The Magical Bug Trainer: a Whimsical Biography of Ladislas Starevich (Film Review)

The Bug Trainer (Vabzdži? dresuotojas), directed by Donatas Ulvydas, Linas Augutis, Marek Skrobecki, and Rasa Miskinyte. (Lithuania-Poland-Japan-The Netherlands – Finland, 2008).

Actor Gediminas Girdvainis in 'The Bug Trainer'. Photo by Paulina Majda. Image courtesy of Rasa Miskinyte, Era Film Ltd.The Bug Trainer is a biopic which tells the story of the legendary Polish-Lithuanian animation artist Ladislas Starevich (aka. W?adys?aw Starewicz, 1882-1965). Today Starevich is known only to film historians, but in the first decades of the twentieth century, his pioneering work in stop-motion animation enjoyed a wide international success. “How does he manage to couch beetles?” exclaimed the enraptured spectators of his early shows, unable to believe that the insect stars they saw on screen were puppets. Such was the fame of Starevich that even the Russian emperor watched his films, awarding him with a special prize for the parable The Grasshopper and the Ant (1911). An important mission of the newly-released biopic The Bug Trainer is helping today’s viewers to discover Starevich – an extraordinary artist, whose whimsical creativity may easily rival such visionaries as Méliès or Disney.

Made by a team of four directors – Donatas Ulvydas, Linas Augutis, Marek Skrobecki, and Rasa Miškinyt? – The Bug Trainer foregrounds the magical aesthetics of Starevich’s animation. At the same time, the film reveals a dramatic story of the artist’s life, which was full of intoxicating triumphs and bitter fiascos. As an artist of a Polish-Lithuanian background, who began his career in pre-revolutionary Moscow and continued it among émigrés in Paris, Starevich possesses a biography which in many ways epitomizes the tempestuous history of the last century. Watching the documentary, one cannot escape a strange feeling that Starevich’s animated films are a profound metaphor for the forces of destiny, which turn human beings into bugs, and bugs into human beings.

The Insect Narrator. A still from 'The Bug Trainer'. Image courtesy of Rasa Miskinyte, Era Film Ltd.What deserves a special notice is the technical mastery of The Bug Trainer. An elaborate narrative form employed by the directors opens a space for many voices. We see an actor playing Starevich and an animated bug narrator, who provides a funny commentary on his master’s art. Film historians from Russia, Poland, Norway, and Lithuania speak about Starevich’s biography; the American stop-motion animators Brothers Quay discuss Starevich’s original artistic techniques, calling him “a puppet alchemist.” Elaborate mise-en-scènes of the film evoke the atmosphere of the period.

Animation artists the Brothers Quai discussing Starevich. A still from 'The Bug Trainer'. Image courtesy of Rasa Miskinyte, Era Film Ltd.As a Czech film critic, I would also like to mention the importance of Starevich’s legacy for many generations of European animation artists. My country has a strong tradition of puppet and stop-motion animation, represented by such well-established directors as Ji?í Trnka, Hermína Týrlová, and Jan Švankmajer, as well as younger filmmakers like Aurel Klimt, or Jan Balej. It is interesting to note that the cameraman of The Bug Trainer, Ram?nas Grei?ius, has studied at the FAMU in Prague and participated in many Czech films.

Thanks to the creators of The Bug Trainer, we now have the opportunity to reveal the treasures of an old master, whose inventiveness and incredible skills appear astonishing even today, in our world of computer technologies. The filmoffers a foretaste of Starevich’s unforgettable masterpieces – The Insects’ Christmas, The Cameraman’s Revenge, The Tale of the Fox, Fern Flowers, The Magic Clock. One could hardly imagine a better guide into Starevich’s magical world than the The Bug Trainer.

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Viera Langerová studied film and theater theory in Academy of Dramatic Arts in Bratislava (Slovakia) and Cultural Studies in Charles University in Prague. Later she worked as film and theater editor for various publications as well as editor in chief of The Letters, a cultural monthly periodical based in Prague. After living in  Asia for couple of years, she wrote a book about Chinese film as a part of greater project entitled Film Geography.

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