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Repurposing Matisse: Georges Schwizgebel’s ‘Erlkönig’ a Kaleidoscopic Dance with Death

Short film from one of the biggest names in contemporary animation repurposes the visual style of Henri Matisse to bring German writer Goethe’s 1782 epic poem to the screen.

One of the most visually striking animated short films to be seen this year, Swiss filmmaker Georges Schwizgebel’s Erlkönig repurposes the visual style of French painter Henri Matisse to bring German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1782 epic poem to the screen.

In the film, a father rides with his son through the forest. The sick child thinks he sees the Erlkönig, or the king of the fairies, and is both charmed and frightened. Spoiler alert: the kid doesn’t make it. Based on Goethe’s poem “Erlkönig” and the music of the same name by Liszt and Schubert, the five-minute, 40-second Erlkönig exists at the intersection of cinema and painting, using Schwizgebel’s signature paint-on-cel technique to create a swirling journey through space and time.

Henri Matisse’s ‘La Danse.’

Schwizgebel is one of the biggest names in contemporary animation, and two of his films -- 78 R.P.M. (1985) and The Ride to the Abyss (1992) -- rank among the hundred most influential animated films on a list published by the Festival d’Annecy in 2006. The Man without a Shadow (2004), his first collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada, garnered nine international awards. Though he first employed rotoscoping in films such as Perspectives (1975) and Offside (1977), Schwizgebel later developed a freer approach marked by a gestural application of color and the frequent use of geometric shapes seen in such works as Fugue (1998) and The Young Girl and the Clouds (2000).

A visual homage to Matisse’s iconic painting “La Danse,” the dialog-free Erlkönig is produced by Geneva-based Studio GDS, the production company Schwizgebel founded in 1971 under which he has produced all 19 or so of his films, many of which have gone on to win multiple awards at Cannes, Annecy, Zagreb, Hiroshima Stuttgart, Ottawa and Espinho. The short has screened at more than 15 international festivals, including DOK Leipzig, Encounters, Ottawa, Locarno, Zagreb, and Fantoche, where it won the award for best visual.

The genesis of the project came from a piano concert given by Schwizgebel’s son in China, during which he explained that the tale contained four characters -- narrator, father, son, and the Erlkönig -- and that the piano had to express these four different voices. “This made me want to make a movie about this music and this story,” Schwizgebel commented following the film’s screening in September in Ottawa. The idea was to create separate visuals for each of the characters that would still work together to tell the story.”

Erlkönig begins and ends with a series of looping figures. “I love to use loops,” says Schwizgebel, much of whose work has anticipated the ubiquitous delight of the humble animated GIF. “The design begins with a few details in a circular motion. Then, as in the movement of a chessboard, I step back and I see the film, see a movement that goes from start to finish. In fact, actually, you do not necessarily even see the father, you just follow him, and see the end of the beginning and the end of the film simultaneously, as if you were seeing a painting in motion.”

Schwizgebel’s films are filled with movement, everything constantly on the go, but can still be viewed as a static painting. “Early in the film there is a large circle,” he explains. “I followed one of the elements of this circle, I went over there and at the end of the film is back on another great circle, in which there are all the images of the film, as if it were an escape.”

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.