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The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda

The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda

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drawing, old man
This is the only surviving scene from The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda. It would have been the first Soviet animated feature film; a film-opera with a score by Dmitriy Shostakovich, directed by Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy. Work was started in the early 1930s and everyone involved was very excited about the project. However, the film was killed by three blows: first, the denunciation of Shostakovich's music in the 1936 edition of the newspaper "Pravda", leading to a forcible termination of his contract to finish the score; second, the first screening of Disney's cartoons in Moscow in 1934, and the subsequent government consolidation of all animation studios into one big one (Soyuzmultfilm) and decree that animators must from now on only imitate Disney's style (whereas this film was the culmination of the independent development of Soviet animation in the 1920s and 1930s, and was certainly not in Disney's style. For more see my previous post about this period in history); and finally, the destruction of almost the entire (still unfinished) film in a fire during WW2.

All that's left is the "market scene":

Soviet animation: The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda (+English subtitles) from Niffiwan on Vimeo.
(original video without subtitles can be downloaded here)


Above: The demon from a later part of the film that was destroyed.

There's also a CD which has 50 minutes of Shostakovich's score for the film. On the Amazon profile, you can listen to some of the other parts which would have been in the film. The music is very good.

Some things that stood out to me:
-The teeth. Wow, people didn't brush their teeth too much, did they?

-The rhymes (written by the poet Aleksandr Vvedenskiy). As the sellers shout out their wares, the religious items are made to rhyme with some pretty funny "mundane" things. For example, a woman shouting "kresty zolochonyye" (golden crosses) is followed by another seller yelling "yabloki mochonyye" (marinated apples). The most brazen example is when a man who's selling a picture of a fat Venus boasts that her chest is uncovered, and is immediately followed by a woman selling a picture of the holy archbishop boasting how curly his beard is.

-The soldier is portrayed much more respectfully than the baroness or the general.

I wish to thank the Youtube user loshchshch, who originally uploaded this video that I had been searching for for months, and who gave me a link to a higher-quality version when I sent him a message. He also recommended reading an article about this film that appeared in the 2002, № 57 issue of "Киноведческие записки" (unfortunately, that particular article is not available online).

There is another interesting story in connection with this film. In 2006, for the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich's birth, there was to be, for the first time, a public presentation of this opera. Not as a film, but as a ballet. However, once again this masterpiece was never shown; the performers were forced to cut out all the scenes featuring the priest, a central character in the story. Why? Because the newly-powerful Russian Orthodox Church objected to the portrayal of the priest and also insisted that Shostakovich "wrote the music to this tale not of his own will". Is this true? Judge for yourselves. Here is a quote from the liner notes to the above-mentioned CD by Deutsche Grammophon:

[Shostakovich] was immediately fascinated by Tsekhanovsky's concept: "The screenplay ... has succeeded in retaining satirical sharpness and the entire palette of Pushkin's ... work of genius tale ... The film is sustained at the level of a folk-farce. In it there is a mass of sharp, hyperbolic situations and grotesque characters ... The tale sparkles with fervour, lightness and cheerfulness. And to compose music for it was likewise an easy and cheerful task."

Tsekhanovsky's diary entry records vivid details of the collaboration: "Shostakovich played excerpts from Balda: the dialogue of Balda with the Devils. He played powerfully and precisely. It was as though his fingers were extracting precious stones from the instrument ... He likes my 'scenario', and he went about his work like an inspired, first-rate artist." Shostakovich was also satisfied with his music for Pushkin's tale. Never before or since did he come into such close and immediate proximity to the Russian folk-tale element, to folk intonations and rhythmics; and this encounter lent his work a special freshness, energy and splendour.

"The content of the tale itself and the artist's concept defined the character both of the musical language - in the manner of a folk-fairground and a merry-go-round - and of the entire film", the composer recalled. "Perhaps after The Tale of the Priest is shown on screen, I will again hear reproaches from certain musical critics at my superficiality and mischief, at the absence of the real human emotions that 'at long last' materialized in my Lady Macbeth. But what should we consider as human emotion? Do only lyricism, grief and tragedy count? Surely laughter also has a right to this honourable title?"
  • (Anonymous)
    Thanks for the subtitles!
    This version is badly interlaced, and it's a bit blue/dark. I have a file of this market scene that isn't interlaced and look a bit better (I think) but the file size isn't great. It must be somewhere on YouTube too.

    Anyway this small scene is amazing. I love the design, it feels like traditional, but modernized. There's nothing like it. Just look at how the cat moves at the end! It's so sad Disney style had to put a end to emerging new styles. This could have been true greatness.
    -Saturnome
    • Do you have a link to the better version, by any chance?

      Or if you have it on your harddrive, could you upload it somewhere, such as on mediafire.com?
      • (Anonymous)
        It's right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVSWMWZugis this version, despite the small resolution, is way better; watch the fluid animation.
        My own comment there reminds me that isn't there more that survived? I read various account that 4 or 6 minutes survived. The Market scene is 2:30.
        I've seen other adaptation of the tale since then, nothing as pretty as the first try.
    • You're right, it's much more fluid (although the sound doesn't quite match up and it's in an incorrect aspect ratio).

      I'd really like to find out the original source for that video, if it exists somewhere.

      Unfortunately, the person who uploaded it doesn't allow anyone to send him a message unless they're a "friend". Well, I left a comment to the video... I hope he answers.
    • If I find a version with better image quality, I'll replace that file on Vimeo.
  • weird but awesome!
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