The centennial of Russian Animation (Episode II: from 1940 to 1970)
This year Russia celebrates 100 years of animation in film. In tribute, RBTH features clips of films made by the greatest pioneers of the industry in the last century.
The general administration of cinema and photo industry on June 10, 1936 issued an order to create "Soyuzdetmultfilm" (the organization that produced animated films for children for the whole Soviet period), that resembled the American Disney Studio.
During World War II, the Moscow-based studio for animated film, Soyuzdetmultfilm, was evacuated to Samarkand in Uzbekistan while many of its directors fought on the front. The war was the most salient topic for film around the world and the Soviet Union was no exception. At that time satirical images of Hitler and his fascist minions were rampant in films and posters, as one can see in the the sketch “What Hitler Wants” (1) by the Brumberg sisters, Olga Khodataeva and Ivan Ivanov-Vano.
The film is a chapter from a satirical newsreel of Soyuzmultfilm. It shows “fascism’s inglorious end” at the hands of the Soviet Union.
After the war, Russian animation (like all Soviet industries) suffered severe funding shortages. With the establishment of Socialist realism, innovation was neglected in favor of rotoscoping, where the animator actually used live footage and traced over the action as it was projected onto glass. Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy was one maverick filmmaker who pushed the art forward despite the limitations and challenges of the era (as seen in his famous “Kashtanka” (2) The animation of this film has an epic sensibility to it.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin and his cult of personality during a famous party congress in 1956. In its wake, there was an epoch of cultural renewal throughout the country. In the late 1950s, the genre of feature-length narratives dominated. One of the most famous films of this period, “The Snow Queen” (3) by Lev Atamanov is the best known; the tale was re-released in English in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The story itself is not surprising, but the animation has a single and ineffable beauty to it that makes it a classic. It is the story of a boy kidnapped by the heartless Snow Queen; she transforms his own heart into ice. He of course manages a creative escape and his heart defrosts. What a wonderful metaphor for Khrushchev’s Thaw, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union warmed for a time.
“The Cloud in Love” (4) an avant-garde film made in 1959 by Roman Kachanov, received many European film awards. It was the first Soviet animated film honored with the prestigious award of The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). It has the lonely, strange ambience of a daydream, somewhere between a Chagall painting and the imaginings of an Orientalist.
Even though animators still needed a while to free themselves from the long tradition of "Éclair", from the 1960s onwards, animation films gain completely new qualities. The starting point for this was Fyodor Khitruk's film (5) The Story of a Crime (1962).
Khitruk's revolutionary approach seems as inspired by Gogol as Tati. More importantly, it paved the way for the next generation of bold animation directors. One of the most political was Andrei Khrzhanovsky, whose surrealist film "The Glass Harmonica" (6) (1968) was severely cut by censors, but shelved nevertheless.
“The Mitten” (7) is a 1967 Soviet film by Roman Kachanov. Also acclaimed, the film espoused the examination of urban modernism found in Khitruk and marked the revival of stop motion (also known as stop frame) animation technique (that was embraced by the early masters like Vladislav Starevich and Alexander Ptushko).
“The Cat" (8) may look very primitive in comparison. But it was the first Soviet animation made on a BESM in the lab of Moscow State University by Minakhin and Konstantinov. BESM is the name of a series of Soviet mainframe computers built in the 1950 and 1960s. The name is an acronym for "bolshaya elektronno-schetnaya mashina," literally, "large electronically computing machine." The cat’s movement was generated by a system of differential equations.
Returning to the classics, two films in particular enriched and emboldened Russian animation. Both are produced by Fyodor Khitruk. “Film, Film, Film” (9) is a satirical animated short film made in 1968. It is a parody of the filmmaking process in the Soviet Union. The nearly silent pantomime tells a story behind the making of a historical movie.
Khitruk's “Winnie-the-Pooh” (10) may well be the most beloved animation of its time. Khitruk was a powerful figure and he helped to rejuvenate Russian animation and refused to imitate the omnipresent Walt Disney, instead creating a new and distinct style as an auteur.
His unique, simplistic style creates a childlike feel. The first film based on the A.A. Milne books, made in 1969, is a quest for honey, of course. The second is a hilarious story of Pooh rather rudely overstaying his welcome when visiting Rabbit. The film was emblematic of the end of the 1960s in Russian animation, a time when both animated series and musicals flourished and gained enormous popularity in the 1970s.