20 Years of Toil, 20 Minutes of Unique Film

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

MOSCOW -- Watching Yuri Norstein's animated film "The Overcoat," even on Sputnik-era reel-to-reel equipment, the viewer gets a sense of why the film, odd and arresting, has been 20 years in the making, and is still not finished.

Norstein uses a technique in which handmade figures are shot on multiple glass planes -- like paper dolls photographed in 3-D. He refuses to use computers to speed the work and he has come to be called the golden snail for his slow, ardent perfectionism. He is considered by many to be not just the best animator of his era, but the best of all time.

In one scene, an insignificant, solitary man hustles through a snowscape that is almost liquid, shining with a murky, preternatural light. Once he returns to his hovel, the man scrutinizes the holes in his coat in a way that makes him seem alive.

No computer, Norstein insists, could generate such imagery.

Only 20 minutes of film, based on Nikolai Gogol's short story of the same name, have been completed since Norstein began the project in the 1980s.

Yet a quarter-century after he finished his archetypal, imagistic "Tale of Tales," there is renewed interest in his work in Russia and abroad.

The first exhibit of his work at the Moscow Museum of Private Collections this month is being followed in June by a book called "Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator's Journey," by Clare Kitson, former head of animation at Britain's Channel 4.

"The Overcoat," a suspenseful fable about a small, humiliated soul whose life and then death become a struggle for an overcoat, has taken up most of Norstein's middle age and now beyond. He is now 63.

The film -- in its entirety -- is eagerly and wearily anticipated, yet financing the project has proved as difficult as the psychological wear and tear of the film's theme.

"Even if the film 'Overcoat' is never finished -- and I expect it will be finished -- what Yuri Norstein has done is enough to be seen as the greatest animator in the world," says Alla Bossart, art and film critic for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "You won't see anything like 'Overcoat' anywhere else."

The nerve center of Norstein's life -- both as a filmmaker and as the husband of artist and collaborator Francesca Yarbusova -- is their studio. Drawings of little gray men scratching backs, scratching noses and picking up spoons cover the walls. Yarbusova draws the figures and imbues them with a haunting beauty and sense of loss.

"We are tied together and we are interdependent," Norstein says, sitting in his merrily cluttered kitchen, the walls covered with photos, sketches, an icon, bric-a-brac and shelving spilling over with videos. "I draw all the compositions, but this is the dry soil which must then be filled with feeling. We have scandals and rows. But now her work is on display and she says to me, 'It is all you -- you were guiding me.' "

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