Imitation of the Nonhuman

Władisław Starewicz’s Entomological Cinema

Anna Tropnikova
This study offers a post-humanist framework for the analysis of Władisław Starewicz’s entomological animations from Imperial Russia, arguing that these unique artefacts of film history provide a non-anthropocentric alternative to so-called post-Disney practices. It demonstrates that Starewicz’s work with nonhuman protagonists in Prekrasnaia Liukanida / The Beautiful Leukanida (1912, Russian Empire) and Mest’ kinematograficheskogo operatora / The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912, Russian Empire) generates an idiosyncratic approach to animated movement that the director retains throughout his oeuvre, arguing that even Starewicz’s most anthropomorphic films, such as Fétiche Mascotte / The Mascot (1933, France) and Reinicke Fuchs / The Tale of the Fox (1937, Germany) mimic the entomology-driven animation style that the director developed in his early films. This trajectory from animating insect bodies to dolls has previously been treated teleologically by some scholars, with The Tale of The Fox cited as the apotheosis of Starewicz’s career and the oft-neglected insect films presumed to be inchoate predecessors to his later dolls. However, this article takes a different position, arguing that Starewicz’s innovations in later films were only possible thanks to the tremendous popularity and developments of his earlier entomological endeavours. This approach considers Starewicz’s use of the nonhuman to be foundational for his filmography, suggesting that all Starewicz's stop-motion films remain entomological. When his films are approached through Jussi Parikka’s challenge to consider natural media as a tool for rethinking human media, opportunities for action vis-a-vis animation and novel considerations in issues of scale, content, and style are revealed.
Władisław Starewicz; Jussi Parikka; Mikhail Iampolski; Central Europe; Eastern Europe; Imperial Russia; entomology; posthumanism; mimesis; animation; stop-motion.


What Does the Lucanus Cervus See?

Mimicking Insecthood Heightens Verisimilitude

Destabilising the Signifier

What Does Renard See?

Starewicz’s Legacy





Suggested Citation


Natural media rethink and reconfigure human media. As Jussi Parikka reminds us (citing Jakob von Uexkül), “what we perceive is what we are” (Parikka 2010: xii). We cannot exceed the bounds of the Anthropocene and imagine a future where our myopia as a species does not vouchsafe our doom without re-conceiving human modes of perception. Luckily, we do not need to invent strategies to do so, when other humans have pioneered the way.

In Prekrasnaia Liukanida / The Beautiful Leukanida (1912, Russian Empire), Władisław Starewicz pioneered animation with two non-human protagonists, the humble Lucanus cervus (the European stag beetle) and Tettingoniidae (the katydid, or bush cricket).1 As the insects lack an “anthropomorphisable” physiognomy, their imagined internal states are made legible through embodied signs of action: the stag beetle suddenly opening his mandibles to convey readiness for battle (Fig. 1), the katydid moving one of his limbs while speaking, his whiskers drooping, rising, and standing suddenly erect as if with the rise and fall of his words.2 In Mest’ Kinematograficheskogo operatora / The Cameramans Revenge (1912, Russian Empire), tiny cameras and tiny protagonists expose the artificiality of our contrived way of monogamous living, as the insects fight over lovers or brawl and crawl away on all fours, like many a drunk after a bar fight. Viewers do not pause to marvel at the improbability of arthropods wielding a camera or wearing boots for, as Stanley Cavell asserts, humans’ dependence on ocular modes of perception means that “movies seem more natural than reality” (Cavell 1979: 102). If, as Cavell suggests, the camera is our own externalised sensory organ and humans look “out at” the world from behind it, then a synthesis of his claim with Parikka’s insights on how Bergson’s insects use their tools as “intimate parts of the organism” yields the homo sapiens’ proboscis (Parikka 2010: 6): the camera is our own “tool not yet differentiated from the body”, a “prosthetical/technological solution” for the epistemological problem of truth (Parikka 2010: xxx, 20). What better way to uncover new truths than to turn to an entomologist-filmmaker who practised both kinds of techniques? In these films, Starewicz brings together entomology and filmmaking, the film screen serving as a glass display case to preserve his entomological spectacles.

Starewicz moves the mandibles in The Beautiful Leukanida (0:01:23) to visually render communication between two insects.

I aim to answer Parikka’s call to construct an alternative to the years of the hegemony of the human signifier. Mikhail Iampolski (1988) considered Starewicz’s earliest animated works precisely under such a stronghold, characterising the insect protagonists as pale imitations of the dolls of Reineke Fuchs / The Tale of the Fox (1937, Germany). This teleological view eclipses not only the technical feats of The Beautiful Leukanida and The Cameraman’s Revenge, but also their contemporary popularity. According to Yuri Tsivian, in 1912 viewers were so amazed by the films that they were duped into thinking that the entomologist ‘professor’ had trained his insects to perform in front of the camera (Tsivian 1995: 122). An anthropocentric view not only confirms our own species’s narcissism, but also precludes the possibility of discovery inherent in encountering a radically different other body and its In-der-Welt sein.3 In light of film historiography’s tendency to privilege early Western animation over pre-Soviet animated films, the case for re-examining these works from Imperial Russia becomes even more urgent. Here it will be demonstrated how ‘natural media’ help rethink human media and, with their different agencies and sensoria, reveal opportunities for action and areas of mutual interest. Re-evaluating Starewicz’s later work through the foundation of his earlier films, three entomology-infused areas emerge: the fluid motion or animated-ness of characters on screen; the camera zoom; and point of view (POV) shots. The renowned animator’s previous entomological documentary attempts played a decisive role in the microscopic constructions of his early filmic worlds by means of these three devices, but their methods extended well past the last day Starewicz placed a stag beetle in front of the lens.4 For the director did not abandon entomology in favour of dolls, more imitative of homo sapiens. Rather, Starewicz’s career is a record of a certain kind of entomological sensibility, something quite different from anthropomorphising. In their small movements, even the mammals of The Tale of the Fox mimic not humans, but insects. Thus this article demonstrates that Starewicz’s later work retained his allegiance to the nonhuman, with the early insect medium playing a significant role in its development. From its auspicious start until its final animations, all of Starewicz’s cinema remained “entomological”.

What Does the Lucanus Cervus See?

Starewicz’s earliest filmic escapades in entomology are currently thought to be lost. A filmography compiled by Léona Béatrice Martin-Starewitch and François Martin (2021a and 2021b), a living descendant of the director and her husband, notes that three of his first four films were entomological. These are: Skarabeusze / The Scarabs (1909), Życie ważki / The Life of the Dragonfly (1909), and Walka żuków-jelonków / The Battle of the Deer Bugs Lucanus Cervus (1910). Only the last of these is an animated film – the former two are classified by the Starewicz estate as documentaries (Martin 2003: 13).

According to the Martins, the last film in particular is demonstrative of Starewicz’s “passion for entomology”, and it was this film that would engender a “revelation” – here he would realise that unlike his numerous other pastimes (painting, journalism, and photography), animating animal bodies held something special; the reported reason that Starewicz so readily switched from one medium to another before the filming of The Battle of the Deer Bugs was out of “boredom” (Martin 2003: 14).

Starewicz was fond of painstakingly recounting the process of achieving his very first animation, which was also one of the earliest animations in the history of film.5 It follows, then, that the process of interacting with and exploring the Lucanus cervus held more significance for Starewicz than the filmic product itself. Yet, contrary to what the general public would come to believe, Starewicz could not train these animals to fight on command – stunned by the light of the projector, they would simply do nothing (Martin 2003: 13). This did not, however, deter the young director: when no coaxing nor any number of female stag beetles would provoke a battle between the Lucanius, he disassembled and reconstituted their body parts into mimicked versions of their previous selves, until they became Theseus ship beetles, their legs now thin wires, their joints fused with wax (Martin 2003: 13).6 Verisimilitude was paramount to confer the illusion that they were moving of their own accord, but to delude the public and present a filmic product that was convincing enough to persuade those viewing the film that a certain Professor ‘Lozhki’ had trained his insects to act, Starewicz had to move by hand each wired leg for the Lucanus cervus mating dance, retracing the steps he had seen the beetles make in their previous, now extinguished lives (Tsivian 1995: 122). Wanting to represent the insects’ own ‘natural’ movement, Starewicz had to perform the role of an insect. The result is a human’s performance of insect movement, camouflaged as a documentary film.

This might seem reminiscent of another ‘documentary’ moment in the ‘nature’ genre – Disney’s infamous tactic in White Wilderness (James Algar, 1958, USA), which featured lemmings artificially strewn about by a centrifuge but shown to be “jumping off a cliff” from the camera’s vantage point (Woodford 2013). An important distinction must be made – at this critical stage, Starewicz did not yet have his doll-beetles perform any anthropomorphic behaviour the way he would (nominally) in The Beautiful Leukanida and The Cameraman’s Revenge. Crucially, he did not have any expectations in mind for the stars of The Battle of the Deer Bugs – rather, he was more interested in capturing a “distinctive mode of animal body” that was alien but fascinating to him (Parikka 2010: 81). At this formative moment for his career, Starewicz dutifully copies the movements of the male Lucanus as he remembers them, a textbook definition of mimesis. The pivotal discovery of his true calling and his formation of an auteur’s voice came to Starewicz only when he closely mimicked the insects he so lovingly studied.

Thus, regeneration and reproduction, reanimation, reconstitution from easily definable elements, and not the ‘positioning’ (or is it mimicking?) of classical Graeco-Roman theatre – these are the founding principles of Starewicz’s animation style.

For Starewicz, the interactions with this insect in this artificial documentary were so paramount that its name was carried over into the title of his next work (in Russian, Leukanida is a diminutive and female variant of Lucanus). It has been established that The Battle of the Deer Bugs represents the animator’s journey into mimicry of the nonhuman. But what potential does Starewicz’s earliest surviving animation reveal about the rest of his filmography?

Mimicking Insecthood Heightens Verisimilitude

There is no surviving copy of The Battle of the Deer Bugs, but there is an animation featuring the same protagonists. In the lost film, Starewicz intended to make a cinematographic document of two insects fighting, and he mimicked and animated it into being when documentary modes failed him. However, in The Beautiful Leukanida the director begins experimenting with superimposing a microscopic version of his own imagination onto the inert, made lifelike bodies of the other. The Beautiful Leukanida stands in a liminal space between filmic genres, between mimesis proper with a stable platonic referent in the lifecycle of Lucanus cervus (as in The Battle of the Deer Bugs) and certified fantasy (as in The Beautiful Leukanida), with no referent save nonhuman agency (Parikka 2010: 62).

Mimicking insecthood proves key to breathing life into this fantasy. Though Christian Metz’s insight into the gravitas of motion posits movement as the success of an illusion on screen (Marc Steinberg [2012: 3] summarises: “[s]o long as there is movement, the impression of reality will be sustained”), it does not account for a spectrum in the fidelity of movement, nor increasing complexity with granularity. When a director’s modus operandi is early cinema’s equivalent of a macro close-up lens, pluripotent detail is needed to render complete the coleopteric movement, and promote the appearance of sensation; in other words, making “full” the movement of the miniscule body.7 The more fluid the movement, the more it will connote verisimilitude. In The Beautiful Leukanida, Starewicz attempts to inhabit the Lucanus cervus only for the second time, and it is his first attempt at fusing his own sensorium with an insect’s. As such, his realisation and performance are immature. Sometimes, his scenes with ‘the moustached’ katydids (observe the shot of longue durée at 0:07:47) show the antennae behaving as inertly as real moustaches, failing to probe, sense or behave as antennae should. At other moments – especially in the first twenty-five seconds of the film – the antennae are wildly active in sensing and communicating. The director attempts to mobilise an army of Lucani, letting his imagination run wild from his original two protagonists, but he becomes convinced that the beetles need some extra accoutrements in order to articulate their gestures, rather than understanding that his proper tools are already present. The result is awkward and small footsteps taken by stag beetles wearing boots of an inordinately large size relative to their bodies – anthropomorphised arthropods forced to adopt the gait of a human. Moments like this were the likely source of inspiration for Iampolski’s critique, which constructs anthropocentric reasons to explain why Starewicz might have moved away from working with insects (Iampolski 1988: 88).

Yet Starewicz had early successes at inhabiting the nonhuman as well. The world of perceptions available to a stag beetle is almost “too small to comprehend from a human perspective”, but not quite (Parikka 2010: 64). With a magnifying lens, Starewicz can begin to see eye to eye with Lucanus and its brethren, and imagine how a beetle might perceive and act in its world even when he does not know. Thus, clumsy as Starewicz’s first steps as Lucanus may have been, they still reveal an earnest attempt at replicating the imagined sensorium of an Other species. The loyal servant of Agamemnon (the largest beetle) first hobbles to his superior with buckled, imprecise footsteps, and begins gesturing with a front leg, the way a person might use their hand when explaining a situation to a fellow human.8 Then, at 0:01:17 of The Beautiful Leukanida, the loyal servant, in communicating with Agamemnon (the largest beetle), performs a curious motion of cocking his head from side to side, not unlike a dog when her owner is talking to her in words she does not quite recognise. The gesture may have been imported from an animal referent, but it sufficiently and imaginatively conveys to human viewers – without a sound! – a moment when the communication between Agamemnon and his companion lapses. Some clarification is needed, however, so at 0:01:23 (Fig. 1), Starewicz fully articulates the first most credible movement of his nonhuman source of inspiration, and it is in this moment that the feeling of verisimilitude begins to take effect. Prior to this, the on-screen Lucani have used their mandibles in a way that would have been physically impossible if observed in the wild – for example, moving their mandibles so far down as to be in a position of nodding, their tips 45 degrees below the insects’ line of sight. A real insect is unable to pivot its head to the extent that would enable it to gaze at its own sternum, so this is a contrived gesture, borrowed from human modes of communication and stapled onto the insectoid. At 0:01:23, however, the insect’s head remains upright and parallel to its body, and the mandibles open quite naturally. At 0:01:24, Starewicz returns to using clumsy human signifiers, with another deep nod to hammer home to the viewer that the message from Agamemnon to his servant has been understood. Authentic mandible moments return at other instances, for example at 0:08:33 and 0:04:30: gentle and slight, their motion seems to perform a ‘sensing’ of their environment. Starewicz is negotiating with the appendages of his subjects and exploring their expressive potential.

These entomological films used assemblages of so many insects – bodies reconstructed and repeated to assume the form of a much larger and innumerable swarm, like the army defending the insect City of Troy in The Beautiful Leukanida – that Starewicz would sometimes sign cartoons he published in a local paper with the pseudonym “Kills-Flies” (“Tue-mouches”; Martin 2003: 36). “Swarms are time”, Parikka posits (2010: 59). This use of large numbers of the same organism as a toolkit invites one to table questions of naturality or artificiality, and to consider entities’ mortality, focusing “on the nonrepresentational environment and the machinic assemblage in which the entities act” (Parikka 2010: xxvii).

Starewicz’s next venture, The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), is much more successful at utilising these assemblages to their fullest potential.9 It also starts to prod and open questions about the camera as a mechanical proboscis, a prosthesis, or a tool that becomes an extension of the human eye, thus pre-empting Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom / Man with a Movie Camera (1929, USSR) by over a decade (Cavendish 2004: 209). The kinship between the two films and their treatment of questions of voyeurism and the act of recording history goes beyond the superficial device of creating a mise en abyme. This is not surprising – Starewicz and Vertov worked alongside each other on films produced at Aleksandr Khanzhonkov’s studio, and John MacKay has pointed out that in P’ianstvo i ego posledstviia / Drunkenness and Its Consequences (1913, Russian Empire) Starewicz even features a tiny devil crawling out of a half-empty bottle of vodka, “presaging” a similar scene in Man with a Movie Camera by over fifteen years (MacKay 2018: 102).

While some of the questions that motivate the plot of The Cameraman’s Revenge are pertinent and necessary in any discussion of the ontology of film, they are beyond the scope of this article.10 For our discussion, The Cameraman’s Revenge will be approached as a record of Starewicz’s increasing sophistication after The Beautiful Leukanida in mimicking the movements of insects as insects. While one stag beetle retains some boots (0:06:54), they are small and do not obstruct its progress across the room. The protagonists of The Cameraman’s Revenge seem more at home wielding human accoutrements, contraptions, and navigating the general trappings of urban life – they carry valises, look at posters, watch movies, and drive cars. They seem comfortable controlling the human tools Starewicz has handed them, but Starewicz is also comfortable in articulating insect limbs in fluid and full movements, load-bearing legs bending at the knee as the insects ascend staircases (for example, Mr Beetle ascends the steps that lead to the cabaret at 0:01:34). And their insect constitutions perform as they should – antennae are erect and sensing (0:03:21). Especially in moments of relative inactivity, they orbit quite naturally around insect heads: one striking articulation of ‘realistic’ antenna movement by Mrs Beetle comes at 0:05:32, where her antennae first lie flat to her back, then stand erect, then flatten again and duplicate with high granularity those of an insect at rest as she performs a human activity (writing). Or, take 0:06:13 – as the katydid paints, his head makes little movements, suddenly and intentionally changing position by millimetres, almost too fast for many humans to notice, but not so fast as to be overlooked by an astute entomologist. Starewicz’s mimicking of ‘insectness’ is so finely tuned that at times it creates almost frustrating moments (but humourous for this very reason) whose meaning escapes human viewers – what could Mrs Beetle be writing about at 0:05:32? – yet these granular movements that mimic so precisely the observable sensorium of an insect are the very thing that gives this film a heightened feeling of ‘realism’.

Finally, in moments of great earnestness, Starewicz’s insects drop all pretence of playing humans. For example, when Mr Beetle is brutally defeated by the cameraman, he performs a helpless roll on his round back, all appendages wriggling in the air (0:10:17). In a moment of respite after this encounter, Mr Beetle strokes his antennae with one of his legs as he sits, recuperating, on all six legs rather than two; he then crawls home on all six in a movement so thoroughly insectoid that it becomes difficult to believe that one is watching stop motion animation and not a recording of an actual beetle (0:10:22). Likewise, when Mr Beetle is enraged, he climbs a human staircase like an insect mounting a stalk, grabbing his opponent in a six-appendage hug (0:12:24). And when Mr Beetle and the cameraman katydid are locked up in jail together, they sit washing their antennae (0:12:45) before picking up their human accoutrements (a vase and an umbrella). In this scene, where the insects enjoy a brief respite from their performance of bipedal human decorum, Starewicz reproduces the insects’ natural movements with the highest precision, as only an entomologist would know how to do.

Destabilising the Signifier

When presenting his “alternative to years of the hegemony of the signifier” in Insect Media, Jussi Parikka (2010: xxii) implicitly indicts linguists. His criticism is perhaps exaggerated, since protesting against the futile search for “meaning” in linguistic forms served as the foundation of Roman Jakobson and Ferdinand de Saussure’s early work, written in an effort to counter the then dominant Neogrammarian school (Caton 1987: 226-227). By insisting on the arbitrariness of the sign, the founders of linguistics were the first to deliver a blow to the hegemony of the anthropocentric signifier, for it becomes easier to think of types of communication as being outside notions of intelligent design after a successful abstraction of sound patterns to the level of systems. Language then loses its pseudo-Darwinian designation as evidence of a more evolved species, and becomes more appropriately classified as just one medium for communicating a message between the sender and the receiver. Jakob von Uexküll classifies both as “machine operators” which are forever implicated in “functional cycles”, and posits that even the smallest cluster of cells has the capacity to act as a sensing subject perceiving and apprehending the object that is relevant for its particular mode of being (Uexküll 2010: 41-49).

Władisław Starewicz’s first film was a direct consequence of his interest in capturing animal subjects’ embodied communication with one another, carried out similarly to Etienne-Jules Marey’s “pre-cinematic” experiments with animal motion (Parikka 2010: 12-13). Modern biology’s origins in the nineteenth century meant a flurry of activity and interest in the insect over the span of the next hundred years, and this helps demystify why Starewicz was far from the only figure to draw on an arthropodan enthusiasm for the construction of creative worlds. Vladimir Nabokov was another of many notable examples (Blackwell 2016: 1). Yet it would be a mistake to conceive of Starewicz’s entomological origins as only a by-product of the industrial age, a natural consequence of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s so-called “age of insects” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 69-70). Rather, it is evident from Tsivian’s reproduction of the 1913 publicity stunt for The Cameraman’s Revenge that appeared in a British trade paper that Starewicz did not stray into entomology by happenstance, but with dedication and devotion. Easily rattling off the Latin names of his chosen companions – “Diptera (flies), the Formicidae (ants), and Coleoptora (beetles)” – Starewicz displayed extensive knowledge of the idiosyncratic nature of their different behaviours, and casually used this for comedic effect, for example: “the ant far surpasses every known form of animal in intelligence, size being taken into account, I found them so obstinate and self-willed, the result, doubtless, of their highly developed brain power, as to be quite unteachable” (Tsivian 1995: 123).

In this context, previous treatments of Starewicz’s relevant oeuvre seem to neglect to consider insects’ promising potentials for media theory. For example, Mikhail Iampolski’s analysis of the animator’s filmography depends on early ideas about evolution and mimesis (Iampolski 1988). According to this view, Starewicz spent some frustrating years in Aleksander Khanzhonkov’s cinema factory, making “documentary films” about insects that featured dragonflies (Życie ważki / The Life of a Dragonfly, 1909), beetles (Skarabeusze / The Scarabs, 1909), more beetles (Walka żuków-jelonków / The Battle of the Deer Bugs Lucanus Cervus, 1909, and The Beautiful Leukanida, 1912), and at least nine other films with insects (Martin 2021b).11 This is not counting transitional films that do not identify insect protagonists in their title, such as Noch’ pered Rozhdestvom / The Night Before Christmas (1913, Russian Empire). Finally, according to Iampolski, Starewicz realises that all his antecedent work must necessarily culminate in anthropomorphic dolls:

At the same time, Starewicz’s dolls undergo a drastic transformation; they lose their former naturalism in the reproduction of insects, which so dazzled viewers, and become more anthropomorphic. The insects’ faces take on distinctly human features and begin to mimic actively. After his French debut, Starewicz’s interest in the mimicking doll steadily intensifies, culminating in “Reineke the Fox” (Iampolski 1988: 84).12

In this reading, films like The Cameraman’s Revenge are seen as staging posts en route to Starewicz’s masterpiece and its more ‘authentic’ way of representing human emotion. Starewicz’s early work with insects holds an awkward position when the film critic surmises the animator to be ultimately more interested in representing balagan-style grimaces, caricature and farce.13 While Starewicz spent uncountable hours hunting, capturing, studying, arranging, and modifying his six-legged companions to produce labour-intensive stop motion films, Iampolski finds the insect disturbing – quoting Jules Michelet’s L’Insect in full, he notes how it possesses “no gaze, writes [Michelet], not a single exterior muscle breathes life into this mask. It follows that it doesn’t have a physiognomy. … Everything is confused with mystery and silence.”14 Iampolski then uses the dialogism he established throughout the essay, that of the inherent antithesis between “mimicking” and “positioning” in the European cultural code of the nineteenth century, to identify Starewicz’s supposed desired target as the “low strata of culture”, the farce of puppet theatre, rather than the “high culture” of artistic/sculptural pose in ballet, sculpture, and tragic theatre (Iampolski 1988: 88). The Tale of the Fox (1937) is interpreted as the desired and eventually achieved magnum opus. In this reading, 1912’s The Beautiful Leukanida and The Cameraman’s Revenge emerge as failed imitations of the carnivalesque, the insects’ bodies and ambivalent mask-like faces poorly suited to the “low” arts.

If we judge the insects’ faculties as a “lack” – in this case, a polyphony of body, a lack when faced with imitation of the human, and “mask” as lack of human physiognomy – then this perspective makes sense. But to an insect, not having human physiognomy is not a lack at all. The purposes of physiognomy are met via other means – for example, where humans use their faces’ expressivity to enable communication without speech, insects use vibration (Cocroft and Rodriguez 2005: 323). Whereas a human eye requires complex visual stimuli for perception, a tic only needs the scent of butyric acid (Uexküll 2010: 45). Thus, if we go against anthropocentrism and treat these animal bodies as sites of potential rather than of psychoanalytic “lack”, a markedly different conclusion about Starewicz’s aims and effects emerges. Contradictions coalesce even within the bounds of referents outlined by Iampolski (1988) – for instance, if, according to him, with “richness in positioning” (the “privileged domain of pantomime”), gestures through the body are always inherently more “touching” due to their association with nineteenth-century conventions for beauty via “posing”, and that this persists “even when effected by insects”, then would not carnivalesque forms of theatre, which privilege extending the body to its fullest potentials, also attain a certain primacy for their potential to be “touching” (Iampolski 1988: 86)? And if not, is the only impediment the artform’s tainted association with the “base layer of culture” (ibid.)?

Given the director’s lifelong fondness for working on children’s films, it is likely that Starewicz did not abandon one medium for another in order to curry favour with the higher classes. The next section will propose that Starewicz’s earliest successes in media were anchoring and generative of certain tendencies observed throughout the rest of his oeuvre. To excavate these tendencies appropriately, I will examine The Tale of the Fox through the lens of The Beautiful Leukanida and The Cameraman’s Revenge.

What Does Renard See?

Other theorists have intuited that even in Starewicz’s most anthropomorphised works, such as Reinicke Fuchs / The Tale of the Fox (1937, Germany), his dolls were still “definitely animal-like, humanised only by their attitudes or clothes” (Bendazzi 2016: 45). Taking their cue, Starewicz’s animatronics can be analysed without searching for derivatives of the human platonic ideal. But the divine pedestal of classical mimesis need not be discarded. Rather, remembering Starewicz’s first principles and the initial cause for his foray into film – to attempt to capture two live stag beetles fighting (Tsivian 1995: 121) – the referent species of the Kantian Subject can switch from homo erectus to an invertebrate. When the platonic ideal is the insect, what can be noticed in The Tale of the Fox?

Discourses in animation usually focus on the ability of one technique or another to connote motion with some degree of fidelity, since Metz posits that it is precisely motion that is “always perceived as real” (cited in Steinberg 2012: 2). For Metz, because the human eye does not detect difference in motion that takes place in person or on the screen, it is sufficient to “inject the reality of motion into the unreality of the image” to “render the world of the imagination more real than it has ever been” (cited in Steinberg 2012: 2). As Steinberg summarises, not everybody agreed with Metz’s suggested hegemony of motion, leading to discussion about the kind of motion that would best convey reality: “not just any motion will do”, noted Jean-François Lyotard (Steinberg 2012: 4). Mimesis and realism continue to dominate these sorts of discussions, leading to an obsession with perfecting a more ‘real’ movement with more frames (i.e., more celluloid sheets per second). From the mid-1930s on, animations produced by Disney dominated, thanks to their generous funds and ability to pack tightly as many frames as possible, displaying countless hours of labour per celluloid cell and no limit to the number of (expensive) cells used in this way. According to Steinberg, this produced the then desired “fullness” of “realism”, while more conservative uses of celluloid sheets, like the animation of resource-strapped wartime Japan with its “minimization of movement”, was understood to be “limited” in its realness (Steinberg 2012: 5). The reference point for these assessments of fidelity to movement is, of course, human movement, but Uexküll (2010: 72) points out that perception of motion is relative: “the snail’s own movements do not seem slower to it than ours do to us”. Thus, if the languid manipulation of a ship’s wheel in Steamboat Willie (Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, 1928, USA) (0:30:00) is observed from either the perceptual vantage point of a snail, or that of a flea, then fidelity to movement is comparatively poor when keeping in mind Willie’s status as a mouse. Any movement performed by a real mouse seems rapid to slow human eyes.

Here, The Tale of the Fox (completed in 1931) succeeds where Steamboat Willie fails. For example, there is the quick step away after Renard calls out “Alors, avoir!” to the wolf who has plunged his tail into the ice-fishing hole (0:06:38). Among all the creatures represented, Renard’s hyper-accelerated motions are the most reminiscent of an insect, so striking in their quickness that they are almost too fast for the human eye to register, like exaggerated and amplified versions of the katydid’s quickly shifting antennae at 0:06:13 in The Cameraman’s Revenge. Nothing more than a quick blur occurs between the last spot that holds Renard’s recognisable tail and the next scene (0:08:11). The too-fast-to-see motion is constant throughout – when Renard jumps to get the attention of the hunters (0:07:03); when the wolf jumps to escape a blow from his wife’s broom (0:05:32); when a photographer ‘photo bombs’ the frame (0:40:53). Particularly during moments of agitation (just like those that reveal the insects’ ‘true’ nature in The Cameraman’s Revenge), other characters attain this katydid-like quality of vaulting from one position to another – the wolf when panicking after getting stuck in the ice-fishing hole (0:07:31); the feline guard as he lifts the sentenced badger and hoists him onto his shoulders (0:29:15); the lion, when angry at Renard’s manipulation of him (0:49:32). Once the viewer becomes aware of this insect-like motion, it is more and more noticeable, such as when the wolf’s legs start spinning quickly to evade the hunters and remind the viewer of a darting centipede’s (0:07:40). Immediately before they accelerate into this blurred ‘panicked’ state (0:07:29), they are moving quickly but slowly enough for the eye to track each leg’s articulated loop, at human speed. Just one second later, with their transition into a frenzied blur, the legs are markedly imitative of something nonmammalian.

So here are Parikka’s “expressions of certain movements”, what “insect bodies can do” that human bodies cannot (Parikka 2010: xxv, xxi). It could perhaps be argued that these moments are nothing more than animation techniques that fall short of the fullness of Disney’s, whether because of a lack of skill, resources, or both.15 If so, then we would expect to see ‘fuller’ motion when the animator is flush with cash. However, looking at Fétiche Mascotte / The Mascot (Władisław Starewicz, 1933, France), another high budget production with a new film studio, reveals the same type of insectoid movement. The devil, in addition to being represented through blurred movement, even retains wings (0:10:10). A ballerina doll is a fast blur as she ‘falls’ from heartache (0:02:30); a jack-in-the-box springs into action imitative of Uexküll’s tic (0:10:30); and a male doll’s hand travels in a blurred, too-fast-to-see way to correct his hat (0:02:00).16 Starewicz also continues to animate peripheral details, just as he did the antennae in The Beautiful Leukanida – the hat-wearing doll sticks out his tongue (0:02:01). Finally, the plot of The Mascot (toys coming to life after a child falls asleep) suggests that the vector of inspiration travels not from Disney to Starewicz, but the reverse, with Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995, USA) to come sixty years later.

Thus, the differences I have identified between Starewicz’s approach to rendering movement and that of Disney can be seen to be born of his entomological sensibility, of which the trace is apparent not only in the diegetic content of motion, but also in Starewicz’s idiosyncratic wielding of the camera.

With regard to his camera techniques, Starewicz seems less fond of a bird’s eye view than of a ‘fly’s eye’ view. At first glance, Starewicz the cinematographer assumes strange positions in The Tale of the Fox. Take the zoom, for example, at 0:49:29: the camera pans diagonally from lower left to upper right as it focuses on a document, but the panning is so quick that it resembles the motion of an insect limb (as did the wolf's panicked legs at 0:07:29). Slowing the video to half speed reveals that each of the transitional frames from 0:49:30 on has the contents (a lion) blurred within its depth of field. This style of transition from one shot to another, curiously evocative of a fly, is not the only transition type employed by Starewicz (he uses a fade at 0:49:58), but with its inhuman speed, the rapid zoom feels like a Starewicz original, with the camera’s body itself mimicking a dragonfly that hovers first in one aerial position, then – with what feels like a quantum leap to slow human eyes – in another. The same effect is created by a slower zoom into the mouth of the lion at 0:15:58 (Fig. 2): with its more languid travel, the camera movement evokes the flight of a common house fly rather than that of a rapid dragonfly. When his characters give chase, Starewicz often assumes the first-person point of view of ‘a fly on the wall’, hovering behind the character’s shoulder with the background seeming to blur due to the character’s inordinately quick motion (0:28:18). These sequences seem to have no duplicates in the work of Starewicz’s peers in animation, neither those working contemporaneously in the 1930s, nor later enthusiasts like John Lasseter. It stands to reason that it is Starewicz’s unique early position as entomologist that accounts for the difference.

The agile camera in The Tale of the Fox adopts the movements/motion characteristic of a fly as it approaches the lion’s mouth (0:15:58). Source: The Internet Archive.

Wide shots are not necessarily oddities, but Starewicz’s are, in their massive and almost uncomfortably distant scale. His early attempts to mimic the nonhuman in The Beautiful Leukanida are, paradoxically, the least ‘entomological’ of all the sequences discussed in depth here: the camera is held in a static position, away from its subjects and with a single depth of field trained at about the distance of an establishing shot, as if for a traditional landscape painting. In contrast to his first 1912 film (The Beautiful Leukanida), playful considerations of the camera in his second film of that year (The Cameraman’s Revenge) show Starewicz thinking through intelligent camera positioning (Belodubrovskaya 2007).17 By the time of the filming of The Tale of the Fox (1937), Starewicz is well-versed in an entomologically-driven cinematic style. Note the tournament (0:39:47), or how Renard appears as an ant to the viewer, as he knocks on the humans’ dwellings crying wolf (1:07:21). While posters advertising the animation depicted Starewicz as the same height as his characters, in reality all the scenes were filmed in miniature (Belodubrovskaya 2007). With each character’s paws hardly bigger than an insect’s legs, Starewicz creates a distinct impression, namely that the heroes of The Tale of the Fox are in a terrarium. As befits a terrarium, images that remind of its common features recur frequently in the film – mounds of dirt (0:32:02), desert backgrounds (0:53:05), and even a dog that resembles a cocoon (Fig. 3; 0:55:19).

In The Tale of the Fox, a dog that resembles a cocoon holds onto a branch for dear life as his altercation with Renard almost spells his doom (0:55:19). Source: The Internet Archive.

Finally, what are we to make of the expendability of life in The Tale of the Fox? Protagonists imitative of humans usually lead precious lives. In Starewicz’s interpretation of the classic tale of the fox, however, lives are anything but precious – the fox, the wolf, a hen, a rabbit, and many other characters have casual violence normalised against them. While somewhat jarring for contemporary eyes, it is only from the consecrated notion of human life that beatings, losing body parts, and being eaten alive seem like horrific events. If interested in mimicking the human, Starewicz would seem outrageously cavalier with the lives he represents on screen. But his casual handling of his protagonists’ mortality is consistent with Jussi Parikka’s urge to consider “life in the Spinozan take”, “intensive, creative and infinite”, “in which death is the continuous zero point” and bodies are no longer closed but “continuously articulated with their outsides” (Parikka 2010: xxiii-xxiv). Starewicz treats animals closer in class to humans no better than the insects whose bodies he sacrificed for his earlier films.18 Thus, in accordance with the mediaeval Slavic tale, Starewicz’s wolf loses its tail in fright, as does a lizard (0:08:56). The hen is eaten by Renard (0:28:17), as any prey is eaten by a predator. Starewicz did not have to represent death with such casualness in a film ostensibly for children, but just as he had no qualms about reconstituting dead stag beetle bodies with wires for his first films, so he did not endow more anthropomorphic bodies with any privileged inviolateness. Death, for an insect, means nothing – for many arthropods, it is the creation of more life.

And with each episode in this picaresque ‘roman’, Renard’s milieu regenerates goodwill towards him, the social relations between the fauna bracing for another storm even as they nominally pursue a quest against the wily trickster.

Starewicz’s Legacy

Thus we see that far from abandoning his entomological origins as his career in cinema progressed, Władisław Starewicz in fact never left them behind – his daughter attests that as late as the 1930s the director still had his favourite vitrines of lepidoptera and other creatures from his early entomological days (Martin 2003: 35). He would carry with him this allegiance to insects, manifested at the very outset of filmic career, as a fundamental referent. This nonhuman point of view, with its potentials, sensorium, perceptions, scale, and capabilities, would be absorbed into his oeuvre as his signature. But far from being a point of incongruence, it strengthened his technical style. His early experiments with stag beetles in The Beautiful Leukanida (1912) and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) laid the foundation for his later works. Moreover, the appropriation of human gestures onto insect beings (with gentle reminders of their ‘insectness’ at crucial moments) multiplied humour in early works like The Cameraman’s Revenge. Retaining a certain kind of molecular expression of insect affects (the blur during motion, the fly-like zoom of a camera, shots that transfigure characters into the inhabitants of a terrarium) added not just moments of whimsy, but verisimilitude to this and later works like The Mascot (1933) and The Tale of the Fox (1937). Some modern productions, for example Hélène Giraud and Thomas Szabo’s Minuscule: La vallée des fourmis perdues / Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2013, France), have already expanded on the potential of Starewicz’s work to present destabilising new perspectives. What other novel perceptions might be opened up, if more humans were to think a little smaller?

Anna Tropnikova
Yale University


Special thanks to Fiona Bell and John Webley for helping me fill the remaining gaps in an earlier version of this essay.


1 In this article, references to Starewicz’s films will list the title in the language of that film’s release first, followed by the English. This follows the convention of the filmmaker’s estate, which observes this order after listing titles in French (Martin 2021b). For example, Starewicz’s first animated film, Walka żuków-jelonków / The Battle of the Deer Bugs Lucanus Cervus (1910), uses Polish as its original title, as it was produced in that language in Kaunas. In 1910, Starewicz began working with Aleksandr Khanzhonkov’s company in Yalta, Odesa, then part of Imperial Russia, so pictures produced there use Russian in their original title, as do films from Moscow. In 1920, Starewicz emigrated to Europe, after which the titles use the language of whichever country released the picture first. Prekrasnaia Liukanida / The Beautiful Leukanida was begun in Kaunas, then part of Imperial Russia, in 1910, but not released until after the director’s move to Yalta, hence the title chosen here.

2 The “siuzhet” of The Beautiful Leukanida follows the story of Helen of Troy (Martin 2003: 45). The subtitle of The Beautiful Leukanida (ili bor'ba rogachei s usachami / or the Battle of The Rogachie and The Usachie) is an entomological tongue-in-cheek, where rogachie is “horned” and usachie is “whiskered” from the Russian nouns “rog” (horn) and “usy” (whiskers), respectively, with the former representing Agamemnon and his forces, and the latter the defending Trojans. All translations from Russian are my own, unless otherwise stated.

3 “Being-in-the-world [In-der-Welt-Sein] is Dasein’s [existence’s] essential embeddedness in an environing world.” (Wrathall 2021: 103).

4 “Starewicz used dead stag beetles with thin wire attached to their legs and fixed to their thorax by means of wax. The film was initially conceived as a scientific picture showing two live stag beetles fighting […]. The experiment failed, but the stubborn creatures paid with their lives to be reborn – and do the act! – as animated puppets. To make them move as beetles should, Starewicz undertook a special study into insect behavior.” (Tsivian 1995: 121)

5 “Ladislas Starewitch a souvent raconté dans quelles circonstances il avait tourné son premier film d’animation. Voulant filmer le combat de deux insectes, des Lucanus Cervus mâles appelés aussi cerfs-volants à cause de leurs très grandes mandibules en ramures de cerf, les protagonistes se figent dès que le projecteur est allumé.” (Martin 2003: 13). Note the different spelling of the director’s surname; while scholars tend to prefer Starewicz, in reference to the animator’s originally Polish name, his descendants in France retain the spelling he adopted upon immigration.

6 “In addition to Tsivian, Starewicz’s granddaughter also describes Starewicz’s technique in creating the doll-beetles: “Il imagine alors d’utiliser des insectes morts, renforce leurs pattes avec du fil de fer très fin et les fixe au corps avec de la cire.” (Martin 2003: 14)

7 “[F]ull animation [is] a style of animation emblematised by Disney’s work of the mid-1930s onward, stressing fluid motion and a realist aesthetic.” (Steinberg 2012: 2)

8 Recall that the plot of The Beautiful Leukanida was based on an interpretation via insect media (“interprétée par des scarabées”) of the legend of Helen of Troy, as outlined in footnote two.

9 The plot of The Cameraman’s Revenge focuses on Mr and Mrs Beetle’s extra-marital affairs and features a cameraman katydid. A synopsis and critical enquiry into the film’s intelligent media interrogation can be found in Christian Quendler’s interesting essay (2012).

10 These are handled brilliantly from the technical side by Belodubrovskaya (2007), and through the dispositif by Quendler (2012).

11 The Starewicz estate classifies the director’s first three (lost) films that feature insects as “documentary films”, despite the fact that the director almost certainly manipulated their protagonists (Martin 2021b). Manipulation can be inferred from Starewicz's own admission of the live beetles’ terror and refusal to move in front of the bright light of the camera lamp (Tsivian 1995: 121).

12 “Одновременно резкую трансформацию претерпевают куклы Старевича, они теряют свою былую и столь поражавшую зрителей натуралистичность в воспроизведении насекомых, становятся более антропоморфными. Лица насекомых приобретают отчетливые человеческие черты и начинают активно мимировать. После французского дебюта интерес Старевича к мимирующей кукле постоянно усиливается и достигает своей кульминации в «Райнеке-лисе» (1930–1931).” (Iampol’skii 1988: 84; the date given for Tale of the Fox seems to be that of production rather than release).

13 Iampolski uses the term “балаганное кривляние” (balagan-style antics; Iampol’skii 1988: 86). The balagan (puppet show) is a frequent object of cultural fascination, not least due to the Aleksandr Blok’s play Balaganchik / The Puppet Show (1906). See, for example, Timothy Westphalen (1993) on the play’s associations with the grotesque. Though the term in English for these types of shows is “puppet theatre”, I use ‘doll’ rather than ‘puppet’ to attempt to impart a more accurate translation from “kukla” and “kukolnyi teatr”.

14 “У него нет взгляда, пишет он, ни один внешний мускул не оживляет этой маски. Следовательно у него нет физиогномии. … Все оно опутано тайной и молчанием.” (Iampol’skii 1988: 86 )

15 A lack of resources is not a likely explanation for Starewicz’s idiosyncratic version of representing character movement – as for superfluous frames, there are too many used to animate waggling eyebrows, the bearing of fangs, yawns, and chest movements (e.g., 0:05:18). The film historian Charles Ford mentioned Starewicz’s unique style in the same breath as that of Méliès, Émile Cohl, and Walt Disney (Belodubrovskaya 2007: 1).

16 “We shall see later that the duration of a moment is different in all animals […]. Time, which frames all events, seemed to us to be the only objectively consistent factor, compared to the variegated changes of its contents, but now we see that the subject controls the time of its environment.” (Uexküll 2010: 52)

17 One such playful consideration is the mise en abyme in The Cameraman’s Revenge (0:11:24), when a diegetic ‘documentary’ titled The Adulterous Husband / Nevernyi muzh, which captures Mr Beetle’s illicit affair, is screened by the grasshopper projectionist to Mr and Mrs Beetle when they go on a date to the movies. (Belodubrovskaya 2007: 2). Starewicz even aligns the point of view of that projected mise en abyme (0:12:08) with the earlier point of view shown to the fourth wall (0:05:01).

18 The insects died during Starewicz’s first attempts at making “documentary films”, Scarabs and The Life of the Dragonfly (both 1909), but he continued to use their bodies in his subsequent films, The Beautiful Leukanida and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), otherwise known as “the marvellous beetle film” (Tsivian 1995: 121).


Working in the negative spaces of media’s national narratives, Anna (Ania) Tropnikova strives to expose issues of historiography, censorship, and ideological neglect. She was the University of Chicago’s 2016 recipient of the George V. Bobrinskoy Award for Excellence in Slavic Languages and Literatures, and of the Silver Medal in the National Post-Secondary Russian Essay Contest. At Yale, she has endeavoured to expand the spatial scope of Slavic studies, seeking to challenge Russia’s own Eurocentrism by shifting conversations – for example, incorporating Azuma Hiroki’s theories to provide a fresh look at intermedial potentials in Aleksandr Pushkin’s poetry, or suggesting Tolstoian echoes in Nakashima Tetsuya’s filmography. Before Yale, she worked in programming and photography in the Silicon Valley, fulfilling commissions and receiving numerous awards for her artwork and animation.


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Suggested Citation

Tropnikova, Anna. 2023. “Imitation of the Nonhuman: Władisław Starewicz's Entomological Cinema”. The Haunted Medium II: Moving Images in the Russian Empire (ed. by Rachel Morley, Natascha Drubek, Oksana Chefranova, and Denise J. Youngblood). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 16. DOI: