Fables from a Russian lair

July 26, 1996

In the last of our series on favourite films, Keith Griffiths savours the richness of Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales. The Russian filmmaker Yuri Norstein has made only a handful of short animated films, although every one is a masterpiece; his work proof that a personal cinema can still exist alongside an increasingly commercial one.

His greatest work evolves from an "atelier approach" to production, where his home is his workshop. Like many animators, Norstein creates nearly everything himself. He writes his own scripts and then works closely with his artist wife, Francheska Yarbusova, designing the backgrounds. These make use of a variety of techniques, including cut-out characters, cell animation, live action and a multi-plane camera, which give an extraordinary depth to his pictures.

His most ambitious and memorable film is Tale of Tales (1980), a minute work that took 18 months to create and is both narratively complex and visually rich. Many have argued that the film is incomprehensible and excessively complicated, but its structure, though dense, is in fact tautly and precisely constructed.

Tale of Tales is not only about memory but about the nature of memory itself. It is a film about Norstein's own childhood in the late 1940s, about events that really took place and deeply touched him. It is as though the animator has a headful of images stapled to his unconscious and has found a way to liberate them. In it he is able to express in poetic form a subjectivity about the memory of childhood with a freedom that many use only in writing a letter to a close friend.

Animals are often the central characters of his films, but they are not cartoon creatures. They are tenderly created and shaped to reflect human emotions as well as the specific nature of the animal itself. The central character in Tale of Tales is a little, wide-eyed wolf-dog and the film is filled with fragments of life seen from his perspective. The narrative is based loosely on a Russian lullaby that warns young children not to wander from their mothers "or the wolf will take them deep into the forest".

Alone in its cold winter house, deep in the forest, the little dog passes through a doorway of blinding white light and leads the viewer out into a dimly remembered reality. We witness a typical family argument in a snow-covered park, an idyllic summer supper in the open air and couples dancing the tango under the stars at night. That is, until war intrudes and the men, now soldiers, leave their women behind. The skies flood with news from the front, announcing the loss of loved ones and when the tango returns we recognise that only a few males will ever return. In few films has the horror of war been represented more eloquently.

Intercut, the little wolf-dog observes a baby at its mother's breast and steals it by mistake, believing it to be a bundle of poems. Later he rocks the crying child to sleep, deep in the wood, the fringes of which a crazed modern automobilised world is threatening to invade. In one of the most memorable animated scenes of all time, the dog bakes potatoes on a twig fire and scalds his paws attempting to eat them while they are still too hot. A classic moment from everyone's childhood brought vividly to life.

Norstein is clearly not interested in films with a defined plot and does not wish to reduce his vision of the world to conform to such formulas. Nor does he believe that audiences are necessarily estranged from films that reveal our universe in a fantastic and metamorphosised way.

With his experimentation and innovative combinations and contrasts of image and sound, Norstein reminds us of the unique depth and range of storytelling upon which the cinema can draw. Perhaps more than any other short film, Tale of Tales has also drawn attention to the fact that the animated film has a language which is quite distinct from - and far richer than - that of mainstream cinema.

Keith Griffiths, an independent producer, is principal visiting lecturer at the Northern Media School, Sheffield.

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