Wladyslaws Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (Russia, 1912) is a 12 minute short that a century on still bristles with a vitality and life so modern–or to be more precisely, so timeless–that someone could have shown it to me and I could have been convinced it was, say, the latest YouTube sensation currently trending on Twitter.
The story itself isn’t much: a rather banal, très French romantic farce regarding the sexual hijinks of a bourgeois married couple. But the wonderful, unique twist: the characters are preserved insects brought to life through the wonders of stop-motion animation. There are many elements to savor–the casual depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle’s marital infidelity, the intricate mise-en-scène, the sophisticated sight gags, a prophetic proto-paparazzi depiction, the complex commentary on both the filmmaking process and the act of film watching–but the most dazzling accomplishment of The Cameraman’s Revenge is the way Starwicz is able to so uncannily anthropomorphize these most inhuman of creatures. This is made possible through a highly attuned sense of movement and gesture, demonstrating a precision that is unexpectedly graceful, and at moments surprisingly moving.
While watching it I couldn’t help but think of it as a the perfect counterbalance to that great artistic meditation of humanity-as-insect that is practically the film’s exact contemporary: Kafka’s classic short story The Metamorphosis, first published in 1915. But rather than Kafka’s existential depiction of deteriorating, debased humanity, Starewicz relishes in the comical foibles and absurdities of life and love, and instead discovers within the inanimate insect form the means to explore a flipside of the human condition: its surrealistic humor.