dog puppet, which comes to life because a tear dropped into it, and the dog then travels to the ends of the earth to find the sick little girl an orange. Like many of Starewicz's other works, The Mascot is notable for the violence in some scenes, such as the sequence when several “toys struggle to escape from a speeding car,” wrote the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. “A whitecostumed clown jumps clear, only for the wheels of another car to sever his neck. The head rolls into the gutter; the body twitches a couple of times, then lies still.”
Starewicz's output slowed down in his later years. A 1947 work titled Zanzabelle in Paris won the gold medal for best children's film at the Venice Film Festival. Starewicz died 18 years later on February 26, 1965, leaving his final work unfinished, Comme chien et chat (Like Dog and Cat). For decades his name was nearly forgotten in filmmaking annals until some of his works were shown at the 1980 Ottawa Animation Festival. Since then, a few of his older works have been restored, and some have been featured in documentary films on Starewicz. One such retrospective was The Insect Affair, which was shown on British television in 1994. Starewicz's “characters,” noted David Flusfeder in the Times of London, “are not cosy little animals, they're passionate, stupid creatures acting like humans.”
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, fourth edition, St. James Press, 2000.
Animation World, May 2000.
Russian Life, November-December 2003.
Times (London, England), December 31, 1994.