Chris Robinson interviews Polish independent animator Piotr Dumala regarding his latest masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, leading to a discussion of his unique plaster technique, Hitchcock and post-war Poland.
"...[C]an it be that I will really take an axe and hit her on the head and smash her skull....slip in the sticky, warm blood....Lord, can it be?"
Turning books into animation is nothing new. Virtually all of Disney's early features were adapted from books. The Russians were also especially apt at adapting books without getting the rights first (e.g. Fedor Khitruk's Winnie the Pooh and Alexei Karaev's Dr. Seuss takes, Welcome and The Cat in The Hat). More ambitious adaptations include Jan Lenica's bizarre take on Ionesco's absurdist classic, Rhinoceros, Svankmajer's Faust and Alexander Petrov's recent The Old Man and The Sea. Some work well, others do not.
Now it's one thing to adapt fairy tales, plays and novellas, but it's an entirely different task when one is dealing with a mammoth work like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Cinema has already attempted a number of adaptations most notably by Josef Von Sternberg and Aki Kaurismaki. Most recently, Polish animator Piotr Dumala, already well known for existential films Kafka and The Gentle One (based on a Dostoevsky short story) tried his hand, literally, at Dostoevsky's novel. While it's not the first animation attempt at Crime and Punishment (in 1999, student Zack Margolis made a short but inspiring take on it called A Trip to the Building), it is by far the most ambitious.
The cinematic temptation is obvious. For all its multi-layered philosophical, social and economic critiques of Russian society and humanity in general, Crime and Punishment contains all the tension and suspense of a Hitchcock film. As with Shadow of A Doubt, Rope, Frenzy, or even North By Northwest, to name a few, we know almost immediately who committed, or in the case of North by Northwest, who didn't commit, the foul deed. Like Dostoevsky, Hitchcock implicates the viewer in the crimes (e.g. the voyeurism in Rear Window, the shower scene in Psycho or the murder in Rope). Throughout the course of the works, the viewer/reader must live with what it knows. The tensions evolve out of this self-awareness. With our implication comes a variety of mixed messages that shuffle and confuse our own moral values and sense of right and wrong. Despite his monstrous actions, we (well, at least I) do not want Raskolnikov to get caught. Not only are we a witness to the crime, but also aware of the motivations behind it. The same can be seen in Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt. And despite its mythical and intimidating reputation, Crime and Punishment reads like a mystery novel. Indeed, the book was originally a serialization for newspaper readers.
"Man gets accustomed to everything, the scoundrel!"
The Distillation of Story
Dumala it seems also picked up the Hitchcock theme. Crime and Punishment opens with a marvellous Saul Bass inspired credit sequence. Thumping, repetitive piano notes accompany the reddish brown visuals that appear in and out of shadows. In between, we see what is almost an overture of images (including the murder) revealing in an almost Brechtian style what exactly we can expect to see in this film. The fusion of red and brown throughout the film captures the violence and griminess of this sick world, while the elliptical, paranoid, dimly lit images perfectly capture the increasingly blurred line of dream and reality in Raskolnikov's disturbed mind. As with the novel, the crime is very much an afterthought. What interests Dumala is less the crime and more the emotional and mental state of this troubled soul before and after the murder. This is not Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and nor should it be. Adaptations, like essays, should attempt to be personal re-creations of the feelings inspired by the adapted work.
Unfortunately, Dumala has been criticized for his apparently unfaithful translation. "People wanted a standard adaptation. People expect to see what they read in the book. This is something else so they feel cheated. It was not my aim to copy the book. I was really close to the book. I took one level of the book. It's not possible to show everything from this book. I got what I wanted." Dumala's film takes only the main plots: the killings and meeting Sonia. This is not a tale of evil or the like in St. Petersburg. "This is about love and how obsession can destroy love. In our life we are under two opposite influences to be good or bad and to love or hate."
Dumala limited the film to five characters: Sonia, Raskolnikov, the old lady, and the old man who is always peering from the shadows. He also created a new character based on the dream that Raskolnikov has of himself as a young boy trying to save a horse from a severe beating. "I felt that I could make another hero who can exist like an angel representing his innocence."
"Occasionally he would stop in front of a summer house decked out in greenery, look through the fence, and see dressed-up women far away, on balconies and terraces, and children running in the garden. He took special interest in the flowers; he looked longer at them than at anything else."
Dumala worked for 3 years on Crime and Punishment, but he was introduced to the book in secondary school. "I was very moved when I read this story about a 20-year-old good guy who wanted to kill someone without any reason." The idea of a young man struggling to find his limitations appealed to Dumala, who in typical teenage fashion, was drinking too much, causing trouble and fighting with his parents. Beyond the juvenile attraction, there was something much deeper in the book that embraced the young Pole. The atmosphere in Crime and Punishment is one of dirt and scum. Everyone is dirty. They live in dirty houses with dirty children and have dirty thoughts. We see criminals, prostitutes, low lifes; the dark side of society. This was a world very familiar to Dumala. He grew up in a poor district of Warsaw with "lots of criminals living in the court." The courtyard was built in 1938 but was destroyed during WW II. "Many people were killed in this area. My childhood was among these surroundings. It was dark poetry. People were living in ruins. A single mother with two kids lived in the basement, while another family occupied the top part. Criminals were fighting everyday. There was blood everywhere. Prostitutes lay in the stairway shitting on the stairs." At the same time, Dumala, in love with a school girl, had his Sonia within this landscape of darkness. In Crime and Punishment, Dumala "found a book about my life."
At 15, Dumala was not mature enough to make a film of Crime and Punishment. Ten years later, Dumala had started making comics consisting of about 300 drawings. "It was the best drawings I'd ever made in my life, so after I thought about a film. My professor said, 'You should do Crime and Punishment,' but it was too early for me." It would take Dumala another 17 years, making hundreds of films before he was ready to make the film of his life.
Dumala is, of course, already a well-known artist on the international animation circuit and his work is acclaimed for its philosophical themes but especially for his innovative plaster technique. His technique involves the use of slabs of plaster covered with normal glue (with hot water to make the surface stronger and smooth). Once dry Dumala scratches on the plaster with sandpaper and paints it with oil paint. "It goes very fast. I put the paint on the surface and it's absorbed very quickly. I scratch on it with a sharp tool and can achieve very nice effects from dark tones to white plaster. The animation goes onto one piece so I make one drawing and change it on the same plaster and re-paint it."
Dumala invented the technique in 1983. "I had a piece of wood covered with a special preparation -- I kept it as a lesson of technology from art school -- and I covered the wood with brown oil paint as background -- I always liked Dutch painting and I knew they covered their paintings with black -- I really liked this and scratched it with a needle. It was an illumination. It was possible to scratch and make a drawing. I could continue this and make a film." After one year at the Academy of Fine Arts, Dumala made two films [The Black Riding Hood (The Black Hood) and Lycantrophy] using a traditional drawing style, before using the new technique on his next film, Flying Hair. "It was a fantastic technique. Everything was influenced by this technique. It was smooth and poetic and black." While the first two films were done on a white background, Flying Hair was made on a black background. "This started my series of black films. So all films take place at night or between night and day. It's not possible to explain the time of day. Is it real light or dark sun?"
The process is time consuming and Dumala never quite achieves the most desired effect. "There are no line tests. Everything is done the first and last time." With the life of a new image, comes the death of the old one. "It's really destroying my mind. It's like killing your own children. Only what I get is the effect on the screen. The movement. I'm very much linked to my drawings. Sometimes you still have some of the past drawing and parts of the next one. It's something really interesting, but you can't keep it. I work slowly to keep it as long as possible. So I'll go to the bar and eat something and then it's time to destroy it. It's a punishment."
If there is a crime to go with this punishment, it comes courtesy of the film's soundtrack. Faced with deadlines, Dumala had only days to complete the soundtrack. "There were technical problems and I couldn't start earlier. When I finally went to the studio I had two nights. I couldn't see the result until Ottawa [where the film premiered in September 2000]."
Fortunately, the completion of Crime and Punishment was mildly therapeutic for Dumala. "When I was finished I felt like after the crime. I knew that something was passed. I am free of an idea that I was keeping for twenty years. It is done. It's over. I felt free to make something else." Old women the world over are rejoicing.
Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.