Soyuzmultfilm, the largest and most famous animation studio in Russia, is known to Americans solely based on its slow moving fairy tales seen in kids’ TV packages throughout the 1960s. Less familiar are its cartoons produced for adult audiences, usually of varying degrees of anti-capitalist and civic propaganda, overt and covert. Such films were often set at a brisker pace and employed more challenging art direction than the ones made for children. Here are some outstanding examples:
MISTER WOLF (1949)
The staging and literalized animation in this Soviet razz at capitalist greed are on the ambitious scale of the Fleischer Superman cartoons. The characters are based on designs by Boris Efimov (1899/1900-2008), the premier Soviet political cartoonist, internationally famed for his ridicules of the nazis. By Victor Gromov, a director between 1945 and 1954.
THE CASE OF THE ARTIST (1962)
In 1962, Khrushchev made his antipathy toward abstract art publicly clear. But since the death of Stalin, the cultural atmosphere had become more tolerant. While it was not recognized by the state, “unofficial” art was permitted to live as its own movement. This propaganda piece equates abstract art with Western falseness, but it is clear that the film makers adored that art. Some of the best abstract painting in animated film I’ve seen. There is even a spoof of Jackson Pollock at work. By comparison, the “positive” realist art for “the people” comes across as falsity, especially at the wind-up. The moral is ironic, and the artists involved most likely knew it. Grigory Kozlov had been with Soyuzmultfilm since from its 1936 opening as animator, and began directing in 1960.
THE SHAREHOLDER (1963)
The common working man suffers under the lofty platitudes and base injustices of Western capitalist society. Whatever your reaction, one thing cannot be denied: Once the film progresses to the ‘modern day’ part of the story, the visuals, conceived using a small pile of American magazines as points of reference, startlingly anticipate the French comics and MTV imagery of over 20 years later. Roman Davydov had been directing since 1948.
FAMILY CHRONICLE (1961)
In a very mid-century milieu, this “Fairy Tale for Adults”, about a spat between newlywed cats, is meant to inspire co-operation in married life. Leonid Amalrik had directed the landmark racial injustice short Black and White in 1932, and had been directing at Soyuzmultfilm from its start.
THE BENCH (AKA “THE BANK”) (1967)
His communist sympathies made Danish cartoonist Herluf Bidstrup (1912-1988) unlikely to receive widespread popularity in the West, but his work is still well loved in Russia. This short is based on his drawings. There is much human observation in the animation, masterfully directed by Lev Atamanov, director of the most ubiquitous Soviet feature, The Snow Queen, in 1957. Beatles songs are lifted from the soundtrack of Yellow Submarine to represent the values of the “new generation”.