The Worldview of Youri Norstein

From a small flat in Moscow.

By Karen Rosenberg.

Youri Norstein with his multiplane animation stand in Moscow.

January 1988. A modern complex of high-rise apartments in outer Moscow. A small flat has been partitioned to create more living and working space for animator Youri Norstein, his wife Francesca Iarboussova, who is the artist for his films, and their family. By the dining-room table stands a bookcase laden with art albums, many from friends abroad. We are having dinner, a colourful array of dishes that I know has required hours of waiting in line in stores.

Youri Norstein believes in hospitality. In Tale of Tales (1979), his longest and most famous film, a traveller is invited to a table under a tree. “As in any decent society,” noted Norstein. One source of inspiration for this scene, he recalled, was “Georgian Song” by the Soviet singer/songwriter Boulat Okoudjava. Norstein recited it to me, gradually adding more of the tune, until he sang at full voice, spontaneously and unselfconsciously:

I’ll bury a grape seed in the warm earth, I’ll kiss the vine, I’ll pick the ripe clusters, I’ll call my friends together and tune my heart to love… Otherwise what is there to live for on this eternal earth? Guests, come together and enjoy my food and drink, tell me directly to my face how you feel about me. The Lord of Heaven will send me forgiveness for my transgressions… Otherwise what is there to live for on this eternal earth?

“I wanted this scene to contain eternal elements, without which life is empty and meaningless,” Norstein remarked to me.

The utensils and crockery on the table in Tale of Tales aren’t merely utilitarian objects, he explained, but represent a set of values. The jug under a grape vine is not only a container for liquid but a sculpture of a woman who must be filled. In much ancient art, he reminded me, the female figure was depicted with heavy breasts and a large belly, which suggest sustenance and new life which comes from the womb. The inhabitants of this society – the Biblical figure of a fisherman, his daughter who plays jump rope with a benign bull, his wife who takes care of the household, and a poet with a lyre – enjoy a tranquillity that is clearly Norstein’s ideal. By using a different graphic style – influenced by Picasso’s 1935 pastoral cycle – for this community, the animator implies that it exists on another plane. War interrupts its eternal harmony, but from the peaceful world a little wolf manages to take a sheet of the poet’s paper which, when rolled up, turns into a swaddled baby. “Once a child is born, that world is preserved,” Norstein stated.

War is not the only destructive force in Norstein’s worldview. There is an important scene in Tale of Tales in which a family rests in a park on a winter’s day. The parents sit on a bench while their child eats an apple and enjoys his fantasies. But then the drunken father drops his bottle of alcohol, ruining his son’s reveries. The Napoleon hat that appears on the man’s head symbolizes his domination of his wife. She, in turn, pulls her son, making him lose his apple. And the little boy completes the circle by imitating his father, so he wears a Napoleon hat as well. “That’s what’s horrible today: it looks like nothing is happening, but people are engaged in mutual destruction,” Norstein declared to me. “Children’s dreams can be squelched in a moment, as we try to compensate for our inadequacies by means of petty triumphs over others.”

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