For Norstein, the denigration of human beings is not a historical problem. “In ‘The Overcoat’, Gogol chose the most painful situation in the modern world,” reads the published scenario for the film, written by Ludmila Petrushevskaia with Norstein’s help. Yet that doesn’t mean that Norstein sees his film as a coded attack on the Soviet state alone. First of all, the practice of getting around the censor by using hints and allegory is, he thinks, an unworthy goal for an artist. “As a result,” he told me, “sincerity is utterly lost.” And, second, he isn’t drawn to films which criticize the socio-political ills of the moment. They are needed but, unlike works of art, will not last long, he believes. For Norstein, “The Overcoat” is relevant today in a more philosophical sense. “I have the feeling,” he said to me, “that Gogol intended this work to live on into eternity so that if there were an ideal society – which is, of course, impossible on this earth – its inhabitants might peer into this black abyss into which they, too, could tumble if they were to lose their conscience and their compassion for others,”
Norstein’s Akaki Akakevivch will, I think, evoke compassion because he is a character of considerable complexity. In his own way, Akaki is an artist: Norstein depicts him at home, copying documents with a carefulness, tenderness and joy that are lovely as well as pathetic and absurd. This scene, in which the hero’s face is transfigured by light as well as by his expressions, is a brilliant work of animation. Animator Caroline Leaf, who also saw it, caught both its humanness and its humour. “We don’t know whether to laugh at him or to feel pity,” she told me recently. Indeed, that uncomfortable meeting of emotions seems to be what this film is trying to build. “Sometimes defencelessness is funny,” reads the scenario.
“A small work of art can give people the ability to comprehend life’s essence, its tragedy, in a condensed form,” Norstein told me. Belief in the mission of art has probably prevented him from abandoning The Overcoat despite a host of obstacles. He began the film in 1982, but work halted for a year because the cameraman wasn’t receiving the proper salary; then sickness held up progress; and finally the Moscow animation studio took over Norstein’s work-area because he had exceeded the time allotted to him. For a while, he had to support himself on meagre lecture fees, but since October 1987 he has been receiving his salary again. The Soviet Filmmakers Union has allocated money for the film out of its Gorbachev-era fund for independent productions but, as of this writing, the Moscow City Council (Mossoviet) still hasn’t come up with an alternative workspace.
Although he has been offered facilities in Europe to complete the film, Norstein wants to stay in Moscow, where his family, colleagues, and friends help him with advice and emotional support. For, despite his acquaintance with the history of world art, he is clearly at home only in the Russian intelligentsia. Its traditions, its values, and its vocabulary have formed both him and his works. “If we try to free ourselves too quickly from everything which hampers our comfort,” he told me in Moscow, “we can lose the most important things in life as a result.”
Over the years, he has learned to stick to his principles and wait. On his first film, The 25th, The First Day (1968), he made concessions which he prefers not to discuss. “I learned from that,” he told me. “I vowed never to compromise, even in small ways.” When Tale of Tales turned out to be almost thirty minutes long, rather than twenty minutes as the scenario called for, he was asked to cut any ten minutes from the film. “I categorically refused,” he recalled, and the film sat on the shelf for half a year before it was released. “That’s not a long time in our cinema,” he added.
Because Norstein works with a small team, invents new methods, and re-shoots some scenes, his films may not fit into a normal production plan. But the results also transcend the usual. Conscience, sincerity, compassion, life’s essence, spirituality -these are the animator’s key words. Among Russian filmmakers, perhaps only Tarkovsky has succeeded as well in giving philosophical ideas visual form.
The Overcoat update
The French television company La Sept and Yuri Norstein have recently signed a contract to enable The Overcoat to be completed.
In 1984 Louisette Neil recorded a programme with Yuri Norstein in Moscow. It was broadcast by La Sept the year after. The programme was a great success and resulted in Jerome Clement’s decision to help produce Norstein’s film The Overcoat. It has taken several years to clarify the terms of the co-production but it is understood a contract was signed by both parties in May. Yuri Norstein hopes to finish the film by 1996.
The author would like to express her gratitude for the help of Louise Beaudet, Inna Kisseleva, Caroline Leaf, Eliot Noyes and the late Charles Samu, without which this article could not have been written.
Karen Rosenberg is a contributing editor of “The Independent, A Film and Video Monthly,” published in New York City, and often writes on Soviet cinema.
Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)