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Skazka skazok (Tale of Tales)

What is Skazka skazok about? About simple ideas, given the strength to live.
Yuri Norstein

Skazka skazok is, in the rather obscure world of artistic animation (beyond Disney, beyond Sailor Moon), one of the most amazing works of art you have never heard of. In 1984, thirty-five journalists, scholars, directors, and animation programmers chose Skazka skazok as the best animation out of a pool of international animations at a film conference held in Los Angeles in conjunction with the Olympic Games.

It is a 29-minute animated film made over a period of several years in the late 1970s by Soviet director Yuri Norstein, his wife and artist Francesca Yarbusova, composer Mikhail Meyerovich, and a host of others who contributed but whose names are not terribly prominent. Norstein uses a particularly time-consuming method of stop-motion animation, drawing each character as a collection of body parts which are set upon panes of glass. The background and other things in the scenes are positioned on other layers of glass, thus creating depth of scene. For each frame, the pieces are carefully moved with tweezers. Thus, twenty-nine minutes of footage over three or four years.

Origins of the Film
In 1976 Norstein told writer and playwright Ludmila Petrushevskaya that he wanted to make a film about his childhood during the war. Petrushevskaya wrote about his proposal:

But, Yura! Forgive me, but when the war ended, you were four. I was nearly seven on Victory Day. I was a beggar, a homeless little girl of the war. I lived with my granny and aunt, without light, we lived off rubbish heaps. I saw everything. In the night on the ninth of May, 1945 I heard from below, from the pre-dawn darkness at four in the morning, cries and shooting. I rushed outside barefoot. In the gloom people were running. All day they sang, danced, drank, cried, carried the bandaged-up, wounded men out from the hospitals on their shoulders. Music was playing - accordions, orchestras, gramophones. In the evening they arranged a real fireworks show over the river Volga.

Regardless of Norstein's lack of distinct memories from the war years, Petrushevskaya agreed to write his script, and he began sharing his ideas with her. Norstein's reasons for approaching Petrushevskaya were likely influenced by his belief, stated in Sneg na trave, that animation is closer to literature and theater than to cinema.

In the late summer of 1976, Norstein and his close friend and camera-man Aleksandr Zhukovskii visited Marina Roshcha, the Moscow suburb where Norstein had spent much of his childhood. The area was nearly abandoned, as it was soon to be demolished. It was quiet, and Norstein described the atmosphere "as if I stood on the floor of a departed sea." Zhukovskii took more than a hundred photos as the two men wandered through the yards of the old houses, among piles of broken and abandoned furniture.

Besides the strong nostalgia he was feeling for his childhood home, at the time Norstein was interested in Picasso and reading the works of several poets - Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda and Nazim Hikmet. In particular, Petrushevskaya recalled, Norstein loved one of Hikmet's poems, entitled in English "Fable of Fables." When Norstein's original title, I pridiot serenkii Volchok (And the little gray Wolf comes), was rejected by censors who deemed it too threatening, he decided instead to call it Skazka skazok, or "Tale of Tales," after Hikmet's poem.

Plot Structure
Skazka skazok consists of four storylines, or episodes, between which it switches back and forth, until the last several minutes when they begin to blend together.

The first storyline is the main one, based around a character called "volchok." "Volchok" is a diminutive form of the Russian word "volk" (wolf), an excellent example of how it is possible in Russian to add an affectionate diminutive to any word.

In one interview, Norstein was asked what animals he identifies himself with. He replied, "Home, and the woods, and campfires, and the little hedgehog, and the volchok. But, probably most of all I associate myself, really, with the volchok. I know for certain that the volchok lived in our communal apartment."

The volchok in the film, however, finds himself outside the house, in the abandoned courtyard, reflecting, perhaps, Norstein's feelings regarding the loss of his childhood home. Scenes of the volchok in the yard are interspersed with what seems to be going on inside the house, a baby nursing at a breast while a voice sings a lullaby:

Baiu-baiushki-baiu, ne lozhisia na kraiu.
I pridiot serenkii volchok, ukhvatit za bochok,
I potashchit vo lesok, pod rakitovyi kustok.

(Baiu-baiushki-baiu, don't lie near the edge.
The little gray wolf will come and grab you by your side,
And drag you into the forest, under the willow bush.)

The volchok's storyline segues into a second storyline; this one perhaps based more on Petrushevskaya's childhood memories. In this storyline, couples dance in the street, beneath a single streetlight. Suddenly, however, the men disappear and the women remain frozen in place as a troupe cloaked figures with rifles move away in the lower right of the screen. Later some of the men reappear, but a number of the women remain frozen and alone. Triangular, folded letters flutter in from the sky - pokhoronki (from the word "pokhorony" (funeral)) - letters informing families of the deaths of their sons, husbands and brothers. In one interview, Petrushevskaya confessed that the scene with the pokhoronki always makes her cry, and she is surely not the only one.

The tragic effects of the war found in the tango storyline are in opposition to the third storyline, which directly shows the influences of Picasso and the three poets, Lorca, Neruda and Hikmet. The scenes shown are of an idyllic family life on the seashore. A young girl jumps rope with a bull who is recognizably influenced by Picasso's sketches. Her mother rocks a baby in a perambulator while her father sits at a table, talking with a poet and a traveler. A cat sits under the table, reaching up for some fish.

Where the bull storyline seems to portray a large, extended family, the fourth storyline involves a little boy eating an apple in a park, surrounded by falling snow. The falling snow here echoes the rain present in the first and main storyline. A man and woman are also present and sitting on the park bench, the mother speaking while the man drinks. Their words are not audible, only their mouths move. The little boy sits in a tree with the birds, eating an apple. The father throws down his bottle in the snow and marches off; the mother pulls her child after her, they follow the man. There is no interaction between the man and the boy, but a military style hat to match the one the man puts on appears on the boy's head as well.

We now return to the idyllic bull storyline, where the poet's table is - in continuity with the general lack of logic found in dreams - now both inside the volchok's house and outside beneath the tree. The infant turns away from the breast to look at the volchok, its eyes struggling to stay open. It appears that the infant is caught between waking and sleep, much as the film at this point is caught between two storylines.

A crucial point comes midway through the film when the volchok passes through the glowing door of the house. After the volchok crosses this threshold, the scene shifts to the bull storyline, and the various storylines begin to merge. The table at which the poet and the fisherman sat is now inside the volchok's house. The volchok reaches for a piece of paper on the table; it begins to glow. He takes it and rolls it into a scroll, then runs away, across a highway and into the woods, where the paper turns into a swaddled infant, which begins to cry and howl.

The volchok now fulfills the lullaby sung earlier in the film, taking the baby into the woods and laying it beneath a bush. This only makes it howl louder, so he carries it further into the forest, where a cradle appears beneath another bush. He puts the baby into the cradle and croons the self-referential lullaby, quieting it temporarily. As rain begins to fall in the forest around them, the view pans across the forest and focuses on a golden apple lying amongst the fallen leaves.

Many elements of the film come from Norstein's childhood, as well as the childhoods of Petrushevskaya and Yarbusova, but the film itself describes the loss of innocence and ultimately, the end of childhood, caused by the war. Just before the final credits a train is shown passing under a bridge. In real life, the bridge was located near Norstein's home and covered with boards. Running across it once, he fell through and was hurt badly enough to require surgery. For Norstein, this bridge signifies the end of his childhood.

Because the film grew out of Norstein's nostalgia for his lost home in Marina Roshcha, ideas of family and home are central to the film. "Home is the main theme of the film," Norstein wrote in Sneg na trave. "There is also the theme of the apple, the theme of the volchok, the theme of the courtyard, the theme of the war, stitching together the film in three places, the theme of childhood…" The apple, he continued, connected together the various scenes; in the final scenes apples fall "like manna" from the sky. "In some mythological text," Norstein wrote, "I read that apples in the snow speak of sadness."

One of the themes running through Skazka skazok that Norstein does not mention is that of want, of need, of loss and lack. This is mainly shown through the volchok, who always seems to be on the outside, looking in. Eventually the volchok becomes an agent of the loss, by taking the paper which becomes the baby. If the volchok represents the war, taking the baby symbolizes the war's detrimental effect on the future generations. If the paper belongs to the poet, then the volchok has stolen his creative work, which might seen as a representation of writer's block - the paper, after all, appeared to be blank. As the paper turns into the baby, it can also symbolize that the creative work of the poet is, in a sense, his child.

Once the film was finished, the same authorities who had nay-said the original title of I pridiot serenkii volchok also delayed the release of Skazka skazok. Eventually, however, they could not keep it under wraps. In 1981 it was released in theaters, shown in series with several other multfilms. Word spread, and, as Petrushevskaya reported, tickets were scarce and it became common practice for the audience to talk during the films preceding Skazka skazok, maintain a reverent silence during it, and to simply walk out once it was finished. Norstein and his team had created a work beside which all others paled.

In bringing together their childhood memories, Norstein, Petrushevskaya and Yarbusova created a synthesis which expressed the memories of the generation who had been children during the Second World War. Like memory, the film is scattered, fluidly switching between images on the whim of a stray neuron, but it always returns to those themes which were most impressed upon the brain during its youth. These most poignant images, of the dancing couples, or the persistent whistle of the train which is always rushing somewhere, never stopping, have the quality of childhood memories. Yarbusova's artistic style blurs the edges, reflecting the "thirty-year height" from which the memories are viewed. The lullaby, too, helps to transport the audience backwards in time to childhood, to when they were the baby in arms, looking curiously at a world as yet unknown.

Should you wish to see this film, as a few people have asked, there is a series of videos (or dvds) entitled "Masters of Russian Animation," one of which is the complete works of Yuri Norstein. Vol. 5, I believe. It is available on amazon.com, and possibly in your local library. Also, I notice on amazon.com a book entitled Yuri Norstein And Tale of Tales: An Animator's Journey by one Clare Kitson, who probably duplicated all of my research and managed to meet Norstein as well, since it says she's been researching him for two decades...

Adapted from my undergraduate thesis, Reflections of Russian Culture: Soyuzmultfilm and the works of Yuri Norstein

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