Animator and Director. Nationality: Polish. Born: Wladyslaw Starewicz in Moscow (of Polish parents), 6 August 1882 (some sources give 1892 or 1893). Family: Married Anna, daughters: Irene and Nina. Education: Studied art and entomology. Career: Worked as a bookkeeper before embarking on a film career; 1909—directed first film, Nad Nyemen. 1911—made first animated fiction film, Beautiful Lukanida; 1913—directed first live-action feature, Strashnaya myest; 1919—emigrated to France; 1928–41—worked on his first (and only) animated feature, Le Roman de Renard; 1939–46—made numerous publicity films. Died: Fontenay-sous-Bois, France, 28 February 1965.
Films as Director and Animator:
(all shorts unless otherwise noted)
Valka zukov rogachi (Battle of the Stag Beetles) (doc, animation)
Prekrasnya Lukanida (Beautiful Lukanida); Myest kinematografichyeeskovo operator (The Cameraman's Revenge); Aviatsionnaya nyedyelya nasyekomich (The Insects' Aviation Week); Rozhdyestvo obitateli lyesa (The Insects' Christmas; The Birth of the Host of the Forest); Stryekosa i muravey (The Ant and the Grasshopper)
Novogodnaya szutka (The Newborn Insect); Pyegaz i pyetuch (Pegasus and the Cock); Putyeshyestviye na luna (Voyage to the Moon)
Chetirye chorta (Four Devils)
Vsyak na Russi i tango tantzuyet (Everyone's Dancing the Tango in Russia); Pasinok Marsa (Mars's Stepson)
Lilya Belgii (The Lily from Belgium)
Dans les griffes de l'araignée
Le mariage de Babylas; L'épouvantail
Les grenouilles qui demandait un roi
La voix du rossignol; Amour noir et amour blanc
La petite chanteuse des rues; Les yeux du dragon
Le rat des villes et le rat des champs
La cigale et le fourmi; La reine des papillons
La petite parade
Le lion et le moucheron; Le lion devenu vieux
Fétiche se marie
Fétiche en voyage de noces
Fétiche chez les sirènes
Le roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox) (feature; co-d and co-sc with Irene Starewicz; German version released in 1936)
Zanzabelle à Paris (co-anim Sonika Bo)
Fleur de fougère
Gazouilly petit oiseau (co-anim Sonika Bo)
Gueule de bois
Un dimanche de Gazouilly (co-anim Sonika Bo)
Le nez au vent
Comme chien et chat (unfinished)
Live-Action Films as Director:
Nad Nyemen (Beyond the River Nyemen) (doc, short); Zhichiye vazki (Life of the Dragonfly) (doc, short); Skarabyozi (Beetles) (doc, short)
Pyeresmyesznik (ep. of serial)
Strashnaya myest (The Terrible Vengeance); Noch pyeryed rozhdyestvo (The Night before Christmas); Snyegurochka (Girl of the Snows); Ruslan i Ludmila; Kogda zvuchat strunnyi svedtza (For the Love of a Singer) (+ ro)
Skazka pro nyemyetskovo groznovo voyakou Goguel Moguel i pro chortya Balbyeskou (The Great Captain Goguel Moguel and the Devil Balbeskou) (short)
Byez zhen (Without a Wife) (+ ro); Smyatiye tsvyeti (Faded Flowers); O chem shyeptalo morye (The Murmuring Sea) (doc, short); I posledniye chorti (The Last of the Devils) (short) (+ ro); Portryet (The Portrait); Eros i Psyche (unfinished); Kak nyemyets obyezyanov vidumal (How the German Invented the Ape) (short, part-anim); Zhityel nyeobitayemovo ostrava (The Inhabitants of a Desert Island; Fawn) (+ ro)
Nochnye priklucheniye dariyat nam naslazhdeniye (Nocturnal Adventure); Zhenschini kurorta nye boyatsa dazhe chorta (The Island Women Aren't Afraid of the Devil); Taman; Na Varsavkom traktye (On the Warsaw Highway); Pan Tvardovsky (Mr Tvardovsky) (part-anim)
Pan Tvardovsky v Rimye (Mr. Tvardovsky in Rome) (partanim); Malenkaya aktrisa (The Little Actress); Pyesn Taiga (Song of the Taiga); Sachka nayezdnik (Little Sacha, Jockey); Leya Lifshits; Eto tyebye prinadlezit (It's Fine for You); Dvye vstryechi (Two Meetings); Glupichkiye zanmimayestsya sportom (The Idiot Sportsman) (short); Tyemnaya sila (Dark Strength); K narodnoi vlasti (The Popular Official)
Kaliostro; Yola; Vij; Sorochinskaya yamarka (Sorochinksy Fair); Maiskaya noch (May Night); Stella Maris; Kobila Lord Mortona (Lord Morton's Twin); Lyubov odna lyubov (One Love or the Other)
Domik v kolomne (Chardynin) (sc)
Aux murs du couvent (Uralsky) (ph); Pour une nuit d'amour (Protazanov) (ph); L'angoissante aventure (Protazanov) (ph)
Crainquebille (de Baroncelli) (puppet seq)
On STAREWICZ: books—
Gilson, Paul, Cine-Magic, Paris, 1951.
Pilling, Jayne, editor, Starewicz 1882–1965, Edinburgh, 1983.
Béatrice, L., and F. Martin, Ladislas Starewitch: Filmographie illustrée, Annecy, 1991.
Bendazzi, Gianalberto, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, London, 1994.
On STAREWICZ: articles—
Estes, Oscar G., "The Master of Animation," in Classic Film Collector (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Winter/Spring 1966/67.
Jenkins, Alan, "Animal Magic," in Stills (London), July/August 1983.
Pagliano, Jean-Pierre, "Starewitch au pays des merveilles," in Positif (Paris), June 1990.
Parsons, Scott, "The Cameraman's Revenge and Other Fantastic Tales: The Amazing Puppet Animation of Ladislaw Starewicz," in Library Journal, 15 September 1994.
Atkinson, Michael, "The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1994.
Pummell, Simon, "Of Rats and Men," in Sight and Sound (London), May 1995.
Skotak, R., "Red Star Rising: the Lost Years of Fantastika in the Soviet Union," in Outré (Evanston), no. 6, 1996.
Pummell, Simon, "Ladislaw Starewicz: Cut Off Their Tails with a Carving Knife," in Projections 5: Film-makers on Film-making, edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue, London, 1996.
* * *
"The film you are about to see," announces a title at the start of Ladislaw Starewicz's Le roman de Renard, "is not an animated cartoon. It is a revolution in the history of the cinema." The note of arrogance can be forgiven. Starewicz's film, the first-ever stop-action puppet-animation feature film, would be an impressive enough achievement had it emanated from a well-staffed studio, aided by all the modern technology of animatronics and computers. In fact it was created almost entirely (barring the actors' voices and the music score) by two people: Starewicz and his daughter Irene, who made all the puppets, costumes, and props, designed and built the sets, devised the lighting, operated the camera and executed all the millions of infinitely subtle movements and changes of expression needed to tell the story. "Millions" is no exaggeration: 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.
Although he was a talented cartoonist whose work appeared in newspapers, Starewicz never set out to be an animator. His first films were documentaries, stemming from his interest in landscape and natural history. Only when he tried to make a film about the mating battles of stag beetles did he stumble by chance into stop-action. The beetles proved uncooperative and one of them died, from which Starewicz realized that he could wire up the corpse and, by moving it one frame at a time, make it "perform" as he wanted. From this it was a short step to his first masterpiece, The Cameraman's Revenge, in which a comic melodrama of jealousy and adultery is played out by insects.
Insects feature strongly in Starewicz's work; their jagged, scuttling vitality clearly appealed to his spiky imagination. In Beautiful Lukanida beetles play out a parody of the Helen of Troy legend, and in other early films, he creates an entire world in which insects dance at weddings, ride bicycles, or celebrate Christmas. But this is never Disney-style anthropomorphism (nothing very mouselike about Mickey, after all); Starewicz's creatures, though parodying human activities, remain unnervingly insectish in their movements. What he does tend to do (as B. Ruby Rich points out in the anthology edited by Jayne Pilling) is assign specific temperaments to particular species: "The grasshoppers are generally disagreeable: vengeful rival, foppish painter . . . , etc. The frogs are usually comic relief, fatuous and also bad-tempered." Even once Starewicz had moved on to featuring mammals as his main players, insects often show up in supporting roles, typically dancing or playing musical instruments.
As Rich's remarks also hint, there is little that is lovable, let alone sugary, about Starewicz's work at its best. (His late films, made after 1945, do sometimes succumb to cuteness.) Violence, of an alarmingly graphic sort, crops up a lot in his films, never softened by the pretense that mangled bodies will simply (as in Tom & Jerry) resuscitate unharmed in the next frame. Starewicz's world is cruel, even sadistic. Sharp things slice and sever; limbs are lopped off; creatures are eaten alive, struggling desperately. In his first French film, Dans les griffes de l'araignée, an empty-headed young fly, flouncing carelessly off to the big city, is seduced and gobbled up by the city-slicker spider. Two whole armies of insects attack each other without quarter in La reine des papillons. In Fétiche-mascotte toys struggle to escape from a speeding car: a white-costumed 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.
But though often bizarre and not infrequently unsettling, Starewicz's work is exhilarating in its energy, inventiveness, and sardonic humor. The influence of Gogol, some of whose stories Starewicz used for his live-action films, can be detected in much of his work; like Gogol, Starewicz often drew on folktales and fables, lending them a sardonic slant. Le rat des villes et le rat des champs catapults La Fontaine into the jazz age, complete with decadent scenes of rattish debauchery (sexy flapper-rats in scanty costumes) and some blatantly phallic imagery involving severed tails. Amour noir et amour blanc mixes its mythologies still more deliriously, with Chaplin, Tom Mix and Lillian Gish interacting with a pair of cupids (one black, one white), a dog-powered truck, a randy demon-faced camera and a moon borrowed from Méliès. The pot-bellied puppy hero of Fétichemascotte finds himself in a grotesque Bosch-like night-world populated by mobile garbage (fish-skeletons, rotting vegetables, and the like), malignant Parisian apaches, a balloon that plays saxophone, and a beanpole-limbed devil. Such is the richness of Starewicz's imagination that his films often seem to burst at the seams with ideas, and much of the time there is far more going on in the frame than can be taken in at a single viewing.
While taking endless pains to create the illusion of realism (some of the puppets in Renard had as many as 150 different heads to convey changes of expression), Starewicz loved to point up the manipulation behind his work. The whole action of Renard is presented as a film shown, in the prologue, by a monkey projectionist (this film-within-afilm device was anticipated as early as The Cameraman's Revenge), and the pseudo-medieval setting is mocked by providing the combat between fox and wolf with a radio commentator. This play with illusion and reality lies at the heart of Starewicz's fantastic art; the sheer abundance of detail, nominally at the service of the story, becomes an end in itself and redirects our attention to the artifice of what we are seeing. (The contrast with the work of George Pal, the other great pioneer of stop-action, could not be more total; Pal's stick-figure minimalism and primary-colored sets scorn any attempt at realism, leaving his story line clear and uncluttered.) Gothic and romantic, primitive and ultra-sophisticated, Starewicz's work thrives on its double-edged contradictions; his vision is obsessive and intriguingly unique.