The Ghost of Goto: Walerian Borowczyk Remembered

By Daniel Bird

blanche-walerian-borowczyk.jpgBlanche, 1972

For two years I lived in Warsaw on Tamka Street, on the fourth floor of an apartment block looking out towards the Ostrogski castle. I left the walls bare except for two posters: Sad Bozy and Sobor w Konstancji (I haven’t seen either film). Sobor w Konstancji is a formal, stylised rendition of a bearded king, his crown made up of primitive black devils.

It’s the work of Walerian Borowczyk, painted almost fifty years ago. It was about this time that Borowczyk, bored in a meeting, turned to Jan Lenica, and proposed the idea of a short film, Byl Sobie Raz (and so ‘cartoons’ came of age).

Bringing objects to “life” was the essence of Borowczyk’s cinema. Buster Keaton (and Jan Svankmajer; Ed.) aside, he was cinema’s greatest prop specialist. Borowczyk made clear his “positive feelings towards objects”, not to mention a mania for those crafted in the 19th century. Why? Because in these objects we still find, in Borowczyk’s words, “traces of man’s hand”.

Yet hands were conspicuously absent from Borowczyk’s early shorts. At first glance Renaissance (1963) and Le Phonograph (1969) appeared eerily materialistic. After the catastrophic explosions that both initiate and complete Renaissance (1963), the charred piles of wood and twisted scrap metal may well have stood as “evidence” of the fate that met the bodies to which the objects once belonged (but they were only wrecked objects). Nonetheless, it is amusing (if not comforting) to know that the cycle would occur again (eternally). The faint sound beneath the rubble of smashed up wax drums and broken glass suggest that there might have been a ghost in Le Phonograph (1969) after all.

Borowczyk’s ‘catastrophism’ belied a worry that craftsmanship is dying and that “vivacity” is being displaced by a “mechanical society” based on excess. If his overt preoccupation was with the 19th century fin-de-siecle (e.g. Dzieje Grzechu (1975), L’Armoire (1979), it was undercut with motifs of 20th century excess (e.g. the atom bomb “gags” in Le Theatre de Monsieur et Madame Kabal (1967) and the concentration camps in Les Jeux des Anges (1964) and Goto, l’Ile d’Amour (1968). Images of overproduction and saturation suggest commercial excess too. If the latter resulted in a dulling of the senses, Borowczyk’s obsessive studies of handcrafted objects appear genuinely “erotic”. The accent is less on their ‘symbolic’ properties, more on the visual qualities, sounds and textures.

Of the shorts, Rosalie (1966), Gavotte (1967), Diptyque (1967) and Une Collection Particulière (1972) involve at least one visible human element, albeit one often obscured. Rosalie, like Dom (1958) and Les Astronautes (1959) before hand, featured Borowczyk’s radiant wife, Ligia (she would also feature in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1964), not to mention Blanche (1971), Goto, l’Ile d’Amour (1968) and L’Interno di un Convento (1977). To act in front of Borowczyk’s camera, the actor had to surrender his (or usually her) will. They became not so much one of Bresson’s “models” but one of Keaton’s “props”. Like Bresson, Borowczyk discarded character “psychology” as superficial – he was more interested in “how” rather than “why”.

“How can an object have a story? Well, it can pass from hand to hand, giving rise to the sort of tame fancy authors call ‘The History of my Pipe’ or ‘Memoirs of an Armchair’, or alternatively it can pass from image to image, in which case its story is that of migration, the cycle of the avatars it passes through, far removed from its original being, down the path of a particular imagination that distorts but never drops it.” – Roland Barthes

Borowczyk’s shorts are of the second kind. Of the features, Borowczyk’s most successful ‘object stories’ were neither entirely fanciful nor metaphorical (as Barthes has object ‘novels’ and ‘poems’) but rather amalgams of the two. Goto, l’Ile d’Amour and La Bete (1975) can be read as sequential transactions of binoculars and shoes, roses and corsets between human (and in La Bete, not-so-human) characters (but that would ignore the considerable metaphorical play that takes place in both films).

As Raymond Durgnat (a most perceptive Borowczyk ‘follower’) noticed, Borowczyk relished a linguistic, satirical fetishization of Grozo’s tasks (in Goto): brushing ‘chauseurs’ (shoes), taking care of ‘chiens’ (dogs) and drowning ‘mouches’ (flies). In La Bete (and, to a lesser extent, Dzieje Grzechu, 1975), the rose petals put to good use in female masturbatory fantasies – female genitalia are so often compared to rose petals (Kane’s “rosebud”), however, Borowczyk offered a literal on-screen deflowering!

John Riley’s obituary of Borowczyk (The Independent, 28.02.06) reports on an ‘art-house director whose films finally tipped over into pornography’. I remember Borowczyk somewhat differently. I first saw Les Jeux des Anges in 1994 when I was sixteen. The 16mm print was battered and pink but I can’t remember a film affecting me so much. Apart from a handful of shorts, Borowczyk’s films were ‘unavailable’. Film encyclopaedias reported the same cautionary tale: a brilliant animator who lost himself in porn. I decided to seek out both the man and his films. Neither was easy.

la-bete-walerian-borowczyk.jpgLa Bête, 1975

I first visited Poland in 1997 and got hold of Borowczyk’s number from the producers of Dzieje Grzechu, ‘TOR’. I called Borowczyk. I was told not to bother him. Unperturbed, I wrote to Borowczyk. I received a curt reply from his secretary asking me not to write to again. Despite being unable to engage a dialogue with my subject, I decided to write a book on Borowczyk, nonetheless. Upon contacting many of his former associates in Poland and France it soon became clear that if Borowczyk had always been a private individual, in recent years he had become a hermit.

In 2001 I organised a retrospective on Borowczyk’s films at the now defunct Lux Centre in London (thanks to Ian White) in London. I invited Borowczyk to attend. Initially, he agreed. However, later declined, upon learning of the condition of the prints to be screened. Nonetheless, behind the murky grain, the genius shone through (especially during a makeshift video projection of Le Cas Etrange du Dr. Jekyll et Miss Osbourne). Two things became apparent: animation and live-action were not mutually exclusive phases of Borowczyk’s career; He was still making dazzlingly inventive shorts throughout the seventies and eighties. Therefore, dismissing Borowczyk as an ‘art-house pornographer’ was becoming an increasingly untenable position.

The following year I interviewed Stanislaw Rozewicz about the filming of Dzieje Grzechu in Poland. Before parting I handed Rozewicz a postcard I had designed for a screening of Borowczyk’s films. Rozewicz passed the postcard onto Borowczyk, and in 2003 I received a telephone call. It is entirely fitting that our ‘meeting of minds’ (if it can be called that) occurred through typography and typeset, not through words themselves. Borowczyk didn’t speak English. My Polish was minimal. Nonetheless, Borowczyk persisted – all the more bizarre given that he had refused to answer my questions for almost six years.

During the next three years Borowczyk called on three or four subsequent occasions. Despite his health problems (respiratory difficulties and a weak heart) it was through these calls that I was exposed to Borowczyk’s charm, excitability and wit – all those who knew Borowczyk are quick to point out his passion for art and his eagerness to nurture talent (e.g. Peter Graham’s recollection of Borowczyk assisting him both with photography and editing on his short film, Au Bout des Fusils, 1971). Borowczyk was more interested in new filmmakers and ideas (especially ideas for films which had not yet been made) than consolidating his own position in the history books.

Borowczyk influenced a whole generation of graphic artists and filmmakers, not just in Poland but abroad too. Franciszek Starowieyski recalls a poem made up by Borowczyk’s jealous peers at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts:

Following Daumier like a sheep
Where there was Daumier,
there will be Borowczyk
Following Daumier,
but where is Borowczyk?

A young Andrzej Klimowski wrote his final year thesis on Borowczyk at St Martin’s, London. As part of his final year show, Klimowski exhibited a poster designed for Borowczyk’s Goto. One day Klimowski noticed that the poster had been defaced. However, the perpetrators had left phone numbers. They were Stephen and Timothy Quay, then students at the Royal College of Art. Goto elicited a different response from the Quays: a drawing of Glossia’s son by Grozo (if she had lived!). 35 years later, judging from The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005), the Quays are still haunted by the ‘Ghost of Goto’.

Terry Gilliam, executive producer of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, also cites Borowczyk as the main influence on his own animated films. He remembers how both he and Terry Jones went ‘crazy’ over Goto and Blanche because both were about all atmosphere and texture. Upon its belated release in the 2001, British critics compared La Bete (unfavourably) to Benny Hill, not Monty Python. What would Angela Carter have made of La Bete? The film certainly influenced Neil Jordan’s film of her short stories The Company of Wolves (1984).

Anyone who still thinks Borowczyk ‘flamboyantly wasted’ his talents during the seventies and eighties should see Dzieje Grzechu, Escargot de Venus (a sprightly etude on the paintings of Bona de Mandiargues, 1975) Brief von Paris (a wordless, forty-five minute portrait of Paris, 1976), L’Amour Monstre de Tous les Temps (a hectically spliced, ‘slice-in-the-life’ of Paris based Symbolist painter Ljuba, 1979), Le Cas Etrange de Dr Jekyll et Miss Osbourne (an astonishing, outrageous surrealist psycho-sexual horror, 1981), Scherzo Infernal (the fruitful meeting of a rebel devil and nubile angel, 1985). Borowczyk’s final film, Lotus d’Or, despite its flimsy content (as specified by the literary editors of Serie Rose), was the director’s most rigorous film (formally speaking) since Blanche (a ‘sad end’ indeed!).

A few years ago I met Cherry Potter at her home in Brighton, who was at that time teaching scriptwriting at the London College of Printing. I had learned from the Quays that soon after graduating from the Royal College of Art, Cherry had written a script for Borowczyk, entitled Ancestral Mansion. On the wall of her study was a small congregation of brusque, stamp-sized but, nonetheless, well-endowed devils. They were a gift from Borowczyk, cells from an unrealised animated feature film (I guess they were from a project titled Un Infernal Amant). Cherry recalled waiting for Borowczyk at Heathrow, preparing herself for a barrage of changes to her script. But no, when Borowczyk arrived, he said the script was fine. Ancestral Mansion was to be a period drama with a strong psychoanalytic bent, concerned with ‘possession’ in a personal and legal sense. Borowczyk eagerly unveiled some sketches he had made of chastity belts and mantraps. Was there anything else to discuss? No. Instead, Borowczyk wanted to go to the Natural History Museum and the London Dungeon. If they had the time, it would be useful to find a shop which sold door knobs, as those in Paris were not up to scratch.

Thanks (in part) to the ‘winds of change’ that swept through the British Film Institute during the mid-nineteen eighties, Ancestral Mansion was never made. Perhaps if it had been, we would remember Borowczyk somewhat differently. Throughout the eighties Borowczyk dreamed of making films about Nefertiti and Chopin, Jeanne of Arc and Gilles des Rais (Variety also lists a project based on Dumas’ La Reine Margot). However, none of these fantasies came to fruition. The novelty of sexually explicit cinema had worn off and the market for short films dried up. When times were tough, Borowczyk didn’t teach. He didn’t consider himself as a ‘specialist’, he whored his talents plain and simple. When Borowczyk took up an offer to helm the fifth instalment of Emmanuelle, he did it without qualms (critics often forget that filmmakers need bread on the table too). Borowczyk never considered such films to be taken seriously, but it is upon them that his reputation rests.

I suspect those phallic devils on Cherry’s wall, as well as her visit to the Natural History Museum and the London Dungeon (not to mention the door knobs) are ‘rosebuds’ of Borowczyk’s story. His art is: moral and sexual, tasteful and vulgar, spiritual and sensual.

I never got to meet Borowczyk in person, but then I think he was always somewhere else: Nefertiti’s Egypt, standing over Chopin as he whispered in the ear of Georges Sand, eavesdropping on Jeanne d’Arc uttering commands to Gilles des Rais. When Borowczyk did film ‘reality’ (e.g. in La Marge, Brief von Paris or Ceremonie d’Amour) it was always ‘purgatory’ – he never, ever, was able to be content framing ‘action’, always being overwhelmed by ‘concrete’ sounds and textures (years before another painter-turned-animator-turned-live-action-filmmaker, David Lynch).

Conversely, Borowczyk always described his own animation as being a ‘safety valve’. Borowczyk’s best films (Dom, Renaissance, Les Jeux des Anges, Rosalie, Diptyque, Une Collection Particuliere, Goto, Dzieje Grzechu, La Bete and Le Cas Etrange du Dr Jekyll et Miss Osbourne) possess that feeling of a deep-sea diver ‘depressurising’ (except here finding ‘equilibrium’ between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ – a banal remark, but one which has a lot more mileage when articulating the films of Borowczyk, than, for example, Terry Gilliam).

Today, Borowczyk may earn meagre headlines in Polish tabloids (e.g. Zycie na Goraco 23.02.06), but unlike like his illustrious contemporaries in Poland, he won’t (to quote a cruel comment made by Gilbert Adair regarding the death of Lindsay Anderson) have to ‘network from the grave’ – I still get shivers down my spine whenever I hear Violostries or Pour en Finir avec le Pouvoir d’Orphee by Bernard Parmengiani (source music for, Les Jeux des Anges and Le Cas Etrange du Dr. Jekyll respectively), let alone Handel, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn or Bach... Long may the ‘ghost of Goto’ haunt our imaginations.


A tribute to WB will play at the Norwich International Animation Festival this October.

Daniel Bird is a writer, filmmaker and curator. He lives in Warsaw.