It is obvious from the way Norstein speaks these words that they are not empty platitudes for him. The power of his films may well come from the intensity of his beliefs. His work is not mere graphic design or a personal “recherche du temps perdu” although his films draw on folk motifs and his childhood memories. For him, as for many Russians, art is the repository of spiritual and moral values, and animation is, quite simply, a branch of art; although it can please children, it is not directed primarily at them. Of course, Norstein is not the only Soviet animator with such a conception of his craft, but he is a major proponent of this point of view. The success of his films – especially of Tale of Tales – with adult audiences has helped animation to be taken more seriously in the USSR, as well as abroad. Tale of Tales ran for about fourteen months at the Moscow moviehouse “Rossiya.” In 1984, on the occasion of the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, it was voted the best animated film of all time by an international jury of 35 film scholars, festival directors, and programmers – a fact which has not gone unnoticed in the USSR.
Like many of his earlier films, Tale of Tales plays with Russian folklore in a manner that is too sophisticated for most children. The lullaby that is sung at the beginning of the work warns a child to fall asleep or he’ll be carried off by a wolf. But Norstein’s character moves in counterpoint to the lyrics; his wolf is no frightening, threatening creature. He doesn’t steal a child but a piece of paper which, to his surprise, is transformed into a baby. Then his role is one of preservation and protection. Like a new father, he’s confused and awkward when a life suddenly appears before him. Unsure of how to stop the newborn’s crying, he puts down the bundle, takes it up again, and then rocks it at different speeds in a cradle he comes across in the forest. Finally, to comfort the child, he sings the same lullaby about the bad wolf – an ironic moment.
Like many animators, Norstein has an excellent eye for human gesture. But it is his use of other visual devices that makes his films exceptional. The Soviet critic Michel Iampolski has noted that his camera movements are unusually complex for animation. This is partly due to the fact that Norstein’s animation stand permits the camera to move horizontally as well as vertically – a rare feature. Or perhaps one should say that Norstein designed such a stand because he wanted the ability to explore the represented space. Iarboussova, who graduated from the art department of the Moscow film school (VGIK), plans her drawings with the filming in mind. And Norstein works very closely with the cameraman, the third member of his intimate three-person team. The sense of mystery in Tale of Tales derives in large measure from the slow panning of the camera within a space whose contours are not revealed until the end of the film.
“In Tale of Tales,” Norstein told a Boston audience in 1987, “I wanted to convey a spiritual experience.” Perhaps his main means of accomplishing this is light. An intense brightness, spilling from an open doorway onto a dark corridor, draws the little wolf into the scene where the poet sits with his lyre. How did he achieve this halo-effect around the doorway? Norstein told me that the doorway was placed on the top level of his multiplane animation stand and a white sheet of paper was put on the second level, a little lower down. Then this white paper was overexposed. The poet’s world was bathed in an unearthly amount of light by another method. This pastoral scene was shot, Norstein explained to me, on extremely light-sensitive high-contrast film which makes half-tones as light as white areas. In this way, the total white area was increased. When the little wolf leaves this radiant world, he carries a paper that also shimmers with light. (One might say that the poet’s paper is magical even before it turns into a baby.) This effect was accomplished by yet another means. “We directed a light at the paper that was six times brighter than that directed at the other objects in the frame,” Norstein revealed.
The little wolf is softened by another kind of light. He becomes a guardian of the hearth as he is depicted next to a cooking stove where a fire burns. Later, outside in the cold, he roasts potatoes in an open campfire – a scene that recalls his domestic role and thereby emphasizes that the war has destroyed a home. The vibration of the flames should attract the viewer’s attention because Norstein has used live-action footage to heighten the campfire’s intensity. (The multiplane animation stand which he designed allowed him to do this.) As the little wolf is illuminated by the fife’s peculiar glow, he acquires some of its comforting warmth.
“For me, the most important thing in film is light,” Norstein told me in Moscow. It is not surprising, then, that Rembrandt, that master of chiaroscuro, is one of his favourite artists. Norstein’s layered cutouts may be attempts to imitate Rembrandt’s richness of texture, which he admires. (The animator has glued celluloid to paper, applied watercolours to aluminium foil, and scratched acetate to achieve a depth and variety in his films.) And the choice of Rembrandt as a model suggests that Norstein aspires to produce not just art but great art through animation.
Norstein’s current project, a feature-length film, reflects such ambitions. He has taken on a 19th-century Russian classic, Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat.” Its hero, Akaki Akakevich, a lowly scribe in the Czarist bureaucracy, is the butt of jokes by his colleagues, who would never dare tease their superiors. “Leave me alone, why are you insulting me?” is Akaki’s famous cry, which every Russian schoolchild knows. Norstein told an interviewer for the Soviet film journal Iskusstov kino, “I’m continuously trying to remember the feeling of horror I experienced in my childhood when I read that sentence for the first time. The horror of powerlessness.” Judging from the ten-minute work print I saw, Norstein’s Akaki will have the long twitching nose and the small paws of some little forest creature. By making him move like a scurrying animal, Norstein underlines Gogol’s warning about what man can be reduced to.