An acclaimed writer and director of animated films, scenery designer, he aims to make films that resemble narrative features and exhibits a tendency to compose shots in a cinematic manner rather than in a manner characteristic of the visual arts - as a filmmaker, not as a draughtsman.
Born in 1930 in Wilczogęby, Daniel Szczechura is one of Poland's most famous makers of animated films. His name evokes memories of the greatest successes of Polish animated film, especially during the 1960s.
Szczechura studied for one year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (1951-52). In 1958, he graduated from Warsaw University with a degree in Art History. In 1962, he obtained a second degree, this time from the Cinematography Department of the Łódź Film School. He was one of the co-founders of the Studencki Teatr Satyryków (STS - Student Theatre of Satirists) in Warsaw and designed the scenery for many of the group's theatrical productions.
During the 1950s, he made over a dozen films on 16 mm stock. Of these a handful earned the filmmaker awards, including Spojrzenia / Gazes, made in collaboration with Andrzej Błasiński. His diploma film was Konflikty / Conflicts (1960). In 1961, Szczechura began producing his films at the Studio Małych Form Filmowych Se-Ma-For / Se-Ma-For Studio of Small Film Forms in Łódź.
Watch early films by Daniel Szczechura and other classics
In 1970, he became a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where he heads the animation workshop of the Graphic Design Department. He has also taught abroad, at the Royal Academy of Art in Ghent and at the Emily Carr College in Vancouver. A member of the Stowarzyszenie Filmowców Polskich (Association of Polish Filmmakers), he sat on the organization's National Board from 1970 to 1973. He is also vice president of ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d'Animation - International Animated Film Association).
Daniel Szczechura has won awards for his animated films that include the Zlote Grono (Golden Grapes) medal for lifetime achievement at the 4. Wystawa i Sympozjum Plastyki "Złote Grono" / 4th "Golden Grapes" Visual Arts Exhibition and Symposium in Zielona Gora (1969), the Zenon Wasilewski Award (1975) and the Award of the Minister of Culture and Art 2nd class for lifetime achievement in animated film (1975). In 1990, he received the ASIFA Special Prize for "invaluable contributions to the art and development of animated film", and a Gemma Award from the Italian Animated Film Association.
Szczechura's debut films borrow elements from the aesthetics of Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. As Szczechura acknowledged:
I see no reason to hide that I was inspired by the films of Borowczyk and Lenica, which suggested the cut-out technique that allowed me to rid myself of the baggage of additional animators, phase designers, assistants. This technique generally revolutionized animated film, (...) because the subject scope of animations expanded with the introduction of cut-outs. (quoted from M. Giżycki, Nie tylko Disney: rzecz o filmie animowanym / Disney Was Not Alone: On Animated Film, Warsaw, 2000)
While classic animated film proved incapable of venturing beyond "cat chases mouse" situations, cut-out films allowed artists to broach far more important issues. In an interview with the editors of Kwartalnik Filmowy / Film Quarterly, Szczechura said:
Their [i.e. Borowczyk and Lenica's] early animations made a big impression on me precisely because they were serious. (Kwartalnik Filmowy, 19-20/1997)
As Szczechura himself wrote in a different text in the same issue of the magazine, Lenica and Borowczyk and the cut-out technique they used "imparted a wisdom on animated film".
Szczechura created his debut film, Conflicts (1960), almost accidentally, while completing an internship at the film school where he was studying to be a cinematographer. Although something of an afterthought, the film was in no way accidental in terms of technique. It combined cut-outs with live-action scenes, giving the artist an opportunity to play with the film's substance. One element of this game, embodied in scenes reminiscent of old film melodramas, involved using footage of live actors for the segments occurring 'on screen' while presenting the cinema audience as a cut-out, suggesting that the film being watched by the audience was more real than life.
This was accurately read as an allusion to the realities of the 1960s, a time when the political censorship of art was widespread in Poland, and when the authorities decided what would be shown to the public, with most of their choices going completely against popular taste. The film was also in some way a product of Szczechura's experiences with the Student Theatre of Satirists and this group's relations with censors.
Szczechura's next films also drew on his experiences with the satirical theatre. They included his professional debut, Maszyna / The Machine, the film, Litera / The Letter made one year later, and above all, Fotel / A Chair (1963), which was his most renowned film of this period and remains Szczechura's best satirical film.
In the first of these, the filmmaker poked fun at the mania for giant projects that reigned in the Polish People's Republic, showing the construction of a vast and complicated machine designed for... sharpening pencils. In The Letter he directed the viewer's attention to the concept of ideology that - enigmatic as is the letter "N" in his film - attracts throngs of people only to prove a mockery, a joke, a prank. A Chair was, however, the strongest of his gibes at the system in Poland at that time. A treatise about methods of gaining power, the film features characters who are shown from a bird's eye view and resemble pawns on a chessboard more than people.
A Chair, The Machine and The Letter all caused Szczechura to be compared to Slawomir Mrozek. Even today, some commentators - for example, Jerzy Uszyński in Film Quarterly 19-20/1997 - view the filmmaker as a chronicler of Polish reality, someone capable of accurately capturing and ridiculing the absurdities evident in abundance in the Polish People's Republic. As satirist Antoni Chodorowski once said in commenting on his own drawings of Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science, in this country "everything was ridiculous." However, such a reading of Szczechura's films applies to only some of his works.
Another of his celebrated achievements was Hobby, a film he made in the year of the student revolt against totalitarian rule (1968). Though it can also be read as a metaphor of enslavement and liberation, it simultaneously surpasses any such interpretations. Psychological or psychoanalytic readings defining the film as a picture of female precocity and male naiveté prove equally insufficient. The situation is quite similar with the earlier film, Wykres / A Graph, whose hero chases an unachievable goal. A Graph can easily be read as a satire - "this is how all of us, during Socialist Realist times, chased after the unattainable goal that was supposed to be the happiness of humankind under Communism."
But the film can also be seen as expressing the hopelessness of human endeavour, i.e. read in a philosophical manner as possessing an existential message. Jerzy Armata wrote in summarizing the artist's creative development,
Daniel Szczechura's films began as descriptions of reality - satirical, overstated, sneering, but nevertheless descriptions of reality. Soon after, the flippant tone was replaced by a far more serious perspective; the desire to document external reality gave way to explorations of issues hidden deep within us. (Hobby - Daniel Szczechura, Kino 2/2002).
The director himself had had enough of producing films that were purely satirical in spirit.
When I made 'A Chair' in 1963, I was inundated with requests for films that would continue to 'beat issues with the whip of satire' (...). Something prevented me from accepting them, and in retrospect I see that this helped me avoid the trap of off-handedness, illustration. (Reżyser / Director magazine 1/1998)
Kazimierz Żórawski (Kino 8/1971) created a classification of Szczechura's films in terms of their subject matter. He identified a group of works that explore mechanisms operating within human society (The Machine, A Chair, Karol / Charles), a series that illustrates operations of the human mind (A Graph and Hobby) and finally those in which the director sought new areas of interest (The Letter, Podróż / The Voyage, Pierwszy, drugi, trzeci... / First, Second, Third... and Desant / The Landing). It is difficult to agree completely with these choices, because The Landing or The Letter, and even First, Second, Third... have more in common with The Machine or A Chair than they do with The Voyage. The latter film, in turn, has indubitably more to do with Skok / The Leap, as both films attempt to illustrate the absurdity of life.
Yet another reading emerges from the two-film series consisting of Fatamorgana / Mirage andFatamorgana 2 / Mirage 2 (produced ten years later and thus not encompassed by Żórawski in his analysis). Both feature stories that are surrealist in spirit and governed by the logic of dreams. Finally, there is Gorejące palce / Burning Fingers, also based on a dream-like concept, though one that is nightmarish rather than joyous. Titled Dobranocka / A Good Night Story, Daniel Szczechura's last film is also strongly evocative of the dream world.
The filmmaker strongly believes that animated film needs to renew its narratives constantly. Thus, in his later films, he abandoned clear anecdotes with a punch line and a linear narration in favour of producing open-ended, enigmatic stories. As he said of Mirage:
What did the poet mean by this? I'm incapable of verbalizing it. (Kino 11/12/1990 - in conversation with M. Giżycki)
Daniel Szczechura has stated many times that his films resemble narrative features. He attributes this to his education: as someone who studied cinematography, he is less skilled than colleagues like Witold Giersz as a painter or graphic artist - a fact he readily admits. He exhibits a tendency to compose shots in a filmic manner rather than in a manner characteristic of the visual arts - as a cinematographer, not as a draughtsman. Szczechura believes that animated films are not visual art, because their individual scenes cannot be contemplated to infinity.
Films are series of images and each of these images has a meaning in its series (Kwartalnik Filmowy / Film Quarterly 19-20/1997).
He sees animated films as being closely related to poetry.
To me, a good animated film is the analogue of a good song, one by Agnieszka Osiecka, Wojciech Młynarski or Brel. I would love it if animations were shaped just like that, if they were abbreviated, closed forms that included both content and emotion. (Film monthly, 8/2002).
He is also someone who placed great emphasis on investigating new avenues and who proved capable of abandoning developed formulas that brought him success in favour of exploring the unknown. Podróż / The Voyage, a kind of anti-film in which seemingly nothing happens, serves as an example. The focus of this film falls on the rhythm of the telegraph posts that pass by, on the monotony of the sounds that customarily accompany travel. A leaf that falls to the ground in a park alley proves a special event. Marcin Giżycki believes that this film marked a turning point in Polish animated film, a turning point as significant as the debuts of Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. Giżycki writes that The Voyage was a harbinger of "several other exceptional works that described phenomena as simple as that leaf that descended to the ground in the park alley" (Film Quarterly 19-20/1997).