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The Lost Letter (1945) - the first Soviet traditionally-animated feature

The Lost Letter (1945) - the first Soviet traditionally-animated feature

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drawing, old man
The premise: A Cossack living in the southern part of the former Russian Empire (what is now Ukraine) is tasked with delivering a letter to the Empress, and must journey to the imperial capital of St. Petersburg. Along the way he stops at a fair and makes friends with a tall and wild Dnieper Cossack. Only during the night does he find out that his new friend has demonic enemies. When a demon runs off with the letter that he is to deliver to the Empress, the Cossack must chase after him through a landscape that grows more and more hellish.

Made during the darkest days of World War II, this is (by some definitions, anyway) the Soviet Union’s first traditionally-animated feature film, practically unknown and unseen outside of the former USSR until now. It follows the story of the same name by the world-famous Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, also using fragments from his stories "May Night, or the Drowned Maiden", "The Fair at Sorochintsy", "A Bewitched Place" and the libretto from Shostakovich's opera "The Nose" (I found this out the hard way during the translation work, by searching for the original source of every bit of dialogue in the film. An interesting decision by the screenwriter to use so many different sources... he could be creative this way, yet still say that practically every line was written by Gogol).

It is co-directed by the Brumberg sisters, who are one of the most notable examples of prominent female directors in animation. Active from the 1920s until the 1970s in the Soviet Union, they directed 41 films and specialized in films that were mid-way between shorts and features. The third director is Lamis Bredis, who earlier adapted "The Elephant and the Pug". "The Lost Letter" does not feel quite like any of the prior or subsequent works that these directors made, and is also not typical of USSR animation from this time; it is not political satire and yet seems to be somewhat aimed at adults. (actually, this was one of just 4 animated films released in the USSR in 1945)

A memorable scene from the end of the film is of the Cossack riding the demonic horse. The fantastic animation of the black stallion serves as a counterpoint and interesting contrast to the more well-known animation of the white mare in the animated feature "The Humpbacked Horse", directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano in 1947. In fact, there were three outstanding horse animators working at Soyuzmultfilm at that time: Nikolay Petrovich Fyodorov (1914-1994), Roman Vladimirovich Davydov (1913-1988) and Grigoriy Mitrofanovich Kozlov (1915-1988). Fyodorov specialized in “aerial” horses, and was responsible for the scene of Ivan’s first meeting of the flying white mare in "The Humpbacked Horse". Of the three, only Roman Davydov was listed in the credits of The Lost Letter, and it is therefore likely that the animation of the mad, demonic stallion was his work. Another link to "The Humpbacked Horse": the character design of the king's advisor is a bit like that of the witch in this film.

I recommend watching the videos fullscreen, because the image is un-restored and is a bit dark. To turn on the subtitles, click on the triangle in the lower right of the video and turn on CC.





Some notes on the translation work: this took me a while, both because of the colloquial nature of much of the dialogue and because I tried my best to do justice to Gogol's beautiful descriptive prose. As an aid, I read "The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol" on Google Books (but I did not use that translation except in one or two phrases which seemed impossible to translate otherwise).

Here are some notes on the literary sources: Most dialogue and narration comes from either "The Lost Letter" (Rus, Eng) or "May Night, or the Drowned Maiden" (Rus, Eng). "The Fair at Sorochintsy" (Rus, Eng) is the source for the lines "May you choke, you worthless bum" ("чтоб ты подавился, негодный бурлак") in Ch.1, and the Dnieper Cossack's story about the demon who was banished from hell ("выгнали одного черта из пекла"), in Ch.7. "A Bewitched Place" (Rus) is the source of the Cossack's dialogue as he's swimming through the swamp ("А, шельмовский сатана! чтоб ты подавился гнилою дынею"). The libretto from Shostakovich's opera "The Nose" (Rus) is the source of "собаке, по утру рюмку водки выпить, вмешаться", in the scene with the trees. (EDIT 2011-08-08: correction - that line actually first appears in Gogol's "Christmas Eve": Rus)

The only English-language review of this film that I've found was written by Ben Ettinger on AniPages Daily in 2005, who talks about the distinguishing traits of the animation style: "What's impressive about these designs is that they strike a fine balance between the realistic and the stylized, gravitating more towards the realistic. The animation is typically fluid for this period, the forms loose and elastic, but the acting is reined in and lacks the homogenous overreaction that puts me off to a lot of animation of this period, focusing instead on realistic expression and creating a feeling of realistic movement less through body weight than through close observation of gestures. The animation felt much more potent for being focused."

A perfect illustration of this can be seen in 0:17, part 3, when the Cossack's robe gets stuck between the two trees. He starts taking it off, pauses, sighs, puts it back on and pulls to get it out. In a less realistic film, he would have just left it behind.

Film profiles: IMDB, Animator.ru
  • Incredible

    (Anonymous)
    Thank you for translating this wonderful film! I was absolutely blown away. I'm a recent graduate from an animation school in Boston, and an amateur student of animation history.

    I'm just now learning about the sheer breadth and quality of work coming out of Russia that none of my professors or peers ever told me about. This film sets me down a path to learn more about the Brumberg sisters.

    Is this film in print in any sort of remastered form on DVD? I don't mind watching it without subtitles. I could inquire at my local Russian shop.
    • Re: Incredible

      Thanks for the reply.

      It was indeed released on DVD, a few times. The best image quality was on this one.

      Until 2008, this film was in the public domain. (before Russia retroactively updated its copyright terms to what the US wanted - previously, Russian films until the year 1952 were P.D.)

      As for the Brumbergs, you can search for their other subtitled cartoons here (click on the "Director(s)" column to sort alphabetically), and their unsubtitled ones can be found here. "Samoyed Boy" from 1928 is a particularly impressive early effort.
  • where disappeared story about this movie on cartoon brew?

    where disappeared story about this movie on cartoon brew?
  • Thanks

    (Anonymous)
    Thanks for posting and translating that. It's hard to watch for American eyes because we don't know all the cultural nuances and implications of what is going on.

    But fascinating to see none-the-less.
    • Re: Thanks

      Yes, I realize that it's quite a culture shock. If you don't understand anything in particular, feel free to ask about it here and I'll try to answer.

      This animated feature is from the far south of Russia. Here's one that feels very different, which is from the culture of the far north (from near the White Sea):
      http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/3063.html
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