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Director: Fyodor Khitruk
Release Date: 1983
‘Lion and Ox’ is one of Fyodor Khitruk’s most serious films. It’s a very beautiful short about an ox who befriends a lion. Unfortunately, a devious little fox sets the two against each other, with fatal results.
This simple fable is told without words. They’re not necessary, for the animation is stunning. Apart from the fox, the animals are animated very reallistically, but they still retain a strong sense of emotion, telling the tale in expressions. The designs are very graphic, with beautiful ink lines. The backgrounds, too, are gorgeous, and reminiscent of Chinese paintings in their suggestions of the savanna by using a few powerful paintbrushes.
Watch ‘Lion and Ox’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Grigori Lomidze
Release Date: 1947
During the film we watch Moscow’s settlement, the victory of Ivan III over the Tartars (15th century), the revolt against Polish occupation (17th century), the defeat of Napoleon’s army in 1812, the 1905 revolution, the 1917 socialist revolution (‘led by Lenin and Stalin’) and the 1941 defeat of the fascist army to the present day.
The socialist revolution section leads to live-action footage of Moscow, a happy child, flowers, some buildings and street scenes and statues of Lenin and Stalin. The last section, the celebration, shows photographs of heroic inhabitants of the Soviet Union, and not only glorifies Moscow as “our youth, our glory”, “our dear mother” and “our birthday girl”, but also as a “glory to Stalin”.
The different sections are bridged by letters and postcards to comrade Stalin. The sections themselves focus on strives and battles, and are accompanied by alternately realistic and symbolic images. For example, the 1917 revolution is depicted by the czarist double-headed eagle struggling and falling to pieces, while the most impressive part may be that of 1812, with its realistic images of fire.
It may be clear that this film is propaganda at its worst. The film is saved from becoming totally unwatchable by the beautiful animation, the stark images, and the lively patriotic music.
Watch ‘To You, Moscow’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Mikhail Kamenetsky
Release Date: 1984
An old wolf steals a calf to eat, but he starts to like it and to raise it like his own son. In the end, when a hungry bear, a vixen and aboar try to steal his loot, he is saved by the calf itself, which has turned into a strong bull.
‘Wolf and Calf’ is a fable-like children’s film with an old-fashioned look. The designs of the protagonists look like they have come from a 1950’s toy shop. Kamenetsky’s puppet animation is elaborate, and actually quite good, if erratic, but the film suffers from an excess of dialogue, which not always seems to correspond with the animated characters themselves.
Moreover, the film’s world is rather inconsistent, stretching its believability: the wolf, like all other animals, is highly anthropomorphic and even lives in a house, alongside humans, who are afraid of him nonetheless. The calf, on the other hand, remains on all fours, and stays an animal, even though it is able to speak.
Watch ‘Wolf and Calf’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Ideya Gagarina
Release Date: 1981
The film is something of a musical and tells about the love between Donna Rosita and Don Cristobál. The music, by world famous composer Sofia Gubaidulina is odd and rather unconvincing in its avant-garde version of the musical genre.
The film falls into two parts: the first part looks most like an ordinary puppet play: it’s fast, hectic, humorous, and even vulgar, with a strong sense of eroticism. Halfway the film, however, the mood changes drastically. Don Cristobál gets rid of his strings and tears off his grotesque mask to reveal a more noble face. With that the film enters the second part, a dreamlike, lyrical one. Unfortunately, the narrative gets lost in this part, and in the end the film suffers from its length, from its meandering music and beautiful, but vague imagery.
‘Cabaret’ was Gagarina’s Fourth film, and her third after she had joined Soyuzmultfilm in 1976. In 1988 Gagarina and Gubaidulina would work together again on “The Cat That Walked by Itself”, a feature film based on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’. Unfortunately she came to a tragic end, as she was murdered in her own house in 2010.
Watch ‘Cabaret’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Yuri Norstein
Release Date: 1979
These images are altered with images of a river scene with a.o. a fisherman, his wife and his children, and a giant Picasso-like minotaur skipping rope. Two other recurring images are that of dancing wives losing their men to war, and that of a little boy eating apples in the snow.
‘Tale of Tale’s is regarded as Yuri Norstein’s masterpiece and as one of the best animation films of all time. This does not mean it is the most accessible of all films, on the contrary. ‘Tale of Tales’ is a poetic film, but a confusing one. The nostalgic images seem unrelated, and are shown in a non-linear fashion. In fact, it is very difficult to render a ‘tale’ out of the images, which are intrinsically very strong, especially those of the melancholy wolf cub and of the iconic river scene.
Most of the film is made of muddy images in sepia-tones, rendering a dreamy atmosphere. Many images return, bridged by the wolf cub character, who, alone, seems to live in the present, outside of the images of a childhood long past. There’s some vague sense of a happy childhood being shattered by war and being lost in time.
The film uses no dialogue, and even the music is timid in its evocation of mood. Some of the cut-out animation is superb, however, and the overall imagery one of great virtuosity. The end result is as beautiful as it is overlong and frustratingly incomprehensible.
Watch ‘Tale of Tales’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Eduard Nazarov
Release Date: 1979
When he looks at a photo of a hunter on top of a dead lion, his imagination starts to wander. He imagines himself in a forest, and on a Savannah, full of wildlife. When encountering the lion, he prevents the hunter from shooting. Unfortunately, he’s awoken by the shop owner.
‘Hunt’ is a silent film, told with realistic images, strong 1970s designs, and dated electronic music. The film’s opening is probably its best: we’re watching images of busy and indifferent city life, before zooming in on the boy. The film clearly celebrates life, especially in the Savannah scenes, which form a rich contrast to the dull city life images. Nevertheless, the film feels traditional and naive, and more as a product of its time than as a timeless classic.
Watch ‘Hunt’ yourself and tell me what you think:
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 cel 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: