Masters of Russian Animation, Vol. 1 (2000)

The first volume in this series from Image Entertainment is always interesting and engaging. While containing ten short, animated films, it generally is not aimed at children (though I suspect they might enjoy the fable-like My Green Crocodile or even the silliness of Passion of Spies or Singing Teacher). The films themselves range from funny and satirical on the one hand, to tragic and surreal on the other. The above image comes from There Lived Kozyavin, probably my favorite of the collection. I’ve included comments on three films for your perusal.

Man in the Frame (1966) (dir. Fyodor Khitruk)

Director Fyodor Khitruk’s second short on this disc is about a single man who spends his days boxed in by a frame, hanging as a picture on the wall of life. The first frame he has is simple and non-descript, but as he gets older and makes his way up the ladder of government bureaucracy, the frame becomes more ornate, yet never really any bigger. Finally, in a critical moment to possibly find meaning at the end of his life, having reached the top of the working world, he ignores a desperate cry for help coming from outside his comfortable dwelling. This immediately leads to a final ascent heavenward, where the man sees objects passing him from earlier in his life – statues collected, papers signed, a woman he once loved, and finally, the playfulness and freedom of a child jumping rope (all images from earlier in the film). The film concludes with this high government official being boxed in by ever smaller frames – a surprisingly tragic ending that is intriguing for its critical perspective of the government, or at least those who work in it.

The animation here varies between traditional hand drawn and actual photographic images. His co-workers sometimes appear to be cut-outs or shadow puppets, a la Lotte Reiniger’s Prince Achmed. The photographs come primarily near the beginning of the film in a sequence that stands out due to its rapid editing of what appear to be disconnected images of life in general. I was reminded of the beginning of Bergman’s Persona in this sequence, though here the images are much more life affirming than those from Bergman. Later, the still image of the girl jumping rope comes back, and the camera dwells on this image of freedom, with a simple up and down motion over the picture to give the sense of movement, something the man in the frame never really experienced.

There Lived Kozyavin (1966) (dir. Andrey Khrzhanovskiy)

This is another favorite, about a man named Kozyavin who does a desk job, shuffling papers (The first moments of this film reminded me of the stacks of papers surrounding the protagonist in Kurosawa’s Ikiru). At the end of the workday, Kozyavin’s boss pulls him aside and asks him to find another employee named Sidorov, pointing in the general direction that he might be found. Kozyavin, the ever-dutiful employee, follows that direction literally. He will not deviate from the path marked out by his boss, which means he quickly exits the building and begins a trek across town. This journey is the bulk of the film, as Kozyavin ends up traveling around the world in search of this employee. His single concern is to find Sidorov, even if that means ignoring a robbery in progress or crushing a stunning archaeological find because it was in his way. As we follow our protagonist, we wonder if he will ever reach his goal, or conversely, if it is within him to give up the journey.

The look of this film is distinct from the other entries in this series. There is a surreal quality to it, at times reminiscent of a Dali painting, what with stairs on the ceiling and vast desert expanses. The characters have a shading that gives a dirty look to them. All kinds of obstacles come across Kozyavin’s path. For a while, we are overwhelmed with images of industry, which at times goes awry, is dangerous, and makes it impossible to communicate with others. Kozyavin goes through an ornate museum, a desert wasteland, and literally around the globe. It’s always an interesting film to look at, and its implicit critique of the government and simple minded employees is surprising due to its timing and country of origin. Clearly much was happening in the Soviet Union at the time beyond what was presented outside the country. This film is a great testament to that.

Glass Harmonica (1968) (dir. Andrey Khrzhanovskiy)

This could qualify for the most unique film of the collection, about a stranger who arrives in a city with a glass harmonica. The instrument appears to have magical powers, and as the man plays it in this city fraught with greed, there is a sense of awakening among the inhabitants. At one point, a flower is formed from the music as it flows through the crowd. However, the evil, black-clad leader of the city breaks up the concert and taps into the people’s greed once again. All that’s left is the single rose; though will anyone set aside their greed to pick it up?

The animation here, in color, takes pieces of classic works of art and mixes them into the action in place of characters. The characters don’t move fluidly as a result, and their faces have a single expression, but the detail of the animation is really something. Once their greed kicks in, they almost appear as cockroaches as they scatter from the harmonica in a wide shot. They are off on another job, this time to dismantle the city clock (everyone takes what he can get). Later, as their greed completely overwhelms them, many people turn into strange creatures. Most of the people were distorted (extremely short, fat, giant heads) to begin with, but this takes things to a new level. This is the richest animation of all the films in this collection. Quite a treat.

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5 thoughts on “Masters of Russian Animation, Vol. 1 (2000)

  1. Thanks for the write-ups on these. I’ve only watched volumes 2 & 3 in this series–the discs containing the works of Yuri Norstein, who’s probably the most internationally famous of the Russian animators (he was an inspiration to Miyazaki), and I absolutely love his work. I keep meaning to go through the rest of the series at some point, so your comments have definitely solidified my resolve!

    It’s cool that you’ve picked up on the political subtext in some of the films; the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio is renowned for having specialized in progressive animation in the more liberal Kruschev era of the ’60s.

  2. Thanks for the comments Doug. Any recommendations for reading on Soyuzmultfilm? I am especially curious if these films were getting any kind of general release in the USSR at the time, which would be just astounding, given the restrictive environment.

  3. It was less restrictive in the late-’50s and early ’60s under Krushchev, an era that came to be known as the post-Stalin “thaw.” In features, there were films like The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, Hamlet, and even Tarkovsky’s My Name is Ivan and Andrei Rublev.

    This page contains an informative article on Soyuzmultfilm–in particular, you might scroll down to the section entitled “From Krushchev Thaw to Perestroika.”

    There is also a fine recent book on Norstein; The Guardian has a nice article about it.

    I love the stills in your review!

  4. Thanks for all that, Doug. I look forward to going through those links. I guess my first exposure to Norstein will be volume 2 of this set. I’m looking forward to it.

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