The Wagner Brothers, Brazil in animated film

Images of the Wagner family

The Wagner Brothers, made up of three sisters and one brother (Ingrid, Elizabeth, Rosane and Helmuth Wagner Jr.), were born in Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil. Between 1977 and 1992 they produced shorts, especially animations, in Super-8, 16 and 35mm which are renowned for their wide range of genres, techniques and themes, touching on Brazilian history and cultural expressions in many different ways.

The Wagner children’s relationship with images began as a family. When they were still young, on summer nights their father, Helmuth Wagner, used to spread a white sheet in the courtyard and project rolls of short films shot in 16mm. These outdoor sessions would be lulled by the smell of camellias and the images dancing on the canvas. Helmuth Wagner was a photographer and also ran a photography and film equipment store. Countless times, Ingrid, Elizabeth, Rosane and Helmuth Jr. would help him, transforming toilet paper into a ball of ice cream or soap bubbles into creamy mate tea; tricks of the trade in advertising photography, a sector their father also worked in. Helmuth also took photos of nature and created an important record by photographing the state of Paraná, the Serra do Mar, Ilha do Mel and Guairá Falls, the latter being the largest waterfall in the world in terms of volume of water until the falls disappeared with the construction of the Itaipú power plant in the 1970s.

Edith Pitz Wagner, their mother, also painted and drew and was an “imaginative artist” in the words of Ingrid. She was the one who bought the first Super-8 camera at the request of her daughters and son. In Brazil, Super-8 cameras were very popular in the 1970s and widely used for home movies and also by incipient and amateur filmmakers. They were more affordable, lighter and easier to use. When the children’s father arrived home, he was surprised by the purchase but astonished everyone by suggesting they go back to the store to buy even better equipment. Many family moments would also be accompanied by the production and projection of images. Elizabeth has a collection of 200 home movies, numbered and named according to the main theme, images produced over picnics and weekends. One of the rolls in the collection is labelled “42 - Fim de Neve(End of Snow) on red tape. Yes, somewhere in Brazil snow had fallen.

So both Helmuth and Edith provided their children with privileged access to film techniques, knowledge and resources. As Ingrid says, her father used to spread images on the floor, asking for opinions on the material, ‘Which one do you like best? What do you think of this one?’. Edith, on the other hand, wasn’t a professional artist but produced beautiful drawings and, loaded with canvases, brushes and easels, would take Ingrid, Elizabeth, Rosane and Helmuth Jr. outdoors to draw. So, with the support of their family and constant work, the Wagner Brothers became precursors of animation in Paraná, taking part in film shows and competitive festivals and winning awards on many occasions.

The Cinemateca de Curitiba and the early experiments

The Wagner Brothers were among the first to attend the Cinemateca de Curitiba, a municipal institution founded in 1975 and Brazil’s third film institute. Right from the start, the Cinemateca de Curitiba promoted training, screenings, research and also the conservation of film. Here the young Wagners joined an association of enthusiasts called Profilmes, which would get together on Saturday afternoons to watch and discuss their own productions. It was at Profilmes where they presented their experiments such as O garoto levado (The Naughty Boy), in which a boy and girl play on the blade of a toy windmill and experience their first kiss.

Among the first animations is also Bum. This is about a child who, inside a white sheet on a drawing table, is playing with a red balloon. He dreams of flying but is limited by the edges of the paper. In O halterofilista (The Weightlifter), a skinny boy lifts a sturdy dumbbell but a nail breaks the Olympic weight, which falls apart like ink draining away through the paper. A carnival troupe of Baiana women twirl their radiant, red dresses in O último bloco (The Last Block). Then the parade ends, leaving behind an empty, sad street; the carnival is over. After a storm, smoke rises from the chimney of a small house in A casa na colina (The House on the Hill). In O Espaço an astronaut turns his body and operates a laser on an interstellar journey. A little bird sings on a tree branch until it falls asleep alone in Boa noite (Goodnight).

After these early experiments, in 1977 the time came to present Ensaios (Essays) at Profilmes, a narrative that combines fiction and documentary in which the process of making films is also one of the main themes; in this case, a film made out of cardboard, paper, gouache paint and an improvised light box. At that time, Ensaios didn’t have a soundtrack but it caught the attention of Valêncio Xavier, the founder and coordinator of the Cinemateca de Curitiba and a driving force in the city’s film circuit. Valêncio not only recommended a sound studio for the soundtrack but also entered the film in the fourth Campinas National Super-8 Film Festival, one of the most important Super-8 festivals in Brazil and where Ensaios won first prize for the best animation.

Brazil on film

Over time, the work produced by the Wagner children became more diverse and sophisticated. Their lack of specific equipment and resources often forced them to experiment and adapt. Foi pena...Q, for example, a critical but humorous version of the arrival of the Portuguese ships in Brazil, was made with bond paper and gouache. With no transparent material available, the animation has a colourful, lively effect as a result of superimposing drawings and ink on paper. From time to time the intervention of a human hand reminds us that the images have been constructed. And the hand that draws and animates also enters the scene to write the opening credits, as well as to save a ship from being wrecked.

Pudim de morango is a collage made out of sheets of newspaper, cartoons and images from soap operas, a very popular audiovisual genre in Brazil. The story is about a fly that leaves its life in the toilet to inhabit a couple’s troubled relationship in the TV room, amidst disputes over the remote control and a strawberry pudding. The newspaper headlines in the background refer to a violent moment in Brazilian history, the civil-military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985 but still has consequences today for the country.

Urban life is the narrative thread in Metamorfose, A cidade dos executivos and A flor, always contrasting different perspectives on how a city can be inhabited. In Metamorfose, for example, a butterfly slowly emerges from its cocoon while the time-lapse effect amplifies the sensation of movement in the streets and walkways. A flor accompanies the adventure and anguish of a flower plucked by the wheels of a car. From the perspective of the little plant, the film takes us from its quiet life on the side of the road to the bustle of a city centre. Of these three short films, A cidade dos executivos is undoubtedly the most tense, dramatic and dystopian. We accompany a man, with a jacket and briefcase, through a mechanised, labyrinthine city, passing by caged children, rushing cars and people with oxygen masks. A journey that ends at a mysterious wall.

Like A flor, Respeitável público was made in 35mm. It is the longest animation produced by the group and required approximately 12 thousand drawings. The drawings were first made on bond paper then copied onto acetate and finally coloured. Without access to acetate paints, the Wagner Brothers achieved the consistency required for the work by mixing gouache and white glue. Respeitável público is a narrative that satirically addresses many themes in Brazil’s history and cultural expressions; colonisation and exploitation, hunger and inequality, popular culture and cultural industry. We see one image unleashed on another, impoverished favelas, crowded beaches, carnival parties, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, a green and yellow canvas circus, as well as figures from national folklore such as the Saci-Pererê and the mermaid Iara. Donald Duck, the American cartoon character, also appears but in a very different way than in the Disney films. Donald Duck buys Brazil, believing he’s acquired a tropical paradise full of cashew nuts, watermelons, pineapples, insect-free guavas, thousands of bananas and mystical characters emerging from the enchanting jungle. Meanwhile Zé, a mischievous President, tries to cover up the country’s social misery.

In 1977, when writing about the cinema in Paraná, the cultural journalist Francisco Santos considered the Irmãos Wagner as possibly the greatest talent of Brazilian Super-8. Their short films were exhibited and won awards in Brazil and the rest of the world, such as the Canadian International Amateur Film Festival in Toronto, the Núcleo dos Cineastas Independentes in Lisbon and the Super Festival Nacional do Filme Super-8 in São Paulo. On the list of the top 100 Brazilian animated films, drawn up by the Brazilian Association of Film Critics, is the experimental animation Pudim de morango, censored at a festival in 1979 but now available in the Xcentric Archive, as well as all the other work produced by the group.

Ana Claudia França

* The films Ensaios, MetamorfoseFoi pena Q..., A cidade dos executivos, Pudim de morangoRespeitável público and A flor can be watched at the Xcèntric Archive, thanks to the generous donation by the Wagner Brothers and to the mediation of Ana Claudia França. 

1 September 2020