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Director: Vladimir Tarasov
Release date: 1988
‘Pereval’ (The Pass) is a science fiction film from the Soviet Union about three youngsters, descendants of some astronauts stranded on a strange, alien planet, who make a quest to the original spaceship.
The film is dark and moody and the atmosphere contemplative, even in the action scenes. Nevertheless, there is a weak comic relief in the form of an eight-eyed, elephant-like creature, which the youngsters encounter on their way to the ship.
In this film Tarasov uses a bold, realistic style with sharp contrasts: he juxtaposes stark shadows with monochrome yellows and reds to create a unique graphic atmosphere, reminiscent of the work by Frank Miller. The planet is portrayed as barren, disturbing and threatening. The images are often very surreal, and no attemption is made to give the backgrounds any sense of realism. This makes this film comparable to Laloux’s ‘La Planète sauvage‘, despite its difference in style. The spaceship, for example, looks more like an alien temple, and one gets the idea that the journey of the three is more symbolical than real. The mood is enhanced by a Dio-like hard rock song.
‘Pereval’ was the last animation film Tarasov made during the Soviet era. See the modest Wikipedia article to learn what happened to him after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Director: Roman Kachanov
Release date: 1981
‘Tayna Tretyei Planeti’ (‘The Mystery of the Third Planet’, also ‘[Alice and] The Secret of the Third Planet’) is a delightful science-fiction film for children about the little girl Alice, who accompanies her father, a bespectacled scientist, and the melancholy captain Green on their trips to collect alien animals for the Moscow zoo.
On their way they encounter a mysterious professor, and learn about the illegal slaughter of ‘chatterers’, some kind of alien bird species. The one surviving chatterer provides the key to the mystery, leading our heroes to two heroic astronauts, who have been captured by pirates.
Despite the mystery plot, the overall mood of the film is optimistic, unhurried and relaxed. At no point there’s is any real danger or violence. Even when the villain commits suicide at the end, it turns out to be fake. The film’s delight is not as much found in its story as in its gorgeous designs, its alien images, its surreal backgrounds, Aleksandr Zatsepin’s wonderful soundtrack, full of electronic space-funk, and in its exuberant animation. Alice, for example, has the habit to pull back her hair continuously, while her dad keeps putting his glasses straight. Also featured is a comical alien creature, called Gromozeka, who possesses no less than six arms, which are all animated separately.
It seems that there were no budget problems at Soyuzmultfilm at that time, if animators could indulge that much in excessive animation. The results are gorgeous, but sometimes the elaborate animation slows down the action, especially during the action scenes, which are anything but fast. Nevertheless, ‘Tayna Tretyei Planeti’ is a gem of an animation film, and a feature that definitely deserves to be more well-known, even though it’s a short one, clocking only 45 minutes.
Watch ‘The Mystery of the Third Planet’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Vladimir Tarasov
Release date: 1978
First the man flees in horror, but then the two make contact through music, and in the end we can see them walking into the distance, singing together.
This Soviet film is surprisingly Western-looking and is drawn in a bold seventies style. In contrast with Tarasov’s earlier ‘Forward March, Time!‘ any Soviet association is lacking, and there seems to be some vague message about freedom. Tarasov shows his directing skills and is not afraid to use bold angles and extreme perspectives. The short contains a typical cartoon chase, accompanied by lively jazz music.
In 1979 Tarasov returned with the graphical equally original, but much more propagandistic film ‘Shooting Range’, proving that he was one of the most interesting Russian animators of his generation.
Watch ‘Contact’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Release Date: 1972
It combines paintings of the Virgin Mary with images of war. Its darkest moment is when a soldier in a gas mask kills a Vietnamese child. The film ends with live action footage of people protesting against the Vietnam war. Clever montage suggests that the protesters are being repressed.
Despite its disturbing character the film is too blatantly propagandastic and too directionless to be a classic. It also uses little animation.
Watch ‘Ave Maria!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Vladimir Tarasov
Release Date: 1977
The film illustrates the meandering poem with associative images of the 1905 revolution, the 1917 revolution, World War II and even a futuristic battle in space.
Using a combination of typical seventies designs (besides communist paintings) and rock music (besides an excerpt from Mahler’s fifth symphony), the film is both a markedly modern and interesting piece of soviet propaganda, if a bit too long. It shows Tarasov’s unique style, which he explored further in the much more lighthearted short ‘Contact‘.
Watch ‘Forward March, Time!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Ivan Aksenchuk
Release Date: 1972
Accompanied by a folky song glorifying electricity, we watch electricity pylons march through the countryside and Soviet electricity pylons shaking hands with Czech and Polish electricity pylons.
Its use of old-fashioned communist imagery, black-and white live action footage and ridiculously heroic music makes the film extremely dated. Despite the colorful images and even a look into the future, one can hardly comprehend that this film was made in the 1970s, not the 1940s.
Watch ‘Plus Electrification’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Vladimir Pekar
Release Date: 1971
Films with a peaceful message, like ‘Proud Little Ship‘ (1966) or ‘We Can Do It‘ (1970) were interchanged for self-important glorifications of the Soviet Union, and its ‘heroic’ history. This period produced some of the most terrible propaganda films ever made. ‘The Adventures of the Young Pioneers’ is a prime example.
The film plays during World War Two, Russia’s Great War. When their village is occupied by some goofy Nazi Germans, three communist children decide to withstand their occupants. They are betrayed by a collaborator, however, and captured when raising a red flag. Luckily, they are saved by the red army.
This children’s film uses ugly designs and very old-fashionedly looking caricatures of Nazis, while the children and especially the red army are drawn quite heroically. The result is as unappealing and unfunny as it is sickeningly propagandistic.
Watch ‘The Adventures of the Young Pioneers’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Lev Atamanov
Release Date: 1970
The young bird is fed by a capitalist and a general (who both are clearly American) with money and weapons. It grows into a huge black war-bird, which flies over the whole world, threatening loving couples in London, Paris, Moscow and Japan, and an old man, two mothers and several children in an unclear place. When the war-bird starts to attack, one mother turns Asian, Muslim and black, in order to illustrate that war can affect everybody everywhere. Eventually, however, the war-bird is overthrown by a multitude of peace doves, created by workers, writers, children, artists, musicians and pacifists.
‘We Can Do It’ is a beautiful and strikingly pacifistic film and undoubtedly one of the best propaganda films ever created in the Soviet Union. Despite its anti-American sentiment, its pacifistic theme is timeless and universal. The film tells its clear message without any dialogue or voice over. Moreover, its designs are stunning and very effective, especially that of the war-bird.
Watch ‘We Can Do It’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Inessa Kovalevskaya
Release Date: 1971
This propaganda film features songs from the Russian civil war (1917-1922). These songs are accompanied by revolutionary and shamelessly patriotic images of the brave soviet army, to which the film is dedicated.
The resulting film is as graphically interesting as it is boring and sickening. It’s hard to believe such blatant propaganda could be made as late as 1971.
Director: Perch Sarkisyan
Release Date: 1965
In it a boy stumbles on an old stone in the woods, which has the ability to give someone a new life again. The boy wants to help an old and lonely man with it, but the man sees no need for it as he has led a happy life. Enter the propaganda, in which the old man tells about the revolution and the civil war. This part is not much of a story. but it’s full of symbolic images, like people breaking their chains, and a giant worker slashing the double headed eagle of the czarist empire with a giant hammer.
‘A Hot Stone’ is a slow and boring film, but it’s also beautifully designed, in an original graphic style, which makes use of bold ink strokes.
Watch ‘A Hot Stone’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Grigori Lomidze
Release Date: 1959
It quite faithfully retells the famous story from One Thousand and One Nights. The film features the death of two characters, but the grim ending of the original story is lacking. Instead of being killed, the forty thieves are captured by the townspeople.
Interestingly, Ali Baba is not the real hero of the story, but rather his wife, a girl he bought on a slave market. She decoys and fools the thieves to their own destruction.
The film, which uses a narrator, is quite slow and the puppet animation isn’t as sophisticated as in contemporary films by Jiří Trnka. The puppets have no facial expression whatsoever and only occasionally their emotions become apparent. The best example of this may be the terror of Ali Baba’s neighbor when he realizes he’s trapped inside the thieve’s cave.
About the film’s director, Grigori Lomidze, little is known. He also directed the propaganda film ‘To You , Moscow’ (1947), which combines live action and cell animation. Nothing points to a long experience in stop motion, and unfortunately, it shows. ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ may be a charming film, a classic it is not.
Watch ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Lev Atamanov
Release Date: 1951
The film tells about a flute player, whose music is so vivid, it can bring a drawing of a stork to life. An evil mandarin captures the bird, demanding it to perform for him. But the stork will only dance to the flute player’s music, and when it hears this music, it flies away through the window.
This film, which uses song, seems to celebrate music and freedom and appears to be a pamphlet against oppression, which is remarkable for a film made under Stalin’s rule. The animation in this short is very good, with beautifully animated humans. The result is one of the more enjoyable Soviet films of the era.
Watch ‘The Yellow Stork’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Dmitry Babichenko
Release Date: 1950
The stag claims this to be unjust, and the two animals ask a bear to be a referee. The bear restores the initial situation to be able to judge the argument, but then runs off with the deer, leaving the wolf under the tree again.
‘The Stag and the Wolf’ is a typical Russian animation film from the early fifties, this time based on an ancient tale (it’s even found among folk tales in Cameroon, albeit with different animals). Like contemporary Soviet films, it has the distinct flavor of Russified Disney. The film pushes the limits of Soviet naturalism, especially in the backgrounds. The bear, however, is very Disney-like, and a little at odds with the particularly realistically designed stag.
Watch ‘The Stag and the Wolf’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Alexander Ivanov
Release Date: 1950
‘Grandpa and grandson’ is one of the countless harmless children’s films the Soviet Union produced in the 1950s. Unfortunately, it’s not among the best. It’s a slow and sugary film starring many all too cute animals and using a lot of dialogue.
Unlike contemporary Soviet animation films it doesn’t seem to be based on a folk tale. Instead, it feels like an overlong Silly Symphony (it lasts almost twenty minutes), ending with a seemingly endless ballet on skates. Because of the slow animation of the characters (typical of Russian films from the era), even this ballet doesn’t really comes off like its Disney models.
Watch ‘Grandpa and grandson’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Olga Khodatayeva
Release Date: 1950
In this short an old man, a cat and a cock are having trouble to feed all the animals who seek shelter at their place. Therefore they ask the mountain god for help, who gives them a magical little windmill, which produces endless amounts of breads out of of a few grains of corn. Unfortunately, rumor spreads, and soon the little windmill is stolen by a greedy king. But the cock flies to his palace and brings back the magical object, despite several attempts on his life.
‘The Magic Windmill’ is a gentle, if what overlong little film based on a Russian fairy-tale. It uses a naturalistic style, clearly influenced by Disney, with watercolor backgrounds, and a multiplane camera effect in its opening scene . The animal designs are an interesting mix of the Disney style and Russian illustration art. The animation, however, leaves a lot to desire. The animation of movement is awkward, with most characters moving in a slow, all too constant speed. The film uses dialogue in rhyme, but the lip synchronization with the characters is poor.
Despite these flaws, ‘The Magic Windmill’ is a film of great poetry, and one of the best of the Russian fairy tale films of the fifties. Indeed, director Khodatayeva was a veteran of soviet animation, having made films since the 1920s.
Watch ‘The Magic Windmill’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Victor Gromov
Release Date: 1949
The film tells about Mr. Wolf, a rich American, who is fed up with weapons and war. He retreats with his unwilling family to a peaceful island. But then oil is discovered on the island. Immediately, Mr. Wolf and his family are overpowered by greed, and the American only too gladly drops his pacifism.
‘Mr Wolf’ is based on a comedy by Evgeny Petrov. Although drowned in caricature, this blatant propaganda film is hardly funny: its animation is elaborate, but painstakingly slow, and too excessive. Moreover, it is not too clear what the message is. Are all Westerners blinded by greed? Is pacifism senseless in a world of war? Are oil and peace at odds with eachother? I’ve no idea.
Watch ‘Mr. Wolf’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Leonid Amalrik & Olga Khodataeva
Release Date: 1942
The short is called ‘a cartoon satire in three acts’ and features a Charlie Chaplin-like character, who introduces us to three staged satires, all featuring Adolf Hitler:
In the first, ‘Adolf the dog trainer and his pooches’, Hitler throws a bone at his three dogs, Benito Mussolini, Miklós Horthy and Ion Antonescu, the leaders of his allies Italy, Hungary and Romania, respectively.
In the second, ‘Hitler visits Napoleon’, Hitler asks Napoleon’s tomb for advice, but the deceased drags him into the tomb. It’s the most prophetic of the three, for indeed both Napoleon and Hitler were defeated in Russia.
In the third, ‘Adolf the juggler on powder kegs’, Hitler juggles with several burning torches on a pile of powder-barrels, representing the countries he has occupied. When he accidentally drops one of the torches, the barrels explode. The animation is particularly silly in this sequence and a delight to watch.
After the grim political posters from 1941, ‘Kino-Circus’ is more lighthearted. The film ridicules Hitler more than it makes him threatening. Quite surprising since in1942 Nazi Germany was still a serious threat to the Soviet Union: Leningrad suffered under a long siege, and the Soviet Union had only just begun its counter-attack.
Interestingly, both directors of ‘Kino-Circus’ later became famous for their sweet fairy tale films.
Watch ‘Kino-Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Panteleimon Sasonov
Release Date: 1941
‘The Vultures’ is the least interesting of the set. Its opening shot is its best part: opening with two eyes in the dark, just like ‘The Skeleton Dance‘ (1929). These eyes appear to belong to a fascist vulture. he and the other fascist vultures (battle planes) are chased away and destroyed by the Soviet airfleet in a rather silly and playful-looking air battle, accompanied by heroic march music.
About the director of ‘The Vultures’, Panteleimon Sasonov (1895-1950) little can be found. Giannalberto Bendazzi tells us in his excellent book ‘Cartoons – one hundred years of cinema animation’ that he made an animation film called ‘The Tale of the Pope and Baldo his Servant’ in 1939.
Watch ‘The Vultures’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Directors: Aleksandr Ivanov & I. Vano
Release Date: 1941
Like ‘4 Newsreels‘, ‘Fascist Boots on our Homeland’ is a so-called ‘political poster’, a short propaganda film that knows no competition in its vicious imagery.
In ‘Fascist Boots on our Homeland’ a horrific fascist pig marches on, trembling several European countries until he gets beaten by the Red Army. The film also contains a very patriotic song and rather associative imagery, including that of Russian soldiers riding horseback, a heroic image from the Russian civil war (1917-1923).
It’s interesting to compare the Soviet images of Nazis with that of American propaganda films from the same era. Whereas in American propaganda, like ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face‘ fascist leaders were caricatured and ridiculed, in the Soviet Union they were depicted as monsters and swines. The whole difference may be that the Soviet Union was invaded, while the United States were not.
Indeed, the US were less kind to the Japanese, who did stain American soil: they were all portrayed as silly, but treacherous Untermenschen, whom one could easily kill without remorse (e.g. in ‘Bugs Bunny nips the Nips’ from 1944 and the Popeye film ‘You’re a sap, Mr. Jap’ from 1942).
Watch ‘Fascist Boots on our Homeland’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Directors: Valentina Brumberg, Zinaida Brumberg, Aleksandr Ivanov, Olga Khodataeva and Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Release Date: 1941
The first, ‘What Hitler wants’, shows us an extremely ugly and vicious caricature of Hitler marching towards the Soviet Union until he is pierced by the Soviet bayonet.
In the second, ‘Beat the fascist pirates’, sea serpent-like German submarines are defeated by the Soviet fleet.
The third, ‘Strike the Enemy on the front and at home’, is typical for the paranoid society Stalinist Russia was, warning against treacherous fascist spies, foreign agents and saboteurs: “Be vigilant! Remember, our enemy is cunning!”.
The fourth, ‘A mighty handshake’, tells us about the union between England and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, showing two mighty giant soldiers shaking hands and crushing a tiny rat-like Hitler in doing so.
Obviously, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union left no room for subtleties.
‘4 Newsreels’ was directed by five veterans of animated Soviet propaganda. All had made animated films since the 1920s. Of the five, Ivan Ivanov-Vano (1900-1987) would become the most successful, directing animated films up to the 1970s. Luckily, he and Olga Khodataeva would be able to show a gentler side in numerous animated fairy tale films for children.
Watch ‘4 Newsreels’ yourself and tell me what you think: