June 9th, 2021

drawing, old man

The films of Yuriy Norshteyn (part 1)

Here's a little overview of the filmography of Yuriy Norshteyn (also spelled Yuri Norstein), including some new discoveries. Norshteyn is famous for having made some great animated films in the 1970s, then starting a very ambitious animated feature project, being kicked out of his studio space, and trying to finish it (on and off) for these last 40 years. In Russia, he has also been influential as an animation teacher since the early 1990s, as a member of the jury at animation festivals, and he has published a few books, including the very ambitious, pedagogical Snow on the Grass (which sold out and is on its 3rd printing, despite being quite pricy).

It has been a long time since I have seen his films. I've tried to judge them objectively, without being wowed by expert ratings, etc.

For each of the films, you can click on the images to go to that film's page on animatsiya.net, where it can be watched with subtitles (in English and as many other languages as I could find). Choose the language of the subtitle underneath the video, and click on the "Fullscreen" button beneath the video to watch in fullscreen.

Commercially, there is a 2017 Japanese bluray release that has most of them in good quality.

The Early Films (1968-1971)

Norshteyn's early films have no strong characters or stories, but are more about style, rhythm and form.



The 25th - the First Day was co-directed with Arkadiy Tyurin (who mostly worked as art director apart from this one film), and made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Norshteyn had a lot of fun in researching and selecting 1920s-era revolutionary art to bring to life. He seems to have been a great fan of the period at the time (an enthusiasm which later soured), and genuinely enthusiastic about the project. But he wasn't allowed to make it quite in the way he wished - in particular, the image of Lenin that appears throughout the film (and always seemed jarring to me) wasn't originally supposed to be in there, nor was the final monologue. There are certain scenes that are very good, where the image & music come together just right, but on the whole it is an uneven film and definitely not among my favourites. And its critics at the time were right about this: however you feel about the Russian Revolution itself, it doesn't succeed as a commemoration of it. Unless the viewer already knows what happened back then, he/she will come away from this film little the wiser about who was fighting whom, why, when, and why it was important.



Children and Matches is actually Norshteyn's solo directorial debut. Reportedly he has called it "complete rubbish", and none of the Norshteyn DVD & Bluray releases have included it. And true enough, its central idea is so crude as to make watching it something of a chore. A PSA about fire safety, it has some interesting scenes, but it does not say anything interesting. Still, if you're going to watch it, it is much more pleasant to watch the nice version that has been uploaded to archive.org (the subtitles on animatsiya.net go along with it nicely. Just download both files into the same folder and give them the same name, then opening the video file with a program like VLC should make the subtitles play as well).



Seasons, co-created with the esteemed "master" Ivan Ivanov-Vano, is simply charming. It is my favourite of Norshteyn's early period. The images are made with traditional lace embroidery, and it follows a young couple through the different seasons of the year. Though again, it is without any strong characters; it's more about the music, the rhythm, the images. It is unclear who did how much, and why Norshteyn doesn't really talk about this film. In the credits of the film itself, Norshteyn is listed as director and sole animator, and Ivanov-Vano as artistic supervisor. But on his own website, and on animator.ru, Norshteyn is only listed as animator, Ivanov-Vano as director, and the contemporary festival awards were given out to Ivanov-Vano. Norshteyn has characterized his relationship with Ivanov-Vano as "not warm, but respectful". Maybe they had some sort of falling-out over this film? If so, it is a shame, because it deserves more attention than it has received.



In The Battle of Kerzhenets, Norshteyn teamed up with Ivanov-Vano again (he claimed in a recent interview that he did most of the actual work and 90% of the animation). The film uses music from Rimskiy-Korsakov's opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (perhaps his best opera, but one not really performed outside of Russia for some reason). But it does not use the story of the opera, nor the underlying legends, nor any specific historical event. Like the other films from this period, the content is not the focus, the form is. The characters are abstractions primarily defined by how they look (the dignified, elegant, pious, brave Russian knights - the Mother Russia/Virgin Mary with child - the barbaric, terrifying, alien Mongol horde). The events in the film are likewise an abstraction of the "general historical era" around the 13th century when the Mongols attacked many Russian cities. In the original Kitezh legend, the Mongols find the citizens of the city all praying for salvation instead of preparing a defense, and it works - the city sinks below the waters of a lake, where the Mongols cannot follow. In the opera, there is first a terrible battle, then the pious Fevroniya prays for salvation and the city is hidden in the fog. In this film, my interpretation is that there is a terrible battle which the Mongols win, then they ride away (their objective of punishing/subjecting the city having been accomplished), while the remaining population begins the hard work of rebuilding. That does square with history - as long as their subjects were loyal and paid their taxes, the Mongols generally left them alone.

The best part of Kerzhenets, like with Norshteyn's earlier 25th, is the rhythm and inventiveness of the battle scenes. And the impressive art direction that is based on ancient frescoes, again by Arkadiy Tyurin. As a story, it is thin and it can be hard to feel invested in it. But it is better than 25th - The First Day.

The Storybook Films (1973-1975)

Although married to Francheska Yarbusova since 1967 (they had met while working on a film in 1966), Norshteyn never teamed up with her professionally, with him as director and her as art director, until 1973. Once he did, his films changed radically, and their focus shifted away from abstract ideas and towards the characters. It is here that the excellent character animation (that he has since become famous for) makes an appearance in his own films - although he'd had practice in other people's films, including in Cheburashka (1971). Indeed, throughout his most productive decade of the 1970s, Norshteyn not only directed and animated most of his films but also worked on 15 films for other directors as animator.



Fox and Hare was Norshteyn's second film as solo director, and a great improvement over his first in every way. I have thought for a long time that it was my favourite film of his, critical acclaim of the later ones notwithstanding. I still think so. It strikes just the right balance in so many things - it is stylistically interesting, has wonderful musical melodies, great narrative rhythm, sympathetic characters, great character animation (so many hilarious details!), and a well-balanced story. I think it just might be the best Russian animated film made in the 1970s - and it has plenty of competition there.

I subtitled it 13 years ago. I still think my translation in a number of ways is better than the one in the bluray, which is kind of stilted.

Norshteyn has released this in book form (in both Russian and English). The book and its illustrations are great by all accounts, and more kid-appropriate than Hedgehog in the Fog. But it is not so easy to get (only directly from the US distributor of his studio or their eBay account), and expensive, particularly the international shipping, which is over twice the cost of the book itself.



After Fox and Hare, Norhsteyn was given a choice of which storybook stories to adapt, and chose the most unusual ones he could until he finally refused to do any more. What is unusual about the original Heron and Crane story (I owned a version of it when I was little) is its unresolved, unsatisfying ending. I quite like Norshteyn's Heron and Crane now, even though Fox and Hare remains my favourite. Like the earlier film, it also has great music, good characters, good art direction, and good narrative structure.

But I didn't used to like it so much. Perhaps I was too young to really appreciate the characters and their portrayal. Or perhaps because of its more detailed art style - important details get lost unless it is seen in high resolution. Also, for a long time, it did not make sense to me that the two characters lived in abandoned, disintegrating Greco-Roman ruins. I understood that it was meant to be metaphorical, but it seemed implausible if taken at face value, not symbolically. Nowadays, this no longer bothers me because I can imagine that their home is some former aristocratic mansion that has been abandoned and left to the elements. This was definitely a deliberate choice - I think the characters are meant to represent some sort of former aristocrats, or former nobility. With their self-sabotaging sense of pride, even as their home falls apart around them.



As far as most professional critics and animator colleagues are concerned, Hedgehog in the Fog is Norshteyn's second (sometimes first) most acclaimed film. And yet, watching it, it goes much more in fits and starts than the previous two storybook films. Both in terms of scenes, and musically, it is more abrupt. Unlike the previous two, there is a narrator only at the beginning and end, while a long section in the middle is mostly wordless.

Despite marvelling at the animation, and the visual warmth of much of it, something about it always left me a bit empty. And I think I now know what it is: the main character takes in, gets confused, gets lost, thinks he's found enlightenment, realized he hasn't, received the kindness of others... yet through it all he never GIVES BACK to anyone he meets (except perhaps for bringing the berries to his friend the Bear Cub at the end, but I think that barely counts). Through it all, he's entirely focused on himself. Perhaps Norshteyn got more and more drawn to those sorts of characters - it seems to be a progression in his films.

In Fox and Hare, although the Hare starts out living alone, and then tries to solely rely on others' generosity, none of that works - he ends up helping the rooster, fighting for himself and his friend - and only then do they both triumph and live thereafter in friendship. In Heron and Crane, the two characters are more distant, proud and self-centered, yet we see throughout the film that they clearly care for each other and help each other, even if their pride doesn't allow them to show it openly much of the time. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is mostly self-centered, self-contained, and only barely has a connection to the Bear. He ignores his calls when in the fog, then at the end just sits silently while the Bear does all the talking.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Norshteyn's next project (after Tale of Tales, which is semi-autobiographical) would centre around a character who is even more alone and selfish than Hedgehog, except that in this story, while he starts out innocent and benign (basically because he has neither the resources nor the opportunity to be of any harm to anyone), this selfishness, once given the chance to flower, is what eventually brings his utter ruin.



Thank you for reading! In part 2, I'll write about Norhsteyn's greatest critical success, Tale of Tales, about his aborted project with Fyodor Hitruk, the saga and current state of The Overcoat, and his other, more minor projects in the years since.

P.S. The blog Animation Obsessive also wrote about Norshteyn last month, with some good details.
P.P.S. The host of animatsiya.net is having some nameserver issues at the moment, so the site randomly does not load ~50% of the time. I hope this will clear up soon. Meanwhile, just refresh the page and try again if it doesn't load.