Festival to show anti-fascist masterpiece by surrealists Stefan and Franciszka Themerson
A still from Europa. The film was rediscovered in Germany’s national archives, the Bundesarchiv, in 2019. Photograph: Themerson Estate
A powerful anti-fascist film which was seized by the Nazis and thought to have been lost forever is to receive its world premiere at the London film festival.
The 1931 film Europa, made in Warsaw by surrealist husband and wife Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, has gained mythical status in film history with several attempts to remake or reimagine it.
No one thought a copy still existed until, in 2019, the Pilecki Institute told the couple’s niece and heir, Jasia Reichardt, that its research suggested there might be one in Germany’s national archives, the Bundesarchiv.
The Commission for Looted Art in Europe negotiated the film’s restitution from the archive on behalf of the Themerson estate. It has been donated to the BFI National Archive and will get its premiere next month.
The UK arts agency LUX also played a part. Its director, Benjamin Cook, said: “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 Themersons were Polish artists who met in 1930 and began a lifelong collaboration as writers, publishers and avant-garde film-makers.
Europa’s original 35mm nitrate. Photograph: National Archive BFI
They made Europa in their Warsaw bedroom. Based on Anatol Stern’s 1925 futurist poem of the same name, the couple used collages and photograms – prints made by laying objects on to photographic paper and exposing it to light – to create a film which articulated the sense of horror and moral decline they were witnessing from Poland. It is considered an avant-garde masterpiece.
In 1938 they moved to Paris and when war broke out they deposited a copy of Europa, together with four other films they had made, at the Vitfer film laboratory for safe keeping. All five were seized by the Nazis and thought lost for ever.
The Themersons, who had volunteered for the Polish army, made their way to the UK and established a new life in London.
Europa was gone but not forgotten. In 1983 Stefan made, using surviving stills, a reconstruction of the film with the London Film-Makers Co-op. The couple died in 1988 believing it lost for ever.
The Themerson estate has donated Europa to the BFI national archive where it joins three surviving films made by the Themersons, two of them made in England for the film unit of the Polish government-in-exile.
Ben Roberts, the BFI’s chief executive, said Europa was a major piece of European avant-garde film-making. “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.”
A restoration of the 12-minute film, with a newly commissioned soundtrack, will get its world premiere at the BFI London film festival on 6 October. The festival will run from 6 to 17 October.