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DVD SAVANT

Animated Soviet Propaganda
From the October Revolution to Perestroika


Animated Soviet Propaganda
Jove, Soyuzmultfilm; distriuted by Kino
1924 - 1984 / B&W + Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 6 hours. / Street Date March 20, 2007 / 89.95
Disc artwork and design by Yelena Burnett
Translator Julian Lowenfeld
Executive Producer Oleg Vidov
Director, Writer Producer Joan Borsten

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Say the word "Propaganda" and you'll get a number of different reactions. Any movie with a point of view will be called propaganda by someone strongly opposed to that point of view, so there's little to be gained by labeling one film 'evil brainwashing garbage' and another film 'a helpful advocacy documentary.' The newspapers are presently debating whether the feature film 300 is pro-war pro-brutality, or anti-war and pro-insurgency. Box Office and Brutality seem to be winning.

When the WW2 Why We Fight series of morale boosting 'informational films' was shown on TV in the 1980s, Frank Capra appeared in person to defend the charge that his pictures were, in terms of pure facts, just as distorted and dishonest as the hateful Nazi films of Leni Riefenstahl and others. Capra insisted that Why We Fight was planned as a weapon of war, not as the entire truth. The fact that he was using his filmic talent on the side of freedom and justice is what made the difference.

Americans label as nonsense the idea that a filmmaker can show them a picture and influence what they think, but Madison Avenue advertisers have had success operating on that principle for a full century now. The word propaganda in Spanish means an advertisement, after all. And the idea of mind control doesn't stop with non-fiction. Whenever a critic feels that a film is pulling them in an unwanted emotional or intellectual direction, the director is charged with being 'manipulative.' What the mass public finds acceptable to view has a definite effect on how we think.

Children of the Cold War heard many stories about nasty Soviet propaganda but were rarely if ever shown any. We were instead brought up on oddball bits of American anti-Soviet propaganda, which filtered down into television shows and genre films. We were told that the Soviet Union was evil and wanted to take over the world. The worst examples of Hollywood's anti-Commie films -- The Red Menace, Red Planet Mars, Big Jim McClain and Invasion U.S.A. -- were enough to make one give special preference to what the other side had to say. According to our propaganda, the Russians were spewing out a constant flow of lies. The crazy humor of Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three is actually not so crazy ... most of its satirical jabs at both the West and the Soviets have a basis in truth.

The new disc set Animated Soviet Propaganda: From the October Revolution to Perestroika serves up six hours of original, uncut animations designed to mold public opinion within the Soviet Union. All are from Moscow's Soyuzmultfilm Studios, which apparently specialized in animation. The contents will have an instant appeal to animation fans curious to see techniques from behind the Iron Curtain. Moscow animators copied Disney and Fleischer trends just as did everyone else. Historians will look for parallels between what was happening in the Kremlin and what showed up in the films. Lenin proclaimed film as the best medium to 'inform' the masses of the glorious collectivist future, and the collection allows us to see cinema theories put to the test. Interestingly, the less experimental films in the collection tend to communicate better.

Most importantly, the collection demonstrates that American anti-Communists were justified in considering the Soviets a serious threat. Soviets always presented their expansionist policy after WW2 as a process of freeing the workers of other countries from colonial rule. Faced with an all-powerful America with nuclear weapons, the USSR rationalized their oppressive domestic policies by emphasizing the presence of their enemies.

Frank Capra's Why We Fight justified Total War on the simplistic choice between A Free World and a Slave World, graphically presented on screen as light and dark parallel globes. Animated Soviet Propaganda -- aimed at Russian citizens -- makes the dramatic case that complete Utopia will only be possible when the Fascists and Capitalists have been defeated. The 'perfect' Communist state is the center of all human progress, but it is under constant threat by terrible villains and monsters.

The discs include extras coordinated by Professor of Film Sociology Igor Kokarev. In an insert booklet, Kokarev presents a basic primer of life under the Communist Party leaders. News, discussion and even mail from outside the nation was prohibited and Western publications held by libraries were viewable only for specific studies. Radio and television were controlled and filtered by the Party. The society was ruled by fear, secrecy and censorship. Citizens censored their own thoughts before speaking. Public conversation adhered to slogans and acceptable discourse, and private political thoughts could be expressed only in hushed tones.

The animated film was another weapon in the Totalitarian war of ideas. In a Soviet Union where over a hundred languages were spoken, moving pictures communicated ideas better than words. Animated cartoons were also ideal to teach small children. The influential power of film is undisputed, even here. Only a few years ago, Americans still subscribed to the idea that if something was on TV, it had to be true. Responsible people were in charge, right?

The films are divided by disc into four basic groupings. This list follows the actual contents of the discs, not the incorrect order given in the insert booklet. A straight chronological order may have been more desirable but this arrangement works well enough.

Contents:

AMERICAN IMPERIALISTS

BLACK AND WHITE (1933) Whenever the collection criticizes American racism, its credibility goes way up. We start with this shocking, graphic exaggeration (?) of America as a land where slavery still rules.

MISTER TWISTER (1963) This poem-based tale uses cute animation to tell the story of a racist American who rejects a St. Petersburg hotel room because a black man is in the next room. This is a fine film, except for the fact that racism can be found in any country. I don't see why Russia should call herself an exception.

SOMEONE ELSE'S VOICE (1949) Loving, Bambi-like animation becomes a hideous endorsement of intolerance and conformism. A bird 'back from abroad' is publicly thrashed by an angry mob for singing decadent jazz instead of traditional songs. Just the sort of oppressive horror we expect from the late Stalinist period.

AVE MARIA (1972) This anti-Vietnam piece cheats by contrasting beautiful music and religious images with American horrors. Yankee fat cats celebrate Christmas while their evil Air Force bombs helpless civilians. Faceless soldiers gun down Vietnamese tots holding baby dolls. Propaganda doesn't get any more savage than this -- the film was clearly designed to be shown to Russian children.

MR. WOLF (1949) An odd, not entirely mean-spirited story animated in a style reminiscent of a Fleischer Superman cartoon. A frightened millionaire and his family escape to an "Island of Peace." But the American forgets his commitment to pacifism as soon as his fortune is threatened.

THE MILLIONAIRE (1963) This nasty satire has a bulldog inherit his master's fortune. He soon behaves like the rest of the Capitalist creeps, barking at peaceniks with the rest of his Wall Street cronies, etc. Because he's rich, the dog can urinate on a cop and receive a smile in return. He ultimately finds the perfect location to practice his corruption, the U.S. Congress.

SHOOTING RANGE (1979) This truly hateful show uses Zap Comics- style imagery to present a fable of an unemployed young American (with an English sports car!) who finds a job in a Times Square shooting gallery -- as a target. The evil Capitalist eventually gets the idea of letting the boy build a family, and employing them all as targets to be shot at.

FASCIST BARBARIANS

KINO-CIRCUS (1942) Hitler is caricatured and lampooned in three blackout skits. The Russian stage emcee looks like Charlie Chaplin, but we're told he's a caricature of the famous Russian clown Karandash.

FASCIST BOOTS ON OUR HOMELAND (1941) Horrible, inhuman Nazi invaders are eventually repelled by noble Soviet planes. Standard stuff not that much different than our own wartime cartoons; all that's lacking is a sense of humor.

THE VULTURES (1941) More of the same. Nazis are pigs and carrion birds.

FOUR ANTI-HITLER NEWSREELS (POLITICAL SATIRE) (1941) Quick animated lessons, showing the need to crush the Germans and defeat their treacherous spies. A positive episode lauds cooperation with the English "Tommy" ally. It's the only time in any of the shows that a country other than the USSR is praised.

TO YOU, MOSCOW (1947) A color ode to the 800th anniversary of the founding of Moscow, celebrating its defeat of invaders through history and the miracle that it still stands.

THE ADVENTURES OF THE YOUNG PIONEERS (1971) Young Pioneers are essentially Red Boy Scouts. Three enterprising Russian kids (one is a girl) withstand the Nazi invaders, hoisting a Red Flag over the German headquarters. They're saved from a firing squad by a noble Soviet tank commander. Character-building "fun" for small kids.

THE PIONEER'S VIOLIN (1971) Small kids also need a good dose of bittersweet Russian misery, it seems. Beautiful, frightening animation shows the only survivor of a Nazi attack to be a child. Ordered to play his violin, the Young Pioneer refuses, and then decides to play a rebellious tune that infuriates his captors. Strong enough to mark a sensitive child for life.

VASILYOK (1973) More interesting animation highlights this odd tale of a boy searching for his grandfather, lost in the war. The old man returns, in spirit, in the form of a warship bearing his name. What ordinary grand-dad can compete?

A LESSON NOT LEARNED (1971) Creative techniques elevate this story of a Nazi war criminal protected by the Allies and encouraged to run for public office in West Germany. The 'angel' of Hitler follows him everywhere. Since history bears out parts of this show, it's more effective than many of the others.

ATTENTION! WOLVES! (1970) A scary, semi-abstract story of the West encouraging the raising of 'Wolves' -- feral children representing the threat of Neo-Nazism, come back as strong as ever. Ends with a genuinely frightening montage of war atrocities.

TALE OF A TOY (1984) An artsy, difficult-to-follow and disturbing blend of animation, newsreel and stop-motion collage work. Images of Spanish and German Fascism destroy the notion of Don Quixote, just for starters.

WE CAN DO IT (1970) American Generals and Capitalists hatch an evil black bird from a Nazi egg, threatening lovers and children the world over with nuclear doom. But the peace-loving pacifists of the world unite to defeat the monster. Even in "pacifist" propaganda, it's apparently important to demonize the USA. Oddly, the giant black bird bears some similarities to our old Sci Fi film The Giant Claw.

CAPITALIST SHARKS

INTERPLANETARY REVOLUTION (1924) Soviet political science fiction. The glorious revolution spreads conquers Mars in this odd collage of images. When Earth Capitalists finally reach the Red Planet, they find it already worshipping Lenin.

WE'LL KEEP OUR EYES PEELED (1927) A Government bond drive is promoted with the claim that a foreign trade embargo is responsible for Soviet economic problems.

THE SHAREHOLDER (1963) One of the better-animated films, this one has real style even though its warped view of America is definitely filtered through alien eyes. A worker loses his job but still has one share of company stock, which becomes the center of an ironic joke.

PROUD LITTLE SHIP (1966) Amusing but repetitive, this uses excellent animation to tell the tale of a little toy ship, Aurora, that defies entire fleets of evil Capitalist warmongers.

PROPHETS AND LESSONS (1967) A pack of White-Russian vermin expelled to the West, goes to a Capitalist prophet (?) who inspires them to assault the Soviet Union. But their every attempt is turned back by the mighty hammer of the Red Worker. The West predicts economic doom but the unstoppable Red industrial machine prevails.

CHINA IN FLAMES (1925) An early and rather lengthy example of direct political propaganda, the film shows China divided up by evil colonial powers. Communist hope Sun Yat Sen finally appears, but the film seems incomplete -- there's no last chapter with a prediction for a Communist future in China.

ONWARD TO THE SHINING FUTURE: COMMUNISM

FORWARD MARCH, TIME! (1977) This one is elaborate but very confusing ... and uses rock music as well. It is "based on ideological poems written by Vladimir Mayakovsky in the 20s, as well as advertisements Mayakovsky created during the New Economic Policy with avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko." I couldn't follow it.

SOVIET TOYS (1924) An early attempt to sway public opinion on a specific issue, in this case against party bosses allowed to function as old-style entrepreneurs to help the economy shift into a socialized pattern. The same old images dominate -- a fat, spoiled Capitalist eats everything he sees. The Red Army eventually forms a Christmas tree. Stubborn types (Churchmen, fat cats, bourgeois women) are executed and hang from its branches, while the workers place a Red Star on top. Ho Ho Ho.

SAMOYED BOY (1928) An early, weird animation that shows an Inuit Eskimo rescued from the ice and brought to study in Moscow.

THE MUSIC BOX (1933) Another weird early animation poking fun at pre-revolution Russia. A town needs a new mayor, so the royal authority sends a moron with a clockwork brain to run things.

LENIN'S KINO PRAVDA (TRUTH IN CINEMA) (1924) Supposedly directed by the famous Dziga Vertov, this is a baffling parade of odd images and Communist claims. Difficult to understand.

RESULTS OF THE XII PARTY CONGRESS OF COOPERATION (JOIN THE COOPERATIVE) (1925) Simple animation urges strength through solidarity -- little farmers unite to compete with the big outfits. Also criticizes profiteering "company private shops."

VICTORIOUS DESTINATION (1939) Ugly Western Capitalists object and obstruct, but Stalin's economic miracle triumphs anyway.

WAR CHRONICLES (1939) Foreign powers dream about dividing up the new Soviet Union for their own profit, but all attempts are turned back! This one even depicts Japanese hostilities in the East. Once again, smoky factories and bold worker-soliders lead the way.

A HOT STONE (1965) Excellent animation can't quite make the moral lesson of this one stick. A boy finds a magic stone that will allow people to live their lives over again. His bearded, noble Grandfather prefers his life of hardship, revolution and Communist victory to remain just as it is.

SONGS OF THE YEARS OF FIRE (1971) A nostalgic, expensive-looking ode to the Red Army using bold revolutionary designs to illustrate four or five songs of the civil war years. Beautifully orchestrated music; all so we can sing along to a peppy tune about "My happy machine-gun cart."

PLUS ELECTRIFICATION (1972) This looks like it was originally in 70mm and widescreen; the picture is slightly letterboxed and cropped. Lenin's idea that electricity and the new government would unite is given a Utopian workout, depicting the whole country (and the European Eastern Bloc) united by electric light. It's no more convincing than our own Disney-fied Carousel of Progress propaganda.

Each disc comes with an 'overview' documentary that presents a few interviews with helpful comment on some of the titles. Dr. Kokurev dominates, but we also hear from Soyuzmultfilm directors, writers and the granddaughter of the writer of "Mister Twister," the story about American racism. But the bulk of these edited pieces are simply repeats of sections of the films. In a generous move by the disc producers, the entire first Overview chapter is viewable in preview form on the Russian Propaganda website.


Kino's release of Jove and Soyuzmultfilm's disc set of Animated Soviet Propaganda: From the October Revolution to Perestroika is a classy presentation that will appeal to a wide group of consumers; it's an ideal resource for educators looking for prime-source material. I only hope that that teachers balance these films with some of our less generous filmic attacks on the Soviet Union. The messages are actually little different than what we hear in America today: America represents Freedom, we are the center of the universe and all problems are due to foreign troublemakers.

Film students, art students and animation fans will be fascinated. Few of the films approach the graphic clarity of those striking Soviet posters, but a number do use interesting animation ideas, mostly following western trends but sometimes ahead of them in both style and design.

The transfers are all better than acceptable, with only a few titles printed from degraded transfer elements. A couple of the silent pictures barely hold together, and the occasional murky scene pops up. Excellent English subtitles translate dialogue and narration, but also the frequent on-screen text, so that we can follow the films' often-confusing context.

The design of the disc set is stunning. A full field of red with a Soviet star and sickle dominate one fold of the disc holder. The panels are covered with grinning skull-faced Uncle Sams and pig-faced Nazis. An image of decadent Capitalist showgirls is clearly lifted from Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Dominating all is the stalwart Soviet worker with his all-powerful hammer.

The set ultimately has some good lessons for liberals. Criterion just released a multi disc box about actor-singer Paul Robeson, victim of the HUAAC blacklists. Our State Department ruined Robeson's career by blacklisting him from performing in the United States, and revoking his passport so he couldn't travel, but the Criterion disc only talks about Robeson's criticism of the U.S. while abroad. Over the end titles of the first "Overview" in this Russian Propaganda Set, we hear Robeson singing an ode to the mighty and just Soviet Union ("the world's hope for freedom"). It's from the late 1940s.

It's one thing to be told that Robeson was vocal in his politics; everybody should have that right. But it's something else entirely to hear him singing an ode to Stalin's totalitarian dictatorship. Justly or not, it takes Robeson down a couple of notches.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Animated Soviet Propaganda rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: 4 30-minute featurettes discussing and synopsizing various animated films.
Packaging: Four discs in plastic and card folder in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 18, 2007

A special thanks to Geoffrey Kleinman for securing this screener for DVD Savant.




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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