The Themersons’ Europa (1932)
Notes on Music and Film (5)
Shorter spoken version for the London premiere
Silent Film and Soundtrack
In 1932, two young and newlywed Polish artists produced a short silent film titled Europa. It has been hailed as the first notable film to emerge from the avant-garde in Poland.
The filmmakers, Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, are best known as a writer and a painter-illustrator respectively. However, during the 1930s and 40’s they made seven short films (starting with Pharmacy (Apteka), 1930). Only four of these have survived, including Europa.
The film borrows its title (as well as much of its substance) from a poem by the futurist poet Anatol Stern (1925). Written in a hectic, discontinuous and proclamatory style, it is a kind of alarm signal for a world in crisis, a protest against dehumanization and exploitation. It was reprinted in 1929 with layout and illustrations by the graphic artist Mieczysław Szczuka. It is in this form that the Themersons adopted it as a script for their film.
In 1940, what seems to have been the only copy of Europa was confiscated by the Nazis in Paris. After the war, the film was assumed to have been lost. It nevertheless acquired something of a legendary reputation among film historians, based on reviews and what remained of stills, studies, and the artists’ memories, and even a reconstruction (by Piotr Zarębski, 1988).
By good fortune, the original was found in the Berlin Bundesarchiv in 2019. Public screenings have been postponed due to the corona crisis. As a positive side effect, this offered an opportunity to create a soundtrack for the film. It was commissioned from me last year by Jasia Reichardt, curator of the Themerson Estate.
An obvious question is: what need is there for a sound track? And next: what should it sound like?
In its earliest screenings in Poland, a reading of the poem preceded the film. Also, or alternatively, music was played from gramophone records (Lachowski 2016: 70). That must have been a compromise, and I imagine, it must have been rather distracting.
As Jasia Reichardt informed me, it was the authors’ unrealized plan to have music composed for the film. I think it is clear, when one watches the film in its silent state, that a soundtrack may do a lot to help the film achieve its potential.
Most generally, and obviously, sound adds a third dimension to the flat projected image. It fills the spectators’ space; as listeners, we’re in the sound. Being in ear contact is ineluctable, almost like being in touch. Hearing comes close to feeling.
Music is the means of transforming sounds into a coherent sound world. It may help structure the film. Europa is extremely dense and compact, with an abundance of images – and continually we’re guessing how they are connected. Some sequences are so short that you may not notice them even the second or third time you’re watching. Music may give a sense of cohesion to a sequence of shots, make details stand out, and support climaxes.
Sound and Music
One of the fascinating aspects of making music for a silent film, as opposed to adding music to a sound film, is that the composer is in control of the complete sound world. This allows one to cross the border from mere sound to music, vice versa.
A good starting point therefore is asking: what sounds would we hear, if this were not a silent film?
We witness such events as a political speech, a gunshot, a heartbeat, writing on a typewriter, hammering a nail in a cross, playing the piano, and so on. These are processes or events which realistically would involve sound – what film theorists call ‘diegetic’ sound. But, given the aesthetics of silent cinema, the purpose of a soundtrack cannot be to create the illusion of a sound film. In some cases however it would be odd to have sound, and no correspondence with the sounds that are visually implied. Elsewhere, there may be reason precisely to ignore that expectation.
I think ‘filling in’ the implied sounds is appropriate particularly when the event has a structural function. That is the case with the heartbeat, a dominant motif in the film. It is striking that the Themersons have often made use of repetitive processes and a steady pulse. The pulse facilitates synchronized music, and it also invites music. It has much more effect when heard than when seen. But even with sound, the effect of the beating heart is far from realistic – if only because the X-rayed heart is so obviously fabricated with transparencies and a light bulb.
As an aside, I’d like to quote Stefan Themerson’s recorded childhood memory of being X-rayed as a young boy. The X-ray machine, a “fluorescent box of tricks”, was of great fascination to him.
In front of you, touching your neck and body, was a fluorescent sheet of glass about twenty-four inches square, framed like a picture, which the doctor held in his hands, looking at the black and grey shapes on the fluorescent background. By squeezing my head to the right, I could see a little of it beneath my chin. […] But I asked them to let me see more. They did. The enormous dose of radiation must have been the price paid for what, for me, was the First Photogram in Motion I have ever seen.
There must be many ways of seeing. Some discover some bits of nature and we call them Science. Some create pictures that didn’t exist before and we call them Art. Some are like my X-ray picture and it is difficult to distinguish which is which. It depends on the viewer, how to classify them. It depends on me! What an excitement for a young boy to feel all that, without even trying to put all this into words. (Quoted after Reichardt and Wadley 2007: 37-38.)
In the film, the beating heart is followed by a jellyfish, swimming with pulsing movements. This reminded me of a famous passage in Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924). Here, the protagonist observes his friend through the X-ray machine:
But Hans Castorp’s attention was absorbed by something like a bag, something shapeless and of an animal nature, that was darkly visible behind the middle column, mostly to the spectator’s right, expanding and contracting regularly, somewhat like the pulsing motions of a jellyfish. … Good God, it was the heart, Joachim’s honour-loving heart, that Hans Castorp saw! (Mann 2019: 302-3; my transl.)
The similarity between the pulsating heart and the jellyfish is both obvious and striking. It has even inspired, more recently, a bioengineer in the construction of an artificial heart.
Structure and Meaning
Adding music to a film implies and requires some degree of interpretation. It strongly relates to what we perceive as positive and negative values. And clearly Europa carries a heavy load of values, though their identification is not always simple and straightforward.
Since the film is based on the poem, one may try to take this as a guide. But though it is easy to find relations between isolated phrases and images, the relation between both artworks as a whole is rather complex. Undoubtedly, in the process of realizing the film shifts of meaning have taken place.
For instance, the bacchantes – this is a lengthy metaphor that in the poem occurs on two subsequent pages, as “women with flapping breasts” who are led by an “epileptic dionysos”, destroy radios and automobiles, and “appease their hunger with the fatted flesh of europe”. They are then identified as “an organised proletariat of cells”, a “throng of raging bacchantes” that is “one centimetre of my skin”. The bacchantes are body cells that are also a hungry proletariat in revolt.
Compare this to the rather lovely and innocent looking academy models who embody the bacchantes in the film (including, in close-up, Franciszka herself). They give rise to very different connotations. As the poet Anatol Stern noted, according to a contemporary critic: “the images derived from the poem, but they brought in also a series of their own metaphors, purely filmic” (Stefania Zahorska, 1932, quoted in Stern and Szczuka 1962, n.p.).
Together with such shifts of meaning there has been a shift of emphasis. The natural, organic world, and human connectedness to that world, has got much greater prominence than it had in the poem, and receives a more ‘lyrical’ realization.
What plays a part in this, I suspect, is the makers’ enthusiastic exploration of the possibilities of the medium. Europa is almost a compendium of motifs and techniques of avant-garde cinema: animated photograms, animated geometrical shapes (à la ‘absolute film’), photocollage and montage (Soviet style), along with a Dadaistic alienation of the commonplace. Or, as another contemporary critic described it, “a survey of various possibilities of contemporary film, film of photograms, of negatives, an abstract film of typographical elements, cut-outs, close-ups, multiplications, unusual angles” (M. Wallis, 1932, quoted in Stern and Szczuka 1962, no page nr.).
The destructive forces that are portrayed in the film are (as I see it) consumerism, political propaganda and demagogy, war and the exploitation of suffering. In this respect the relevance of the film to the present-day world is obvious, particularly when we compare the political crisis of the 1930’s with the present rise of right-wing populism.
I have emphasized this by using for the political speech sequence a notorious campaign speech by the present president of Poland, Andrzej Duda. Quoting Pope John Paul II he has characterized the LGBT-movement as an “ideology of evil”. Though I have cut it up in syllables as meaningless sound elements, the expression “ideologia zła”, “ideology of evil”, is recognizable at the climax.
Exploitation of suffering is shown in the shocking image of a crucified hand. It remarkably anticipates a very similar shot in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). For me, this is a point where music must stop or break down to a more elementary sound.
There is a fourth force that plays its part, which is technology and mechanization. It is a favourite theme of composers (such as Honegger, Mossolov, Antheil) and film makers of the 1920s, and famously parodied in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). Whether we should count mechanization among the destructive forces is uncertain. The futurist and suprematist movements were rather enthusiastic about mechanization as a means of bringing functional art to the masses. I do not find such enthusiasm in the film, which seems to remain humorously ambiguous.
Avant-Garde in Retrospect
Watching Europa 90 years after its creation, one cannot ignore that it is a historical document, that has to be seen (and listened to) with historical awareness. There is something paradoxical in the task of creating new music for an old document that, at the time, was intended to be at the forefront of artistic invention. How can we capture its spirit musically?
One may try to do something equivalent in a present-day idiom, with contemporary means. But – first of all, the concept of ‘present-day idiom’ has lost all definition. There are too many idioms around. And when we turn to modern sound technology, this might simply squash the movie, with its evident home-made qualities.
The music I made for Europa could, for the most part, have been created around 1930, including its stylistic ruptures and banalities. Though realized digitally, it is written for an ensemble that could be real. A specific period sound colour is contributed by the theremin, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928, for which Stefan Themerson has expressed a certain fascination. A few modest sound effects break the historical framework, relying on techniques that were first made possible by the magnetic tape recorder, and are now very easily produced by digital means.
The premiere of Europa – with soundtrack – will take place during the London Film Festival, 6 October 2021.
‘Europa, a Nazi-Looted Lost Avant-Garde Masterpiece, Receives World Premiere at 65th BFI London Film Festival’. 2021. BFI. Accessed 16 September 2021.
‘Franciszka and Stefan Themerson’. n.d. Monoskop. Accessed 11 June 2020.
Kuc, Kamila. 2016. Visions of Avant-Garde Film: Polish Cinematic Experiments from Expressionism to Constructivism. Bloomington ; Indiana University Press.
Lachowski, Janusz. 2016. ‘Anatol Stern and Stefan Themerson: On “Europa” and the Friendship between the Two Avant-Garde Artists on the Basis of Their Mutual Correspondence from the Years 1959-1968’. Polish Libraries 2016 (4): 65–83.
Rees, A.L. “The Themersons and the Polish Avant-Garde: Warsow – Paris – London.” In The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916–1989, ed. by Kamila Kuc and Michael O’Pray, 7–30. Columbia University Press, 2014.
Reichardt, Jasia, and Nicholas Wadley, eds. 2007. The Films of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson = Filmy Franciszki i Stefana Themersonów. Textbook Accompanying DVD. London: LUX.
Stern, Anatol. 1962. Europa: A Poem. Translated by S.T. and M.H. London: Gaberbocchus.
Themerson, Stefan. 1983. The Urge to Create Visions. Amsterdam: Gaberbocchus/Harmonie.
Mann, Thomas. 2019. Der Zauberberg: Roman. 14th ed. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.
Wadley, Nicholas. n.d. Reading Stefan Themerson. Dalkey Archive Press. Accessed 17 October 2020.