Russian emigre animators

About halfway between Western and Orthodox Christmas (January 7), it is worth to remember some of the Christmas-themed cartoons. The very first Christmas animated short was made by the stop-motion pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz back in 1913. The Insects’ Christmas (Рождество обитателей леса) tells a dreamy story about a toy Father Christmas (Jack Frost, Дед Мороз) who leaves his Christmas tree and visits a frozen forest to bring the holiday spirit to creatures who live there. A frog, a ladybug, a dragonfly, and other insects join the party, get presents, skate, and have fun.

The Insects’ Christmas 1913

Silent, with English subtitles

Directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz

Produced by Aleksandr Khanzhonkov

The Bug Trainer is a documentary film about Starevich produced in Lithuania. Interviews with film critics from Russia, Poland, Norway, and Lithuania are joined by an animated quest of the puppet Bug who falls in love with another puppet, the Lion Queen (uniting Starevich’s early films featuring bugs and his later masterpiece, The Tale of the Fox). The film is a mixed bag, and its animation  – unlike the one of Starevich – is the weak link. There is even an effort to depict Starevich himself to create surreal cinematic environment that does not look too convincing. On the other hand, the film features some rare shots of Starevich, fragments of his works, and brief bio. Sadly, his work during the 1940s-1950s is barely described. The film is serves as an introduction to works of the inventor of stop motion animation and tries to engage viewers describing the world of animated puppets. Recommended with reservations.

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is one of the most influential Russian writers. Several of his short stories were adapted for animation. Particularly appealing for the Soviet animators were Gogol’s early stories influenced by the Romantic-era interest in nationhood and folklore and inspired by the Ukrainian legends and customs (Gogol was born in Poltava province, in what now is Ukraine). There are about 10 Soviet/Russian animated shorts based on Gogol. The Nose is one of the Petersburg stories (that include famous The Overcoat). The story consists of three parts; in first a barber finds a nose in his bread and tries to get rid of it. The second part is about the Major Kovalev who finds “only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been”. Kovalev goes to a newspaper office and police trying to locate his nose. He meets the Nose, who is now a high-rank official in the Kazan cathedral. At the end a policeman returns Kovalev his nose, but if fails to stick back. In the third part, Kovalev wakes up and excitedly finds his nose in its proper place. The Nose is one of the most grotesque and unique masterpieces of the Russian literature.

This version of Gogol’s The Nose was filmed in France by Alexandre Alexeieff who was born in Russia but spent most of his life in France. Alexeieff invented pinscreen technique and pioneered in using for animation. In Le Nez he managed to create a rich grayscale palette with deep shadows reminding engravings. The smooth wordless animation shows a dream-like story.

World of police and civil service play a prominent role in many Gogol’s works, including The Overcoat, Dead Souls, and The Government Inspector.  To underline the Kafkaesque world of imperial bureaucracy, Alexeieff emphasized the disturbing presence of the ever seeing figure of an official in a bicorne hat.

Authoritarian Nicholas I, the adept of a rigidly centralized bureaucracy.

Le Nez, 1963


Part 1

Part 2

There are at least two other animated versions of The Nose.

A Nose, 1966 by Mordi Gerstein

English adaptation

Adapting Gogol to the visual media is extremely challenging due to the role of language in his works. Beautiful mixed technique animation short by Mikhail Lisovoi preserved narration in the film.

The Major’s Nose (Нос майора), 1997 by Mikhail Lisovoi

Russian, no subtitles available

Over a century ago viewers already enjoyed animation in Russia.  Ladislas Starevich (Władysław Starewicz, born in Moscow to Polish parents in 1882) was a photography and entomology enthusiast. Employed by the Museum of Natural History, Starevich, passionate about new media, created a series of documentaries. For one of the films about stag beetles, he had to create puppets out of insects. Lucanus Cervus shot in 1910 was the first stop-motion effort of Starevich. The animation effort was highly praised by one of the first Russian producers, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. Soon other animation shorts followed featuring puppets created out of insects, wire, and wax. Early viewers sometimes assumed that films featured live insects were trained by Starevich

The first feature stop-motion film by Starevich

1910 – The Beautiful Lukanida (Прекрасная Люканида, или Война усачей с рогачами), a parody on early history blockbusters.

1912 – The Cameraman’s Revenge (Месть кинематографического оператора), a parody on melodrama

1911 – The Insects’ Christmas (Рождество обитателей леса)

1913 – The Ant and the Grasshopper (Муравей и Стрекоза) based on Aesop’s fable

Like many artists, Starevich moved to France after the Bolshevik revolution. Unlike many Russian directors and actors, Starevich built a successful career in cinema and animation in the interwar period. Some of his works include:

1923 – The Frogs Who Wanted a King – based on the fable by La Fontaine

1930 – The Tale of the Fox / Le Roman de Renard  – the first full-length animated film

1934 – The Mascot – a story of a  puppy that was so popular that Starevich was asked to create a series with the same character.


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