The human memory does not operate in a straightforward, linear manner. We do not remember events in neat chronological order, nor do we always immediately understand the meaning behind what we are seeing. Our memories are a jumble of seemingly-random but ultimately connected images, sporadically jumping between remembered places and moments, associations triggered by the repeated appearance of deceptively mundane but eerily familiar objects. There is much to be learned from exploring the unfathomable depths of the mind, and Russian animator Yuriy Norshteyn's 'Tale of Tales' strives to do exactly that.
In 1984, in an event held in conjunction with the Los Angeles Olympics, the Animation Olympiad jury attempted to recognise the single greatest animated film of all time. Despite a wealth of worthy candidates, one film was ultimately crowned with the grand title: that film, of course, was 'Tale of Tales.' Two decades later, at the 2002 Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films, the same film was honoured with the same prestigious title, confirming beyond doubt that time has done nothing to dampen its beauty. Norshteyn's masterpiece is a triumph of stunning animation, ambient sound and a stirring classical score. Despite being held in such high regard by so many animation experts, I was surprised to discover how rare and under-seen this film actually is. Only via the internet was I able to watch it, and my hearing about it in the first place can be put down to blind luck. Needless to say, I am infinitely grateful that I did stumble upon the film one day.
'Tales of Tales' is comprised of a number of related sequences, which are interspersed within each other. The film uses several recurring characters, most notably the poet, the little girl playing jump-rope with the disheartened bull, the young boy feeding apples to the crows, the dancers and the soldiers, the suckling baby and, of course, the little grey wolf (voiced by Aleksandr Kalyagin). The meanings behind the film's poignant images are somewhat beyond words, and, even if you have absolutely no desire to try and decipher the rich symbolism, you can still simply sit back and take in the awesome beauty. The sequences involving the dancers are most certainly an allegory for Russia's involvement in World War Two. The vanishing male dance partners, replaced by hooded Grim Reapers who retreat solemnly into the distance, highlight the enormous human losses the Soviet Union suffered on the Eastern Front.
The original title of the short, 'The Little Grey Wolf Will Come,' was derived from a traditional Russian lullaby, which is featured in the film in both instrumental and vocal form: "Baby, baby, rock-a-bye / On the edge you mustn't lie / Or the little grey wolf will come / And will nip you on the tum / Tug you off into the wood / Underneath the willow-root." This title, however, was ultimately rejected by the Soviet censors, and Norshteyn was forced to choose another one. He eventually decided upon 'Tale of Tales,' the title of a poem by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, of which the director had been a fan since 1962: "We stand above the water - sun, cat, plane tree (platanus tree), me / and our destiny. / The water is cool, / The plane tree is tall, / The sun is shining, / The cat is dozing, / I write verses. / Thank God, we live!" The film employs an original music score by Mikhail Meyerovich, supplementing his contributions with the classic works of Bach, Mozart and the World War Two era tango, 'Weary Sun,' written by Jerzy Petersburski.
Curiously, 'Tale of Tales' completed in 1979 is the most recent film directed by Yuriy Norshteyn. This, however, does not mean that he has not been working hard. Ever since 1981, the director has dedicated most of his time to producing 'Shinel / The Overcoat,' his 60-minute labour of love, adapted from Nikolai Gogol's short story of the same name. Throughout a production period plagued with interruptions and financial difficulties, Norshteyn's ardent perfectionism has earned him the nickname, "The Golden Snail." A release date for 'The Overcoat' is currently uncertain, but, if the magnificent 'Tale of Tales' is anything to go by, we are all in for a treat!