Masters of Russian Animation (Volume 1) Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Masters of Russian Animation (Volume 1)

The Masters of Russian Animation series is a set of three DVDs (sold separately) that cover the finest examples of the output of Soyuzmultfilm, the Soviet Union’s most important animation studio, during what’s generally reckoned to have been its richest period, from the early 1960s to the late 1980s.

Despite the considerable artistic achievements of Eastern European animation in the postwar period, Soviet animation took some time to develop as a serious art form. This was largely thanks to Stalin’s addiction to Disney films, which inevitably meant that Soviet animators produced imitation Disney rather than expressing themselves individually. It wasn’t until the early 1960s – almost a decade after Stalin’s death – that they started to make more adventurous films aimed just as much at adults as children, often including none too subtly veiled critiques of Soviet life, something that was easier to get away with in the animation medium than it would have been elsewhere!

Story of One Crime (Fyodor Khitruk, 1962, 20 mins)

Fyodor Khitruk’s directorial debut is an absolute delight and left me hungry for more. Visually, it harks back to the UPA cartoons of the 1950s while anticipating the cut-out aesthetic of Terry Gilliam and South Park – the animation is crude on the surface, but the level of wit and invention is more than high enough to compensate: it’s a very funny story that’s also a pointed critique of certain aspects of Soviet life, not least the general philosophy that the masses are more important than the individual.

The crime in question is committed at the start of the film. It’s early in the morning, and two housewives are having a conversation in the yard outside. Suddenly, a man leaps out and bludgeons them both to death with a frying pan. The motiveless crime of an opportunist psychopath? Hardly – as a perceptive police inspector tells us, it came at the culmination of 24 hours of misery, as a result of moving into a pre-fab Soviet apartment block, the kind accompanied by countless brave-new-world-hailing slogans.

Unfortunately, these blocks come complete with neighbours holding 24-hour parties, lovelorn teenagers banging messages to each other through the radiators, people dumping broken crockery down the rubbish chute – anything, in short, that might stand a chance of preventing poor Vasily from getting any sleep at all. Not surprisingly, the housewives’ screeching conversation the first thing the next morning is the last straw?

Man in the Frame (Fyodor Khitruk, 1966, 11 mins)

The second Khitruk film on the disc has the same sly wit as the first, only this time it’s a more direct attack on Soviet bureaucracy – according to the programme notes, Khitruk was fed up with having to resort to allegory (disguising bureaucrats and politicians as bears in children’s fairytales) and so he made a film in which a man gradually climbs the corporate ladder, initially in a spirit of youthful romantic idealism (all skipping children and visions of Botticelli’s Venus), but gradually getting more and more cynical and? well, bureaucratic.

It’s not the most original tale ever told, but I’ve never seen it done like this before. We first see our unnamed hero constructing a cheap wooden frame for himself, and as his picture is hung on the wall with numerous others, we see that they have rather more expensive frames, and are placed in higher positions. As he gradually replaces these people thanks more to his political skills than any great ability in terms of the work, his own frame gets increasingly ornate, until finally its weight is overwhelming. The collage-based style is similar to that in Story of One Crime, this time round with a clear Léger influence (people’s bodies are made up of cubes and cylinders, with UPA-style cartoon heads). It’s very simple, very clever and very effective.

My Green Crocodile (Vadim Kurchevsky, 1966, 9 mins)

My Green Crocodile couldn’t be more different from Khitruk’s films. This exquisitely delicate piece of stop-motion animation foreshadows the great filmic nature poems of Yuri Norstein (whose work is featured on volumes 2 and 3 of this series) – who worked on this as part of the animation team under Vadim Kurchevsky, a former artist who became a renowned art director for stop-motion films.

It’s about the brief, doomed romance between a crocodile and a cow. Brought together by their shared love of flowers, leaves and the beauty of nature, they’re driven apart by the superficial sneers of others, who can’t see how much they have in common beneath the surface. As with Norstein’s own films, the plot is merely a general structure on which to hang a visually ravishing, possibly allegorical portrait of the natural world, albeit presented in a highly stylised, deliberately artificial form. And it all comes together in the ending, which manages to be both logical and unpredictable, heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time.

There Lived Kozyavin (Andrei Khrjanovsky, 1966, 9 mins)

Andrei Khrjanovsky started out as an assistant to Fyodor Khitruk, so it’s not too surprising that his directorial debut ploughed a rather similar furrow to that of Man in the Frame, in that it’s a satirical portrait of unthinking bureaucracy, where the junior Kozyavin takes his boss’s instructions so literally that he walks right round the world in the same direction in search of Sidorov, another employee, in order to imform him that the cashier has arrived.

It’s a journey that takes him through a whole series of weird and increasingly fantastical landscapes that seem to owe a fair bit to the surrealist paintings of Giorgio De Chirico as well as Soviet Constructivist art, in which heavy industry seems to be the dominant activity. But despite this variety, at no point does Kozyavin (a lumpen brute of a man who’s a dead ringer for the kind of moronic bodyguards you often see in gangster movies) show the slightest awareness of his surroundings, or the increasingly ridiculous inappropriateness of asking complete strangers (a construction worker, a violinist in mid-performance, art thieves in mid-heist, an archaeologist assembling a dinosaur skeleton in the desert) about his internal office matters, and nor does he think anything of interrupting people whose work is rather more important and valuable than his futile mission. According to the programme notes, this went down very well among Soviet audiences, and it’s easy to see why.

Mountain of Dinosaurs (Rasa Strautmane, 1967, 10 mins)

The only film directed by a woman on this DVD, Mountain of Dinosaurs is a real oddity. It starts out as a somewhat Disneyesque portrait of a succession of dinosaur families, complete with adorably cute babies, and then turns into something much stranger and more disturbing, as the latest batch of dinosaur babies find themselves unable to break out of their eggs, which have been developing increasingly solid layers of protective material to make sure that the outside world doesn’t intrude. “I can adapt!”, pleads the baby dinosaur, but to no avail. Extinction is inevitable.

This was clearly intended as an allegory of life in the Soviet Union, whose inhabitants had the same metaphorical shell cast around the whole country, but by all accounts the censors completely missed this: proving that it’s easier to slip in subversive political messages when you’ve got a load of baby dinosaurs to distract the powers that be.

Passion of Spies (Yefim Gamburg, 1967, 21 mins)

Passion of Spies is a fast-paced, hilarious spoof of the spy genre, owing more than a little to the anarchic likes of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, whose visual style this resembles (albeit in black and white). The plot is fairly incomprehensible – though I’m sure this was part of the homage – but it’s crammed to the gills with memorably ludicrous action set-pieces.

What’s particularly fascinating is that this is a Soviet spy film – which neatly reveals that their clichés were pretty much the same as ours: the neurotic villain, the square-jawed hero, the unlikely agents (old women and babies figure heavily), the cabaret singer honey trap, the meaningless McGuffin-style device that everyone’s after, and so on.

According to the programme notes, the state censors were so nervous about this film that they called in the KGB to vet it – but a high-ranking general loved it so much that he personally thanked Gamburg for making his profession look glamorous and exciting. Understandably, though, the film wasn’t exported until perestroika a couple of decades later.

Glass Harmonica (Andrei Khrjanovsky, 1968, 20 mins)

The closest thing to a full-fledged art movie on this DVD, Andrei Khrjanovsky’s Glass Harmonica is a complex parable about the individual artistic freedom versus state repression, drawing on images taken from classical art. The music of the glass harmonica unlocks people’s creative urges and shows them a far less dreary future – though this is quickly slapped down by the bowler-hatted Magrittian authority figures holding gold coins: economic pressure will always win out, even in a supposedly Communist state.

It’s crammed with memorable images – a rose taking on a mysterious glow as the glass harmonica’s music pervades its petals, a mass of humanity swarming rat-like over a clock tower, apartments littered with antiquarian bric-a-brac, a minotaur turning into a nobleman, an Arcimboldo fruit-man coalescing into real flesh – though the precise meaning of many individual scenes is somewhat obscure.

Unlike the other films on this DVD, Glass Harmonica was considered ideologically beyond the pale, and was shelved by the state censors until perestroika. As a footnote, it’s scored by the late Alfred Schnittke, one of the greatest Soviet composers.

Ball of Wool (Nikolai Serebryakov, 1968, 10 mins)

The second stop-motion film on this DVD is a fairytale with philosophical overtones. Stranded in the middle of nowhere in a howling gale, an elderly babushka happens upon a ball of wool and the lamb from which it came. Taking out her knitting needles, she knits herself some shoes, clothes, a house, furniture and all the other trappings, which in turn attract friends and neighbours, transforming her life – until she goes too far and tries to knit herself a younger face and body?

There’s some exquisite animation here, offsetting the texture of the babushka’s wood-carved features with her woollen creations, and indeed the liveliness of the lamb, whose curls seem vibrant and alive. The use of colour is equally effective, from the drab grey of the outside world to the inner orange glow of the woollen house.

Singing Teacher (Anatoly Petrov, 1968, 3 mins)

The shortest film on the DVD is another cautionary tale, this time concerning the wisdom of teaching a decidedly one-note (or rather one-grunt) hippopotamus to sing. Without spoiling the punchline, it seems that this is another satire on the way talentless bureaucrats often took the credit for the creative achievements of others, something that was apparently endemic in the Soviet film industry.

Director Anatoly Petrov was a well-respected artist and illustrator before turning to animation, and this is obvious from the atmosphere and detail of the pencil drawings that form the basis of Singing Teacher: he beautifully captures the dim, almost noir-ish lighting of the singing teacher’s apartment, and the level of realism is such that we never once question the hippopotamus’ presence.

Film Film Film (Fyodor Khitruk, 1968, 20 mins)

And finally, we return to Fyodor Khitruk, this time turning his satirical spotlight on his own profession and creating a love letter to cinema and the hellish process of film-making that predates François Truffaut’s superficially similar Day For Night by five years.

We see the harassed writer, unable to be creative unless he can persuade his (bare-breasted) muse to hover over his typewriter (there’s a lovely touch as his director is visibly startled by this apparition when he comes to collect the script). Significantly, as much time is devoted to getting the script approved by various committees as is spent actually shooting the thing – it’s hard to tell what kind of film is being made from the various scenes, though Eisenstein’s gargantuan Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky would appear to be influences.

And interference from above continues throughout the shoot – working with children and animals leads to multiple takes and constant warnings about the schedule and budget, and a funeral is turned into a wedding after the director receives a formal notice from the powers that be that the film is getting too depressing.

As with the other Khitruk films on the DVD, this is a delight – less collage-based before (though there’s a montage of images of film stars at the beginning set to a thankfully subtitled song about the glories of cinema – which is fascinating because the images are entirely made up of icons from the decadent West such as Buster Keaton and Marilyn Monroe), but the simple line drawings perfectly complement the light humour of the material. Films about film-making are often painfully self-indulgent, but this isn’t anything like long enough to overstay its welcome.

When I started drafting this review, I made notes on the picture and sound quality of each individual film, but halfway through it was obvious that the overall standard was so similar that I was constantly repeating myself. Barring a few (though only a few) spots and scratches, the prints are generally in immaculate condition, and done full justice by razor-sharp transfers that bring out the fine detail of the original artwork to an impressive degree. The sound is inevitably mono, but I had no complaints otherwise – it’s as clear and detailed as any mid-1960s recording can be expected to be.

All the films are framed in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, justifying the non-anamorphic transfer, and credits, dialogue and on-screen signs are subtitled in admirably clear, sharp electronic English subtitles, which break with convention in that they usually appear directly below the on-screen text being translated – a very sensible touch, especially when dealing with more than one caption on screen at the same time. My only complaint is that they can’t be switched off, which is a little annoying once you’ve mastered what’s being said and you want to appreciate the original artwork uninterrupted – though that’s a fairly minor complaint as most of the films have few subtitles beyond the credits.

I’ve never seen any of these films before, but I’m an all too battle-scarred veteran of scratched and mangled prints of 1960s animation, and these prints are on a completely different plane. Quite frankly, I’m amazed this stuff is available on DVD at all at such an early stage of the medium’s existence, and the fact that the quality is amazingly high as well is merely the icing on the cake. Each film is individually accessible via the menu or chapter skip buttons, and the foldout cardboard DVD case contains stills and programme notes for each title, together with a one-page historical scene-setting introduction, though there are no notes or other extras on the disc itself.

Superb though the presentation undoubtedly is, there’s nothing on this DVD in terms of actual content that’s quite as sheerly extraordinary as the great masterpieces of Ivan Ivanov-Vano and especially Yuri Norstein, which can be found on volumes 2 and 3 – so I’d recommend those discs in preference to this one for newcomers to Russian animation. But if you’re already familiar with their work, this disc is a treasure trove of unexpected delights – I learned a lot from it, and as a former animation festival programmer I’m supposed to be an authority on the subject!

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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