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Yuri Norstein - after "The Overcoat"

Yuriy Norshtein, classic of the world animation, was born on September 15. He is the author of cult motions such as The Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales, which were voted to be the best animated films of the XX-th century.  Animators of Odessa sincerely congratulate the master on his Birthday and wish him a long and a creative life!

Yuri Norstein -1

Yuri Norstein -2

Yuri Norstein -3

Norshtein destiny may become a classical example of how the Soviet authorities with their own hands created dissidents. At the beginning of 1950-ies his father, Boris Norshtein, got sacked from the factory and was blacklisted, because he didn’t inform against his friend. Moreover, he was a Jew.  When the anti-Semitic campaign was in full swing, starting with the murder of Solomon Mikhoels and followed by the Doctor’s plot, these two circumstances were enough for the Soviets to take Boris Norshtein for the enemy of the people. Boris Norshtein was lucky, because he was only prohibited to work in Moscow. Nevertheless, he son Yuriy was expelled from the School of Arts, where he was one of the promising pupils.

            After finishing the comprehensive school Norshtein attempted to enter three art universities at the same time – none of which accepted him as a student. Consequently, on his friend’s advice he entered artistic courses for animators under Soyuzmulfilm and found himself in animation cinematography, which was never interesting for him. According to the diploma he got, Norshtein worked on the studio as an animator, who makes the pictures, created by other artists, alive. Norshtein was the animator for dozens of motions, including Left-hander, The Mitten, How One Man Two Generals Subsisted, Boniface’s Holiday, My Green Crocodile and Cheburashka. While working with above mentioned and many other animated films Norshtein assimilated the experience in all fields of animation, including drawn and puppet motions, transposition (filming of a drawn character from several glass stages, which are arranged on different distance from the camera). Soon he understood that the work with animation is contra-indicated for him. Dozens of characters, brought to life with his own hands, like the ghosts coming from nowhere, suck the lifeblood from him.

            Norshtein made an attempt to run away from this horror; hence he applied to Stroganov Art School. He wasn’t accepted again. As it later became clear, the reason was that there was nothing more to teach him.

            Regime was constructing a dissident in the face of Norshtein. The result of the action is the confirmed artist.

In six years of work on Soyuzmultfilm studio Norshtein got his first own direction together with another beginner at the art of direction, Arkadiy Tyurin, production designer of Left-hander and How One Man Two Generals Subsisted.

            The topic for Norshtein’s debut became a stanza from an ideologically ‘right’ poem by Mayakovskiy Vladimir Ilyich Lenin:

When I

        sum up

             the life I lived,

                   and dig in the days,

         the brightest of which,

I recollect

        the same old thing –

the twenty-fifth,

day one.

 The authorities of the studio accepted the application for the film The twenty-fifth. Day One. But they didn’t even suspect, that the authors will turn the events of the October Revolution of 1917 into the metaphor of the world revival with all the consequences it might have provoked. The ready-made film was an energetic montage of vanguard compositions of 1910-1920-ies – Tatlin, Chagall, Filonov, Altman, Malevich, Deyneka, Pimenov, Lisitsky, Georges Braques, moreover the graphics of Mayakovsky, Yuriy Annenkov, Chekhonin, ‘icon painting’ of Petrov-Vodkin. What is more, music by Dmitriy Shestakovich. Plus the denouement, in which on the background of Filonov’s Hymn to the City and the Formula of Revolution, was reached with the poems of Paul Eluar and Chagall’s Angel hovered above the abyss.

When the studio management watched the motion they were a bit shocked. ‘And where are Kukryniks?’ – were they at a loss. Where is Vladimir Ilyich? What a vanguard outrageous breach of all limits!?

The idea to insert the Kukriniks into the motion was strongly objected by Norshtein. Nevertheless, Lenin got there – as an official photo, which was accompanied by the speech of the world leader of proletariat. Against the general vanguard background such a placard presence of Lenin looked like a plain and cruel joke. The motion fell into the background and was given the last fourth category.

Taking into account the above mentioned story, Norshtein had concluded that, firstly, animation is a plastic time and, secondly, never compromise, especially when it contrasts your own interests. In other respects he wasn’t interested at all.

Probably, the funniest thing is that the story connected with the topic of revolution wasn’t over for Norshtein. In ten years, approaching the anniversary of October revolution inspired Norshtein together with Fedor Khitruk, the author of the immortal Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon, decided to smuggle another seditious motion about the events of October 25, 1917. The film One Day Before the Anno Domini depicted the true story about the rebels against the governance, starting with Spartacus and grounded on works of Goya, Bosch, Brueghel and David… The work with the motion was stopped by Norshtein and Khitruk themselves. Eventually, they felt that the sublimity of intention is fraught with pomposity, which was not relevant to neither of the authors.

Probably, after The 25-th Norshtein could have stayed without any work for a long time, but he was saved by the patriarch of the Soviet animation Ivan Ivanov-Vano, who was never afraid of creative experiments, and in contrast to the studio management could see talented people with the naked eye.

The idea of the motion belonged to Ivanov-Vano, so for the one to detect the style of The Hedgehog in the Fog author is quite difficult. Nevertheless, the frame pattering according to the genre of the Russian fresco of the XIV-XVI centuries and the inner prospective were a bit new for Ivanov-Vano, hence the patriarch gave Norshtein the belief that he was a full-fledged coauthor. When Norshtein decided that it is necessary to retake one layout, the boss told him straight and directly: ‘You are nothing in here, my darling’. Ivanov-Vano didn’t share this opinion.

 The film Battle near Kerzhenets got lots of awards on different festivals and Norshtein got his first own motion, the film The Fox and the Hare, of the same literary tale, is a the story about the Fox who asked the Hare to live in his house for a while and finally turned him out of the house.

The motion was custom-made for the Italia sequence of films The Tales of Europeans. This fact helps to understand the graphics of the tale – Russian primitivistic style and distaff painting.  Though, purely decorative elements turn out to be fully semantic. With the help of simple lines and unsophisticated ornaments Norshtein tells a dramatic story of an insulted little creature that can be protected from the Fox only by a creature as small as the Hare is. A simple folk tale grows into a parable about the will that becomes stronger in the sufferings.

The parable in the form of a tale will become a determinative genre in Norshtein works during the Soviet period. His next motion The Heron and the Crane Norshtein created propter delictum the folk tale.  It is a story of how the Crane wants to get married with the Heron, but they couldn’t come to an agreement because each of them is too proud.  The Heron and the Crane was created with nagging irony of Chekhov. Ruins of the mansions, fog that envelopes empty and lifeless area of the swamp, mean attributes of the old Regime life among which forsaken characters lived… All above mentioned entourage sends the reader back the Cherry Garden by Chekhov and the Children of the Sun by Gorkiy together with the engineers and technicians of Petrushevskaja.

Hardly ever Norshtein, nevertheless how strongly he supported the interpretation of The Heron and the Crane as an elegy of the dying out intellectuals, wanted to achieve this particular interpretation of metaphor created by his own hands. In The Hedgehog in the Fog, which followed the above mentioned film, there is no sign of any society. Forest, fog, river, a lonely creature facing a mysterious world, which suddenly slips away and appears again, nevertheless, it has nothing to do with your existence. The understanding of existence via its absence, via lucid moment. And again – raspberry jam, samovar on the cade sprigs, incalculable stars above the head and the Hedgehog embedded into himself, who thinks about the horse: how is she there in the fog.

Maria Vinogradova who dubbed a great amount of animated films and who played a great amount of roles in the films, considered Norshtein Hedgehog to be her best role. There is so much of simplicity and confidence in the Hedgehog that it becomes the ‘satellite’ which reflects one’s personality fully. Lyudmila Petrushevskaja did the same abovementioned way; moreover she convinced everyone else that Francesca Yarbusova, Norshtein’s wife, was the drawn copy of the Hedgehog.

Discussing the motion on the meeting of animators on the studio, Norshtein cited the Divine Comedy by Dante:

‘In the middle of the journey of our life,

I re-found myself in a dark wood…’

It was more than understandable to the participants of the meeting – but the managers of the studio were not satisfied with such a whirl of events. It was hard for The Hedgehog in the Fog to get its distribution; it was on the screen of Russia cinema theatre. Everyone was impressed that during the fourteen months it captured the full house.

Norshtein in his turn doesn’t regard The Hedgehog in the Fog with favour.  Being asked about the motion, he mocks using the aphorism made up by Alexander Zhukovskiy: it is better to have a port wine in the glass, than a hedgehog in the fog, trying to convince interlocutors that while filming they were just horsing around. Moreover, everytime he emphasizes that Tale of Tales is more cherished by him.

‘This film, it lived in me long before I decided to become a director’ – admitted Norshtein in his book with the similar name.

It is impossible to retell or describe this motion. One should go through it together with the author. It was born from the childhood memories of Norshtein, from the state of soul of Petrushevska, who became a mother not so long ago, from the song Enemies Burnt Down the Native Khata, which Norshtein sang to his six years old daughter, and she wept out her eyes while listening to it, from the meditative poem of Nazym Khikmet, which gave its name to the motion:

Standing above the water –

the Sun, the cat, the plane tree, me and our destiny.

The water is cool,

the plane tree is tall,

I write the verses,

the cat slumbers,

the Sun gives out warmth.

Thank God, we live!

Brilliance of the water glows on our faces –

the Sun, the cat, the plane tree, me and our destiny.

Attempt of the authors to formulate the plot by means of the word appeared to be the following:

‘This film is about to become the motion depicting the memories.

Do you remember the length of the day in the childhood?

Every day was a separate one, the things come true to life today came true to life today, and for the tomorrow happiness one had the next day.

All the verities were so simple, all new objects were so impressive, and friendship together with comradeship was above all.

That eternal postponement of life for tomorrow, which comes to every person with years, that haphazard life, friendship is not friendship, joy, which is not accepted as joy, from the sun, snow, wind, wandering, from the cleaned plate, cats and dogs – it is just a wait till the life is over. Let’s hope it will be past.

This film depicts nothing of above mentioned.’

The story replicated: the members of the meeting are for, the managers of the studio are against. The motion was strictly prohibited like the event which is alien for the people. But the miracle happened. In three years after The Hedgehog in the Fog was distributed, authorities finally decided to award the creators of the motion with the National Prize of USSR. To put away the masterpiece, which is the laureate of National Prize was at least unreasonable.

Tale of Tales was distributed, collected the awards on international festivals. At this point the Soviet period of Norshtein creativity was over. In the year 1981 – a new one began, a period of The Overcoat creation, which is still in progress.

The Soviet Union fell apart, Norshtein was sacked from Soyuzmiltfilm studio, Alexander Zhukovskiy died, several presidents changed. And Norshtein is still working at the table or with the animation stand, creating his blissful and deliberate Akakiy Akakievich.

In the year 1989 Norshtein presented a several minutes from his working materials on the international film contest in Montreal. The frames were so phenomenal that for the first time during the festival prize was given for the working materials. For the first time the frame reached the level of its authenticity so that a new reality, available in all aspects, appeared.

From then on Norshtein diverted from his work only twice. A half and a year took to make the caption for Good Night, Kids! programme, which was displaced only after a several displays. It was explained with the fact that the accurate execution of details scared children.  Another half and a year Norshtein spent to create a two-minute film for the Japanese filmed almanac Winter Day by Bashō. Norshtein got the first haiku:

‘Reckless poems’… Autumn whirl…

Oh, how am I in my old rags

Of destitute Tikusai resemble.

With this small animated masterpiece, where Bashō meets the character he created (healer-charlatan Tikusai), Norshtein left dissatisfied.  He returned back to the work with Akakiy Akakievich.

In his sacred plans – to film one more Parable about Job and Tale of Tales. But everything in its time, after The Overcoat. Some day this time will come.

Author: Maxim Medvedev

Source: norshtein.livejournal.com


Full biography and filmography of Yuri Norstein here