It would seem that Piotr Kamler does a hell of a job keeping a low profile. Since his impressive run in the sixties and seventies, he has released only two films: 1982's Chronopolis, and 1993's Une mission éphémère. Whatever the reason, information about the artist is, at least outside of Europe, disturbingly hard to find. His name pops up in a few old surveys of modern animation, but that's about it. This is a man with a full body of work; a man who ran a film at the Cannes Film Festival, and he doesn't even have an English language Wikipedia page. Somebody get on that. Not that a Wikipedia page is necessarily a status symbol but, I mean, I bet that even your favorite snack food has a Wikipedia page. Talk about under-appreciated!
So, let's appreciate. Watching these shorts, I encountered some of the most beautiful images I've ever seen, as well as some of the most horrifying. The Labyrinth might well be the scariest thing I've watched in years. Just writing about it brings back seriously haunting images. On the other hand, the charming and hypnotic Couer de Secours inspired Jean-Pierre Jeunet to pick up a camera and make Amélie, which is among the sweetest, least scary movies of all time1. Hiver is an experiment in pinboard animation that, at first glance, reminded me of a Winamp visualization, but quickly became immersive and exciting 2. These films are by turns dramatic and comedic, always philosophical, and unified by an undeniable visual aesthetic. Each stands out, though, on its own merits. As far as aesthetically-unified genre-spanning mastery goes, this guy is like a small scale Kubrick or Coen brother3.
Kamler's films are, if not obsessed with circles and cycles, then certainly very concerned with them. Anthropomorphic orbs (think Rovers from The Prisoner) play major parts in several. Circular shapes, from gears to suns to holes to bowls, abound. Geometry in general plays a huge part in Kamler's visual aesthetic. Le Trou, for example, achieves transcendence with little more than a barren plane, an oval, a couple circles, and some right angles. Le Pas “stars,” in effect, a cube made up of rectangles sitting on another barren plane (the man likes his barren planes). And many of these shorts are repetitive, using the same or similar shots over and over again. In fact, most of these films end by setting scenes similar to their beginnings, indicating an ongoing cycle that lend them a vibe you might call Zen if you couldn't come up with a better word.
Don't get me wrong, though, they're far from simplistic. Their logic, at times, approaches that of MC Escher 4. Most of Kamler's films look like classic surrealistic paintings come to life. The barren landscapes, cloudy skies, and abstract shapes are classic Dali5 – dreamlike, hallucinatory. Other motifs include time (the watch around the neck of the fat man in Délicieuse Catastrophe, the clock inCouer de Secours), creation (pretty much all of them), and nothingness (voids upon voids upon voids in these films) 6. He favors rich, metallic hues and dark shadows that perfectly complement his not-quite-science-fiction worlds. The tall, humanoid icons of Couer de Secours and Délicieuse Catastrophe resemble the work of Edward Gorey or – like many of his films – the Quay Brothers, whose work is profoundly indebted to Kamler 7.
Jeunet of Amélie is not the only French Kamler fan. In fact, most of his films were produced in France, as he moved to Paris in 1959 after wrapping up his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. There, he found like-minded peers and future collaborators in the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF), whose research division would produce many of his films. His films won several French awards, including the Grand Prix at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and Chronopolis, his only feature film, was screened “out of competition” at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. Though Kamler's films seem to be under-appreciated outside of France, his homeland has honored him at The Krakow Film Festival several times. Three of his films received “Silver Dragon” awards there and, in 2011, he was presented the prestigious “Dragon of Dragons” lifetime achievement award.
As beautiful as Kamler's animation is, it would not be half as successful without its musical counterpart. Here is where Kamler's ace in the hole comes into play – the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) of the ORTF. There, an experimental electronic music scene was flourishing under its innovator, Pierre Schaeffer. His “musique concrète” – composed of often-dissonant “acousmatic” sounds 8 produced by electronic instruments, acoustic instruments, voices, and/or recordings – was the perfect complement for Kamler's films. GRM members including Luc Ferrari, Iannis Xenakis, and especially Bernard Parmegiani closely collaborated with Kamler and provided their groundbreaking music. These scores help the films tow the delicate line between darkness and whimsy.
The Wild Magazine aptly calls Kamler “a Renaissance Man:” a sculptor, an illustrator, and a filmmaker 9. His adaptability and penchant for playful experimentation come through in these films. By turns, he deftly combines photography, clay, paper cut-outs, and more. His ability to infuse regular old shapes with soulful personalities – without even the use of dialog – is spellbinding and inexplicable. Has a circle ever made you laugh? In Le Pas, the man conveys a sexual relationship between two plain gray rectangles – no words, no faces, no sprouting limbs. Two plain gray rectangles! It has to be seen to be believed. These films are a gift.
1 Sweet as in your favorite snack food, not necessarily as in “sweet, bro!”
2 Much like a Winamp visualization
3 Don't judge me, I didn't go to film school.
5 Don't judge me, I didn't go to art school.
7 Kamler's work can't help but remind me of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartoons, either, although I can't find proof that one had anything to do with the other.
8 Sound whose origin is hidden from the audience.