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Director: Tyron Montgomery
Release Date: April 1996
Rating: ★★½
Review:

A sand man lies in the desert with his water bottle, empty. When he hears the sound of water he starts digging and before soon falls into another world…

Made by Tyron Montgomery (direction, photography & screenplay) and Thomas Stellmach (production, animation & story) at the University of Kassel, Germany, ‘Quest’ is a gloomy stop-motion film, depicting worlds of sand, paper, stone and metal. Especially the metal world is well-done, both frightening and fascinating.

There are some comic elements in the acting of the sand man, but the film is neither as funny nor as disturbing as it could be. Part of the problem is the mediocre acting: the sand man’s feelings and thoughts are acted out schematically, more like Fritz the Cat than like post-Disney character animation.

‘Quest’ certainly is interesting, and a very accomplished film for a student film, but in the end Montgomery’s and Stellmach’s tale is too shallow to become a real classic. But that’s only my opinion, because this German short won many prizes, including the Academy Award for best animated short in 1997.

Watch ‘Quest’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Quest’ is available on the The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 5

Directors: Stephan Schesch & Sarah Clara Weber
Release Date:
June 8, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

Germany is the biggest economy of Europe, but as producer of animation it’s a surprisingly minor player, especially when compared to France. It certainly didn’t help that the Nazi regime virtually wiped out all art life, and that from 1949 until 1991 the country was split into two.

When I think of post-war German animation I immediately think of Die Maus (The Mouse), the silent host of the educational children program ‘Die Sendung mit der Maus’, and of die Mainzelmännchen, the six little guys who embellish advertising blocks on German television since 1963. Germany also boasts some major independent animation artists, like Raimond Krumme, Andreas Hykade and Gil Alkabetz, but otherwise the country produces mostly rather listless feature films which make no impression whatsoever.

So it came as a surprise to me to find in a department store in Berlin an animated film based on a children’s book by Tomi Ungerer, one of the greatest children’s book artists in the world. Even more surprisingly, this is not the first German feature film based on his work. In 2007 Animation X Gesellschaft zur Produktion von Animationsfilmen mbH released a film based on Ungerer’s classic ‘Die drei Räuber’ (The Three Robbers) from 1961. I certainly wish to see that film, too, because ‘Der Mondmann’ is a pleasant surprise.

This feature film is much more elaborate than Ungerer’s original children’s book from 1966 (which Gene Deitch already turned into an animated short in 1981), but the character designs of the moon man and the children are very faithful to Ungerer’s artwork. Even better, Ungerer himself appears as the narrator of the tale (although his voice over is hardly used in the film). The adult characters, however, are more removed from Ungerer’s style, as is the extraordinarily colorful background art, which has a trace of surrealism to it. The looks of the film are on the verge of independent animation, but remain friendly and inviting nonetheless.

The story tells about the moon man, who occupies the complete sphere of the moon, and who is bored to death inside this cramped space. One day he grabs the tail of a fiery comet and descends to earth, hoping for some excitement. The shots of the moon man discovering animals and plants are particularly delightful. Earth, meanwhile, has apparently been occupied by a rather fascist looking regime (a great take is that its flag features a flag). The world president mourns he has conquered the complete world, and has nothing left to conquer, until some lady suggests to conquer the moon. Apparently, in this parallel universe space travel has not been invented, yet, while for example cell phones have.

The world depicted thus is not entirely ours, and this adds to the atmosphere of surrealism, as do several odd side gags that enter the screen and which are completely unrelated to the story. This type of throwaway gags are reminiscent of ‘La planète sauvage’ (Fantastic Planet) from 1973, and indeed, ‘Der Mondmann’ has something in common with that strange film, even if it is much friendlier, and less bizarre. These gags keep the adult audience awake in a film that is otherwise clearly directed to children. There’s also a running gag of a military officer who keeps saying “höchst bedauerlich”(most regrettable) as answers to the president’s complaints.

Anyway, both the Moon Man and the president turn to an inventor called Bunsen van der Dunkel to bring them to the moon. The moon man all too quickly discovers that Earth is not an entirely welcome place, and he discovers his role in the lives of children, who cannot sleep without him watching over them. The central theme of the film is what it means to be friends, something both Bunsen van der Dunkel and the Moon Man discover during the film.

‘Der Mondmann’ is well-told, focusing on only a handful characters, but it is also one of those delightful non-American feature animation films completely throwing American story rules overboard. For example, the film stars a father and his daughter travelling inside an American 1950s cabriolet. The two return several times during the film, but are only marginally involved in the plot. Despite being a children’s film there’s also a clear suggestion of a sex scene. The music choice, too, is pretty idiosyncratic, with important roles for the songs ‘Moon River’ sung by Louis Armstrong and ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ by Iron Butterfly.

In all, ‘Der Mondmann’ is arguably the greatest animated feature film to come from Germany in the 2010s and well worth a watch, especially because it is available with English subtitles.

‘Der Mondmann’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Till Nowak
Release Date:
January 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ is a mockumentary in which a professor (Leslie Barnaby) of “the institute for centrifugal research, Florida” tells us about his research.

It’s best to let the film surprise you, so I’m not going to tell you too much, but the film’s main attraction is that Nowak has tried to hide the fact that any animation has been involved in the footage. The film makes clever use of live action shots of rides on fairs, ingeniously manipulated with computer animation, sometimes with quite ridiculous results. But as all experiments shown are based on real rides, the images remain stunningly convincing, even an extended Ferris wheel that seems to fill the complete sky.

The result is a fun short, with understated humor, which is over before you know it.

Watch ‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows DVD Box Set 7

Director: Philip Hunt
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★
Review:

‘Ah Pook is Here’ is a short but rather pretentious film using texts by avant-garde writer William S. Burroughs on the atomic bomb.

Read by William S. Burroughs himself from the book of the same name, the film mixes computer animation and stop motion to vaguely illustrate Burrough’s texts. The film is set on a small black planet, enircled by Gods, who look like satellites and bombs. Ah Pook is the destroyer, a.k.a. the atomic bomb. On the planet lives a red-headed alien who asks another flying alien about the nature of man, the nature of death and of democracy.

Unfortunately, the images are pretty irrelevant to the text: they neither illustrate nor counter it. Moreover, Burroughs’s text is pretty disjointed itself, making this short animation film remarkably aimless. For this reason ‘Ah Pook is Here’ must be regarded a cinematic failure, despite the virtuoso mix of computer animation and stop motion.

Watch ‘Ah Pook is Here’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ah Pook is Here’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Raimond Krumme
Release Date: October, 1994
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In ‘Passage’ a man and his servant, who carries a heavy suitcase, are crossing an empty space of snow and ice. The snow and ice provide a conflict between the two, even disrupting the integrity of the two men’s bodies.

Typically for Krumme even the background space isn’t what it seems to be, with the servant hiding behind the horizon line, and several pieces of paper wrinkling during the fight. This is inventive use of the medium of animation, indeed.

Unfortunately, one can hardly tell the two men apart, who are drawn and animated the same (one has a tall hat, but the two even exchange hats at one moment). Moreover there’s hardly any story, and the film appears to stop only because Krumme seemingly runs out of ideas.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Passage’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Passage ’ is available on the DVD ‘Spatial Pandemonium – Short Films by Raimund Krumme’ and on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9

Director: Andreas Hykade
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★★★½

‘Wir lebten im Gras’ is the first of three films in which German animator Andreas Hykade explores the loss of innocence, the other two being ‘Ring of Fire’ (2000) and ‘Der Kloane’ (The Runt, 2006).

The film is also the most cryptic of the three, full of images that are very difficult to decipher. The film is set in a rather mythical place, ‘two streets away from the end of the world’ and has a timeless and universal feel.

The story is told by a boy voice over, who reminisces about his father, who told him that “All women is whore and all men is soldier”. Outside the voice over there is no dialogue. The little boy tries to see the world through his father’s eyes, but this conflicts with his softer side, and he’d rather fall in love with the enigmatic ‘dandelion girl’.

The film is less straightforward than this synopsis suggests, however, and the film is more surreal and suggestive than narrative. For example, the boy’s adventures are interjected by nightmarish dream sequences, the meaning of which is never really explained. These dream sequences are rendered in an expressionistic pastel style, reminiscent of Lorenzo Mattotti’s art work. This style contrasts highly with the simple cel animation.

Hykade’s drawing style is highly original. His human designs are simple, almost stickman-like, but genitals are very prominent, and the father is drawn as a more robust, earthly character.

The animation is very virtuoso, with a great feel for timing. Moreover, Hykade uses a lot of changing perspective, and has an admirable command of movement.

‘Wir lebten im Gras’ was Hykade’s last student film, but it certainly is his first major work. With this film Hykade proved to be a strong new voice in the animation world, a fact he consoled with his masterpiece ‘Ring of Fire’ from 2000.

Watch ‘Wir lebten im Gras’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Wir lebten im Gras’ is available on the DVD ‘Desire & Sexuality – Animating the Unconscious Vol. 2’

Director: Gil Alkabetz
Release Date: October 1992
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Swamp © Gil AlkabetzWith ‘Swamp’ Gil Alkabetz showed to be a strong new voice in the animation world.

Made at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart in Germany, Alkabetz uses a deceptively simple setting of only two dimensions, with no background whatsoever. In this world two armies of knights on horses, armed with giant balloons and giant scissors are fighting a senseless war over a swamp.

The film is a strong allegory on the folly of war. The film’s power is greatly enhanced by its simple yet very clear designs (all knights are drawn in black ink, the balloons in bright ecoline reds and blues) and by its great sound design. But most of all, the short shows Alkabetz’s strong sense of comic timing. ‘Swamp’ is one of the best student films of all time, and deserves to be shown over and over again.

Watch ‘Swamp’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Swamp’ is available on the DVD box set ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 2’

Director: Gil Alkabetz
Release Date: April 29, 2007
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Ein sonniger Tag (A Sunny Day) © Gil Alkabetz

‘Ein sonniger Tag’ is a charming little film with no less than the sun itself as its star.

In Alkabetz’s short the sun tries to impress the people, and one little girl in particular. Unfortunately, he only manages to make them feel hot, and they all try to get away from him. Only when he gives up, and sinks back into the sea, he gets the attention and appreciation he had longed for all day long.

Alkabetz’s style is loose and cartoony, and his film is full of clever sight gags, like the sun using clouds as shaving cream, or the sun blushing red when being photographed at sunset. The result is a film that’s not only charming and funny, but also impresses in how it manages to follow its inner logic from start to end, with surprising results.

Even if ‘Ein sonniger Tag’ is far from an ambitious short, it shows the skill of a true master. The short is a great example of the endless possibilities of animation, in which there’s no limit to the imagination.

Watch ‘Ein sonniger Tag’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ein sonniger Tag’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Kleine helden & rare kwasten – 14 animatiefilms voor kinderen’

Director: Milen Vitanov
Release Date: April, 2007
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

My Happy End © Milen Vitanov‘My Happy End’ is an enjoyable little children’s film about a dog being in love with its own tail, which in Vitanov’s film also has a mouth.

The most remarkable aspect of Vitanov’s film is its technique: Vitanov blends traditional pencil animation with 3D computer effects, making the dog look like a single piece op paper moving around in a paper world. This illusion is enhanced by using only grey-tones, giving ‘My Happy End’ a sketchy look.

Unfortunately, Vitanov’s cartoon style is less original, and his story rather stretches the imagination (I could hardly swallow the concept of both the humanized tail and the regeneration which takes place in the end). The result is an amiable, if unassuming little film.

Watch ‘My Happy End’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘My Happy End’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Kleine helden & rare kwasten – 14 animatiefilms voor kinderen’

Director: Oskar Fischinger
Release Date:
 December 1933
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Kreise © Oskar Fischinger‘Kreise’ is most probably the first full color film made in Europe.

Made with ‘Gaspar Color’ it certainly makes clever use of color’s new possibilities. ‘Gaspar Color’ required too much exposure time for live action, but for Fischinger’s animations it was perfect.

Color certainly added a great deal to Fischinger’s films. ‘Kreise’, for example, literally explodes with color. As its title implies, the film is composed of circles, only, which move and grow in various ways on an instrumental excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

The film ends with a slogan: “Alle Kreise erfasst Tolirag” (Tolirag reaches all circles [of society]), revealing that this totally abstract film is actually a commercial for an advertising agency. This was Fischinger’s trick to get the film past the Nazi censors, who in 1933 had come to power, and who were strongly opposed to abstract art.

Later the film also advertised other companies, like the Dutch Van Houten chocolate company. The film clearly shows that Walt Disney was not the only one who knew how to deal with color, but one wonders whether Tolirag (or Van Houten for that matter) did get a lot of new customers out of it.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Kreise’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kreise’ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Director: Oskar Fischinger
Production Date:
 1930-1931
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Studie Nr. 7 © Oskar FischingerIn Fischinger’s study No. 7 , made in 1930-1931, the shapes of Study No. 6 move to the 5th Hungarian dance by Johannes Brahms.

Like Study No. 6 Fischinger made this film with charcoal on paper. In this short the synchronization of music and movement is even better than in Study No. 6. Fischinger uses less diverse shapes than in No. 6, making the film more consistent. Some of them look like fluttering and folding pieces of paper.

According to William Moritz this particular film prompted four film makers into animation: Norman McLaren, Alexandre Alexeieff, Claire Parker and Len Lye. These four all became major players in avant-garde animation. This fact makes Study No. 7 one of the most important animation films in history.

Watch ‘Studie nr. 7’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Studie nr. 7′ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Director: Oskar Fischinger
Production Date:
 1930
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Studie Nr. 6 © Oskar FischingerIn this short study we watch white shapes moving on a black canvas to upbeat dance music (‘Los Verderones’ by Jacinto Guerrero).

Made with charcoal on paper, the result looks like a filmed sketch by Wassily Kandinsky. The only recognizable shape is an eye, which reoccurs a few times.

The twirling shapes are elegantly drawn, their movements match the jolly music perfectly, and there’s a feeling of gaiety that transcends the film’s abstraction.

In 1931 Oskar Fischinger’s friend Paul Hindemith and some of his students made new scores for this film, but unfortunately they were all lost in World War II.

Watch ‘Studie nr. 6’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://www.tudou.com/listplay/R8qsaMltb9Y.html

‘Studie nr. 6′ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Director: Svend Noldan
Release Date:
 1930
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Hein Priembacke in Afrika © Svend NoldanHein Priembacke was a cartoon character conceived and animated by Svend Noldan. Noldan had his origins in the German dadaist avant-garde scene, something that is not visible in this cartoon.

‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ is a silent film and uses German title cards in rhyme. Hein Priembacke is a sailor who’s washed ashore an African desert. Being hungry he first tries to retrieve a coconut, which turns out to be a wallaby. Later he goes to a settlement (which was visible in the background all the time), where he pulls two turnips, which turn out to be Negroes (forgive me the word – it’s used as such in the film itself). The angered cannibals soon chase our hero (“Jetzt wird’s bedenklich, lieber Christ. Der Neger ist kein Pazifist” reads the title card, which translates as “Now it becomes questionable, dear Christ, for the negro is no pacifist“), but he manages to escape to his homeland, hanging on the legs of a stork.

The animation is surprisingly well done, although the action is at times ridiculously slow. The film’s highlight are the animation of the waves and of the landscape on Priembacke’s flight back home. Done with cut outs, the landscape moves stunningly realistically under our hero, creating a great sense of depth, predating Disney’s multi-plane camera by seven years.

Indeed, special effects turned out to be Noldan’s expertise. His star rose when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, and many film makers left Germany. He later provided special effects for German propaganda films, like Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumf des Willens’ (1935), and ‘Der ewige Jude’ (1939). During World War II he worked for the German war industry. Although his role in Nazi Germany is dubious to say the least, he survived the war unscathed, and returned to making films, which he kept on doing until the end of the 1960s.

Watch ‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation 2: Cannibals!’

Director: Lotte Reiniger
Release Date: 1928
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Der scheintote Chinese © Lotte Reiniger‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is a short film by Lotte Reiniger, made in the same vein as her stunning feature film ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’ from 1926. Unlike her feature, this isn’t a romantic film, however, but a comical one, exploiting some surprisingly dark humor.

It starts when a couple makes fun with Ping Pong, the emperor’s favorite humpback. Unfortunately he chokes on a fishbone, leaving the couple believe he’s dead. They try to get rid of him, and so does every other citizen who finds the body on his doorstep. Finally a drunk is caught and sentenced to death for the brutal murder on Ping Pong. When the innocent drunk is almost hung at the gallows, the other people get remorse, and each pleads guilty in succession. Luckily, at that moment, Ping Pong awakes.

‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is an entertaining story, and Reiniger’s designs are as delicate as ever. But the animation is crude and stiff, and her timing rather tiresome. Thus the film fails short to become a timeless classic.

Watch ‘Der scheintote Chinese’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is available on the DVD ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Ahmed’

Director: Andreas Hykade
Release Date: September 2006
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Runt © Andreas Hykade‘The Runt’ is Hykade’s fourth independent film. It’s a disturbing short about a little boy who is allowed to keep a pet rabbit, if he’s going to kill it himself the next year.

Hykade’s simple and cute designs, and use of bright colors contrast with the film’s grim story, but they also make it watchable for everybody. There’s practically no reference to any time or place, and its story about death and coming of age has a universal appeal. Its timelessness makes the film an instant classic.

‘The Runt’ may not be as bold as his previous film, ‘Ring of Fire’ (2000), it is a great example of Andreas Hykade’s talent. He has succeeded in creating one of those rare shorts that make you think.

Watch ‘The Runt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Runt’ is available on the DVD ‘International Animation: Modern Classics’

Director: Gil Alkabetz
Release Date: 2004
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Morir de Amor © Gil AlkabetzTwo parrots in a cage relive the day they were caught, while their owner is asleep. Unknowingly, they betray a secret to their owner, with deadly results.

‘Morir d’Amor’ (the title comes from a Mexican song of the same name) is a funny and sweet film about love. It is told basically through the imitations the parrots make of real sounds, which evoke their memories of that fateful day. The film contrasts the dull present (in black and white) with their colorful memories of the forest.

Alkabetz shows some impressive handling of perspectives that is reminiscent of the work of George Schwizgebel. Despite the fast montage, the film suffers from a slow timing, however, and perhaps it is a bit too long. Nevertheless, its gentle humor makes it one of Alkabetz’s most accessible films, lacking the experimentalism of much of his earlier work.

Watch ‘Morir de Amor’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Morir de Amor’ is available on the DVD ‘International Animation: Modern Classics’

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