Every story is both a reflection and refraction of the storyteller. Our continued obsession with the auteur stands as a testament to this — we are constantly looking for the outline of the creator within the creation. We mythologize figures whose artistic touches are the most pronounced, the singularity of their work indicating a well of personal meaning underneath. But the concept of the auteur as it pertains to film has always seemed somewhat fallacious because film is an inherently collaborative medium (with a few exceptions).
Enter Kill It and Leave This Town, an animated film that appears to be the product of its director, Mariusz Wilczynski, and him alone. While there are several credited crewmembers, the vast majority of the film comes from directly from Wilczynski: the visuals and narrative are composed of his memories of growing up in the industrial town of Łódź during the 60s and 70s when Poland was under communist rule. To say that there is narrative, however, is generous. Mundane conversation in this film will be interrupted by a giant nude man looking in through a window or will take a sudden turn when the characters become anthropomorphized corvids without explanation. Kill It and Leave This Town would be better described as a series of vignettes — scenes oscillate between grounded and poetic, and sometimes are both at once. A vague link exists between these vignettes, but more often than not they are anachronisms wedged in a fissure between memory and reality. It’s as if Wilcyznski took all the childhood trauma and adult neuroses that have been percolating in his head and spilled them across the screen.
Made over 11-15 years (depending on who you ask and when you start counting), many of Wilczynski’s collaborators died during the filmmaking process. Fittingly, a gothic pallor hangs over the entire affair. Communist Poland is portrayed in grim black and white, the only color an occasional splash of red. Whatever reprieve from monotony the red might have provided, however, is quickly undercut. It portends malice: family infighting, spillage of blood, and other small horrors. Whenever red appears you’ll soon find yourself longing for the return of oppressive monochrome.
At one point in the film, Wilczynski’s tumorous-looking avatar says: “I simply don’t believe in death. Everyone who’s gone is gone. But they’re not dead. They’re simply alive in my imagination.” In another film the statement might seem hopeful, a testament to the impact of a life lived fully, but not here. If the dead aren’t dead to Wilczynski, then you suspect it is only because there are few among the living with whom he feels a true kinship.
Stylistically, Kill It and Leave This Town is like what you would get if you combined Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus with Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day and filtered that through a nightmare. The animation is lo-fi to the extreme, and Kill It and Leave This Town is a hermetically sealed work created without notions of being mainstream or even somewhat appealing. In truth, this film doesn’t feel designed for an audience at all.
All this raises the question: what is the purpose of a true auteur film? The closer one dips toward a singular vision, the more their work alienates and pushes away. While Kill It and Leave This Town will no doubt attract a contingent of advocates, the vast majority of viewers will likely find it impenetrable. If they do enjoy it — and that’s a big if — then it will likely be at arm’s length with several caveats. Arguably, what Kill It and Leave This Town best illustrates is the misnomer that is the auteur. Our culture does overtime to celebrate the solitary artist, but the reality is that the circumstances that create one are unenviable, and how do we properly assess the social value of films created within that solitude?
To assess Kill It and Leave This Town on a metric of audience appeal or broad purpose is perhaps approaching it with the wrong mentality. This is filmmaking as therapy; it exists for Wilczynski and the many dead who live in his memory. For their sake, let’s hope they find peace in this madness.