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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.' "

"Francesca participates in the movies as much as Norstein," Bossart says. "The two of them are one artist. He couldn't exist without her."

Norstein and Yarbusova collaborated on the children's film "Hedgehog in the Fog" and "Tale of Tales," an associative dreamland where Picassoesque bulls jump rope and baby wolves rock babies. Lamplight -- shining onto the street through doors and windows as if in a vision -- figures prominently.

Despite its simple beauty, "Tale" was not made with children in mind. In the sequence imagining the huge losses Russia experienced in World War II, couples dance to the famous tango "Weary Sun." Every time the old record skips, one man disappears from the frame and then the women dance alone.

Norstein says "Tale of Tales" is a film about the way memory is conjured up. He says the role of the artist is to allow people to "experience life yet unlived. This is the most significant thing we can get from art."

Fans like to watch the film again and again. "I have seen it many times," says Yulia Zotova, 42, who attended the exhibit of Norstein's work in Moscow. " 'Tale of Tales' evokes these emotions in me. I've always been fascinated with the character Little Wolf because he's a symbol of wisdom and love. My impression is that spiritually we are searching for this wisdom and this love and we find it in his films."

In the last quarter of a century, the film has inspired filmmakers, animators and writers. In June 2002, the Zagreb International Animation Festival published the results of a poll of animators to establish the best animated film of all time. It was "Tale of Tales." A 1984 poll of animators came up with same result.

When "Tale of Tales" first appeared in 1979, Soviet censors found the film too mysterious for their liking, and it was banned for a while. Norstein says he holds no real grudges against the censors, and he prefers to rail against what he sees as the crass impulses of today's movie industry.

"There is no artistic freedom because artistry has been replaced by ignorance," he says.

Norstein says he cannot watch computer-generated animation; it makes him sick.

Following him into his film studio is a trip back in time. Piles of silver reel-to-reel canisters, tall as a man, rest behind the editing table. Norstein demonstrates his technique by shining an office lamp's light through charcoal-colored cutouts of St. Petersburg buildings.

"I'll never use a computer," he says proudly.

The room seems arrested in time, as if it, too, awaits the resumption of "Overcoat."

When will "Overcoat" be finished?

"This 'Overcoat' film began at the most inappropriate time of perestroika," Norstein says, referring to the period before the breakup of the Soviet Union, when money for artists dried up. "I always had difficulty with my bosses doing it on time and the removal of fees. But I never gave up on the film."

The plot: Akikiy Akakievitch, a clerk scorned by his colleagues, spends much of Gogol's story trying to acquire a new overcoat. He succeeds, but after a night out with his fellow office workers, he is attacked and his new coat is stolen. He falls ill with fever. After his death, an apparition haunts the city, forcing rich and poor alike to give him their overcoats.

"Maybe it's because it's Gogol," Norstein says, chuckling at the knowledge that the writer went mad. In any case: "Psychologically, 'Overcoat' is a very difficult film."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company