The particular story of the anti-fascist film that the Nazis didn’t want you to see

A photo of ‘Europa’ (Themerson Estate)

Polish artists Stefan and Franciszka Themerson went to their graves believing that the most important film of their career was lost forever. They had made the short film Europe home in 1931, on barely a budget, using a borrowed camera and a cast of family and friends – nonetheless, it was hailed as the best work of the Polish avant-garde. But when the Themersons dropped him off in 1938, they never saw him again. The film, along with so many other valuable works of art, was seized by the Nazis and 50 years later the Themersons died believing it had been destroyed.

Miraculously, Europe has now been found, recovered and restored, to be preserved in the BFI National Archives and finally released on the big screen next week. Two years ago, the film was stored at the Bundesfilmarchiv in Germany; now the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE) has recovered it on behalf of the artists’ estate. The restored copy will have its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, where it will be presented by the Themersons ‘niece, critic and curator Jasia Reichardt, who has looked after the artists’ archives since their death in 1988. The silent The film will be screened with a newly commissioned soundtrack by Dutch composer Lodewijk Muns.

This is “a major and very exciting acquisition,” says Will Fowler, the curator of the Artists’ Moving Image Archives, not least because of its “politically radical” nature. Europe is an electric shock from a short film, with an explicitly anti-fascist theme, inspired by the story unfolding around the Themersons in Warsaw at the turn of the 1930s, and adapted from Anatol Stern’s futuristic poem of the same name from 1925. The film uses graphic images to convey the horror of fascism creeping across the continent: one man in a suit gorges himself on rare meat, another swallows newspaper. There are extreme and polarized close-ups, screams of terror, photographic collages, a beating heart shown on x-ray, a World War I crucifixion and trench, punches and gunshots. The film passes through a camera, while the quick edits evoke the tension of living in a climate of fear and hate.

“This is the tragedy of Europe. Europe is eaten to death, ”says Reichardt. “And I think 2019 was the right time to find it because Europe was struggling. Of course it still is.”

The goad in this story is that Europe fell victim to the fascist ideologies he warned against and became one of the countless cultural objects stolen by the Nazis. “In the 22 years that we have been carrying out this work, we have recovered more than 3,500 cultural goods for individuals, families and institutions,” explains Anne Webber, founder and co-chair of CLAE. “It was the first movie that ever happened to us.”

“I have always been passionate about avant-garde films, so the idea of ​​recovering a film of this importance was close to my heart,” she continues. “The meaning of what we collect obviously goes far beyond the object itself. Whether it’s a painting, a book, or a movie, that’s the significance of it to the people it was taken from. For the Themersons, as the creators of such an original and important work, the loss of this film had special significance. “

The Themersons were a married couple: Stefan wrote before he started experimenting with photography while Franciszka was a painter, designer and illustrator. They began to collaborate in the making of films in the early 1930s, but with little means. “They didn’t have a camera. They had to borrow a box camera. There was no film school and there was no money. Europe was done in the room they shared, after their marriage, ”explains Reichardt. This breathtaking film was a handcrafted and DIY creation.

A scene from the silent movie (Themerson Estate)

A scene from the silent movie (Themerson Estate)

“Stefan called the technique he used to make images for his films ‘moving photograms’,” says Reichardt. “One of Stefan’s colleagues at the university told me that he had visited them in this room and that he could see cobblestones on the table and between them there was dirt and a little bit of dirt. ‘grass.” You’ll see these same slabs in the movie, in a stop-motion sequence that illustrates Stern’s words: This blade of green grass / sandwiched between two cobblestones / this wreckage which is torn off / on the checkerboard / the stone / the Atlantic / is the messenger of death ”.

Stern himself approved Europe: he was very happy with the way the Themersons had translated his words into such indelible pictures. Critics were also impressed. “One of the critics writing about the film in 1933 said about it, ‘This is a film poem.’ It was a revelation, ”says Reichardt. “One of the best-known critics said, ‘Well, I can say’ This is a good movie. ‘

If he had been visible during those intervening years, Europethe influence of on the history of cinema would have been incalculable. “The film itself is mind-boggling, a very crafted and brilliantly constructed avant-garde piece of cinema, whose anti-fascist message and power of it as art continues to spill over the decades,” said Fowler. .

For more than 80 years, however, the short film is just a memory. “The Themersons were very concerned about Europe when he’s gone, ”says Reichardt. “Because Stefan thought it was important for him to get something back from that film, he made a reconstruction of it from the pieces of film and stills he had. He first re-edited the book [of the poem], then he did the reconstruction at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op [in 1983-4]. “Then in 1988, another artist, Piotr ZarÄ ?? bski, made his own reconstruction, Europe II, in tribute. The remakes will be shown alongside the restored original film at the LFF screening on October 6.

“Not only the legend of Europe precede it, but its history as an object passing through different hands and laboratories, including those of the Nazis, is quite extraordinary, ”says Fowler. The story begins when the Themersons left Poland for Paris in 1938, and deposited their films at the Vitfer Laboratory before volunteering for the Polish army. For decades, this is also where the story ended: the Nazis grabbed their films from the lab and the couple moved to England during the war, where they continued to make films, but without hope. projection. Europe again.

“In France, they banned films very early in the war,” explains Webber. “Avant-garde films would be absolutely banned because they would fall into the category of modern art, which Hitler considered ‘degenerate’ and dangerous. “Degenerate art” has been seized in museums and individuals. It was the same with this kind of film. They were seized and would never have been shown.

Franciszka Themerson (Themerson estate)

Franciszka Themerson (Themerson estate)

“There was an order from Hitler to secure works of art in June 1940, after the armistice was signed,” says Webber. “The Nazis kept grabbing whatever they could. They seized tables, books and manuscripts. They seized films, pianos, violins. They also seized furniture, plates, knives, forks and glasses and everything that people had in their homes. But they certainly grabbed movies.

Understandably, given the subject of the film, the Themersons were concerned that the film would become a victim of war. “People thought that after the Nazis got hold of ‘degenerate art’ much of it was destroyed, but very few works of art were destroyed by the Nazis. While not loving him and not liking the values ​​and ideas he represented, they understood his cultural and above all financial value, ”explains Webber. “They didn’t destroy what they grabbed, even if it went against the ideological message they wanted to get across.

Instead, the film was kept in the Reichsfilmarchiv, the state film archives of the Nazi regime. Much of the stock of these archives was taken by the Soviet army in June 1945 and transported to Russia. After the formation of East Germany, some of these films were returned to the New State Archives of the DDR, which after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a year after the death of the Themersons, became the federal archives. Simply by remaining in a collection, the film crossed geopolitical boundaries.

Recovering a looted work of art is far from easy. “We always do our own research to establish the history of an item and the circumstances of its loss before making a claim. I entered into correspondence with the Bundesarchiv to clarify exactly what they had, ”explains Webber. “Once you are sure that this is the looted item in question, you then begin the process of negotiation and reclamation.”

The recovery of a 35mm print from the 1930s posed its own challenges. “Nitrate is flammable, so you have to be very careful when transporting it,” says Webber. “The Germans told us he was subject to restrictions under their explosives law.” But in fact, Europethe return trip was safe and quick. “I’m so glad we were able to get it back,” says Webber, “and glad we were able to do it in record time as well, because it can often take several years. “

Now the film is safe, but also ready to embark on new journeys, as moviegoers around the world will be delighted to see this much-talked-about mystery film. Europe remains a stern warning about the rise of the far right, and in its own terrible story, an edifying account of protecting art from ideological suppression and theft.

‘Europa’ screened at the BFI London Film Festival on October 6th at BFI Southbank

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