Yuri Norstein:
The Tender and the Tragic


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 complex tradition.)

Norstein, whose greatest work (so far – he has been working on The Overcoat since 1981) hails from the 1970s, has never settled for one of these modes over the other. He mixes them up from moment to moment, and the effect is extraordinary. Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) takes us from passages of pure abstraction in which a confused hedgehog is lost in a void, to densely detailed evocations of chaotic bodily movement within the physical world.


Norstein 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 animation.


Although 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.


One 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.


Contemporary 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 and emotion.


The 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”.


Norstein 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).


By 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

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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