Avant-garde masterpiece lost for 80 years to get world premiere at London Film Festival
A Polish-made anti-fascist film from 1931 described as “one of the most important film rediscoveries of recent years” is to receive its world premiere at the London Film Festival in October.
Thought to have been lost forever after it was seized by the Nazis in 1940, ‘Europa’, made by surrealist artists Stefan and Franciszka Themerson in Warsaw, was rediscovered in 2019 after research by Warsaw’s Pilecki Institute traced it to the Bundesarchiv, one of Germany’s national archives.
Following an intervention from the Commission for Looted Art in Europe who negotiated the film’s restitution from the archive on behalf of the Themerson estate, it was then donated it to the British Film Institue’s National Archive, who will now premiere it at the BFI London Film Festival.
Stefan and Franciszka Themerson met in Warsaw at the end of the 1920s and married in 1931, initiating a lifelong artistic as well as romantic partnership which included films, drawings, photographs and paintings.
They were also involved in co-founding the Film Author’s Co-operative (SAF) to provide workshops, screenings and discussions to like-minded artists and filmmakers and designed and published a journal of avant-garde film as well as children’s books.
The couple’s lifetime of work was the subject of an over yearlong display at the Tate Modern between 2019 and 2020.
Inspired by one of Poland’s first futuristic poems of the same name by Anatol Stern in 1925, the film ‘Europa’ was made in the Themersons’ bedroom on Warsaw’s Królewska street.
The poem was about the societal crisis and decline of morality in Europe. Stern described it as “my dry chronicle devoted to the tragedy, the misery, the wisdom and the wickedness of Europe.”
Made through the fusion of an innovative range of techniques, such as collages, photograms and prints made by laying objects on photographic paper and exposing it to light, the film was intended to reflect an atmosphere of horror and all-pervading societal decline as expressed in the poem by translating the poem’s words into moving images.
After finding themselves in Paris when WWII broke out, the couple deposited the film, alongside four others, at the Vitfer film laboratory in 1940, to keep them safe, but all of them were seized by the Nazis shortly after, leading to the belief, that persisted for nearly eight decades, that it had been lost forever.
Volunteering for the Polish army during the war, the Themersons eventually found themselves reunited in London in 1942 and began working for the Film Unit of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation.
Their first British film ‘Calling Mr Smith’ in 1943, was intended to be a call to people in Britain to open their eyes to Nazi atrocities in Europe.
Sometime later, in 1983, Stefan Themerson made a reconstruction of ‘Europa’ using surviving stills, but he and his wife died in 1988 believing the original had perished.
The rediscovered ‘Europa’ will be held in the BFI national archive alongside ‘Calling Mr Smith’ and two other of the Themersons’ surviving films, including one other made in London.
Ben Roberts, chief executive of the BFI said: “We are honoured to be part of this valuable film’s incredible story, by preserving Europa’s original nitrate film in our collection and helping to make this significant piece of anti-fascist work available now and for the future.”
Benjamin Cook from the UK arts agency LUX, who also played a role in the film’s restitution told UK’s The Guardian newspaper: “This is truly one of the most important film rediscoveries of recent years, a major lost work of the European avant-garde and an important affirmation of Stefan and Franciszka Themersons’ important contribution to cinema history.”
The restoration of the 12-minute film, made by Fixafilm Warsaw with a newly commissioned soundtrack by Lodewijk Muns, will get its world premiere on the 6th of October, the first time it has been seen since the early 1930s.