The Mystery of "Mystery-Bouffe"
Very little information seems to exist about "Mystery-Bouffe" (Мистерия-буфф), a 60-minute animated feature made in 1969 at Kievnauchfilm studio (the first-ever Ukrainian animated feature, but one that saw only a very limited release and was banned outside of Ukraine). The image above is the only screenshot from the film that I've been able to find.
It was directed by David Cherkasskiy, who is most famous for the 1980s "Treasure Island" feature and Doctor Aybolit series (funny anecdote related by Cherkasskiy: "My passport says, rather amusingly, 'Cherkasskiy, of Cherkasskiy region, Cherkasskiy oblast, city of Cherkassy'. And when I travel out-of-country, nobody who looks at this believes it. They think that I'm a spy, but probably not a very clever one from a poor country.")
This blog post is my attempt to gather and translate all the information that I could find about the film "Mystery-Bouffe".
It was based on a political play of the same name by the great Russian poet and playwright Mayakovsky that was first written in 1918 for the anniversary of the Revolution (Wikipedia article here). Mayakovsky wrote in the preface to the second 1921 edition that "in the future, all persons performing, presenting, reading or publishing Mystery-Bouffe should change the content, making it contemporary, immediate, up-to-the-minute."
This quote by Petri Liukkonen describes its content fairly well:
In Mystery-Bouffe (1918), a religious mystery play which mocked religion, the poet described a struggle between two groups, the "Unclean" working class and the "Clean" upper class. The earth has been destroyed by a flood, the survivors seek refuge at the North Pole. The "Unclean" defeat the "Clean" and create a workers' paradise on Earth, where people "will live in warmth / and light, having hade electricity / move in waves." When Mayakovsky later tried to make a film of the play, the project was rejected by the Moscow Soviet because of its "incomprehensible language for the broad masses."
(this was in the 1920s; Cherkasskiy's film came much later)
Interview by Svobodanews.ru (2007):
David Cherkasskiy: I have one political film
Viktor Shenderovich: Which one?
David Cherkasskiy: "Mystery Bouffe", which I worked on with great delight. But not because it was political, but because it was based on a work by Mayakovsky, whom I adored then and adore now.
Arkadiy Gartsman, August 19-25, 1995
There are legends circling about Cherkasskiy, but here is a true story told to me by the famous humourist and stage dramatist Robert Vikkers: "In the year 1949-50, on the name day of a [female] school friend, I was introduced to a very active young man who declared that he was a director. "Here," proclaimed my cameraman, "is a young director, you will write a screenplay for us. We'll meet in a week..." They met only after 20 years, when working on the first Ukrainian animated feature, "Mystery-Bouffe". So Vikkers did, after all, write a screenplay for the director Cherkasskiy.
Natalia Venzher in the book "Our Animated Films" (2006):
The third directorial work of the young master [Cherkasskiy] became a real event, not only for Ukrainian, but for all Soviet animation; it was new in thought and in execution, but was half-forbidden then and, unfortunately, underrated. The feature-length adaptation of Mayakovsky's "Mystery Bouffe" was a daring project, both in thought and in realization. I would very much like for lovers of animation to see this film, and for art historians to remember it. The method of combining actors with cut-out and drawn animation was later used by Cherkasskiy in the feature film "Treasure Island" (1986-1988).
Maxim Deputatov writing for major Russian DVD company "Krupnyy Plan" (2006):
In his next, this time feature-length film, [Cherkasskiy] adapted one of the most free-thinking and underrated works of Vladimir Mayakovsky - "Mystery Bouffe". This work became trully revolutionary - Cherkasskiy for the first time used a technique that later became one of his favourites: the combination of live actors with drawn and cut-out animation. Besides this, in the live-action portions of the film, which took the form of visual pantomime - a rare and inventive genre for Soviet theatre - the actors were those of the Moscow Taganka theatre, which at that time attracted the most intense attention of audiences and the government alike. As a result, Ukrainian bureacrats accepted the film, but the USSR State Committee for Cinematography did not.
Smekhov Veniamin, "Theatre of My Memory", Chapter 15:
David Cherkasskiy (today a famous film director) made an animated film called "Mystery-Bouffe". The film was excellently-made, rich in genre, music, art, with smart and clown-like humour. It needed to be voiced. Mikhail Davydovich Volpin suggested to David (who was inexperienced back then) to turn to me. After my work with Y.Lyubimov's production about Mayakovsky, both Erdman and Volpin came to trust in my "Mayakoknowledge". I recruited our actors, and a joyful recording of the voices for the animated film commenced. Of which I informed Lily and Vasily, adding that I did not know why "Mystery-Bouffe" became banned in Moscow. "I do know why," said Lily. "It created a furor in Kiev. In Moscow, they gave it to [award-winning Soviet film director Sergei Yutkevich to watch, and Yutkevich reacted very negatively. And Yutkevich, as you know, is a very influential figure". This arbitrariness seriously angered me back then: an enormous work, an original interpretation, success among colleagues in the director's "place of registration" in Kiev, and to suddenly squash him like a fly... I shared my consternations with L.Y. Maybe master Yutkevich should not single-handedly decide problems of artistic merit relating to Mayakovsky, considering that his own film version of "Bath" was, to say the least, not the biggest contribution to culture?
Lana Kuybine, "Focus" No.7, March 6, 2008:
With Censureship and Without
The studio [Kievnauchfilm] was considered an ideological organization, and so animators suffered from censorship no less than cinematographers. When a screenplay was ready, the film was sent to Moscow for approval, and only then did filming begin. Basically, a 10-minute cartoon passed through [many trials]. The bureacrats of the Soviet Ministry of Culture decided how many copies of the film were to be made: the maximum distribution was 1500 theatres. This number guaranteed that the whole population of the USSR would become familiar with the film. If the ruling bureacrats noticed dissent, the film was either released in limited, local, Ukrainian distribution, or put on the shelf. Yevgeniy Sivokon's films "Good Name", based on a screenplay by Felix Krivin, and Tale About the Kind Rhinocerous, based on the poem by Boris Zakhoder, suffered this unfortunate fate, as well as David Cherkasskiy's film "Mystery-Bouffe", based on Mayakovsky's play. The director [Cherkasskiy] cannot figure out to this day what the reason for the censoring was. Animated films had to strictly follow the class ideology; everything else, in the best-case-scenario, was asked to be edited.
David Cherkasskiy, August 19-25, 1995:
Say what you will, but I could have gotten a Guinness certificate. I'm not even talking here about the amount of films that I have made, but the amount of parts. A normal director will make about 10 parts in his whole career. Maybe 15. Maybe even 20, though it's unlikely. But not 45! (one part = about 10 minutes - A.K.) Our "Mystery Bouffe" was 5 parts, "Vrungel" was 13, "Treasure Island" was 11. "Mystery" was our first multi-part film. Taganka Theatre voiced it. The recording was all done in Moscow. After that, I became friends with all of the actors, especially with Shapovalov, Smekhov and Dykhovichny. I always tend to like the actors with whom I work. All, or almost all of my films, are voiced by Kievian artists such as Eugene Paperny, Zhora Kishko, Boris Voznyuk, Vlad Zadniprovskiy, Dodik Babayev, Vitya Andriyenko, Valera Chiglyayev... not even mentioning Zinoviy Yefimovich Gerdt and Armen Borisovich Dzhigarkhanyan. It is easy for me to work with actors. I don't give them any difficult tasks or have hidden layers. Animation, in general, should be simple, like mask theatre. Although a director like Norshteyn does have hidden layers. And also, for some reason everyone loves me. This is probably a bad thing. They say that if the conductor hates the musicians, and the musicians hate the conductor, that this is excellent. But with me, it's the opposite.
Mark Tsybulskiy, "The Voice of Vysotskiy" (2002-2006):
For a long time, it was considered that Vysotskiy took part in the creation of the animated film "Mystery-Bouffe", filmed at the Kiev studio in 1969. This opinion was eventually contradiction by the film's own director, D.Cherkasskiy, who said in a conversation that "the script for this film was acted by all the actors of the Taganka Theatre, except for Vysotskiy, who was out of town at that time."
P.S. Animator.ru translates the title for the film into "Buff's Mystery", and this has been picked up by BCDB as well. This is absolute nonsense; not a single scholar translates the title of Mayakovsky's play that way. Animator.ru title translations are like that; sometimes they're good, and sometimes they're ridiculous. Different people translate them; it's a big job that isn't all that easy (translating films is easier than translating titles). I translated the ones from 2005-2008, so any errors in those are my fault.