Watching the work of Russian animation master Yuri
Norstein (born 1941) provides a salutary shock to the system. These days,
animation comes in two dominant forms. Either it slavishly imitates the conventional
combination of live photography and cinematic editing (complete with illusory
camera movements); or it opts for a comfortable, clear abstraction in which we
see figures moving against a washy pictorial background. (I set aside Japanese anime here as an entirely separate and
belongs to a global movement in animation that reigned during the 1960s and ‘70s,
including such figures as Norstein’s compatriot Andrei Khrzhanovsky and the
Polish-French Walerian Borowczyk. Today, only Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay continue
this tradition. The essence of all their work is a teasing game with the illusionism common to most mainstream
these filmmakers conjure rich illusions of imaginary worlds, they also keep
bringing us back, firmly, to the fact that everything we see is purely a constructed,
collage-like image. Paradoxically, this increases the hallucinatory and surreal
effects of their finely detailed work.
can see this process, achieved with devastating clarity and power, in
Norstein’s Battle of Kerjenets (1971). Working from historic frescoes and other archival material, Norstein
brings alive this episode of war – but in a deliberately jarring, never
completely realistic way. He even emphasises the marks and cracks in the images
he is borrowing. And when his soldiers fall down, this is achieved simply by
having a two-dimensional cut-out tip over.
animation aims, above all, for smoothness of mood and coherence of style.
Norstein, an unselfconscious modernist, prizes ruptures on all levels,
including the use of a stop-start musical score. In his masterpiece Tale of Tales (1979), he went so far as
to juxtapose several works-in-process, each with its own, distinct drawing
style. And this creates a constant gear-change between different levels of texture
celebrated Russian theorist Mikhail Iampolsky described Tale of Tales as “a film about memory, absorbing within itself the
tender and the tragic, poetry and grief, interlacing our past with the present in
a fantastic synchronisation”. This “polyphonic quality of history”, he
suggested, is “embodied in the actual figurative structure of the film”.
worked in a period when it seemed that, of all the forms and style sof cinema,
animation was leading the way in experimentation and innovation. Yet his own
career within Russia was a troubled, frequently hampered one. We can be amazed
today at the political suspicion which the authorities exercised towards such a
seemingly whimsical folk tale as Heron
and Crane (1974).
the same token, nothing is ever what it seems in Norstein’s cinematic art. His
animations are a superb example of the iceberg principle: only a small part is
visible on the surface, and the rest is hidden underneath, hinted at via
allusions, juxtapositions and mental leaps. His films, like no other, draw the
viewer into this grand work of the imagination.
© Adrian Martin January 2004