Watch the Surrealist Glass Harmonica, the Only Animated Film Ever Banned by Soviet Censors (1968)

The Sovi­et Union’s repres­sive state cen­sor­ship went to absurd lengths to con­trol what its cit­i­zens read, viewed, and lis­tened to, such as the almost com­i­cal removal of purged for­mer com­rades from pho­tographs dur­ing Stalin’s reign. When it came to aes­thet­ics, Stal­in­ism most­ly purged more avant-garde ten­den­cies from the arts and lit­er­a­ture in favor of didac­tic Social­ist Real­ism. Even dur­ing the rel­a­tive­ly loose peri­od of the Khrushchev/Brezhnev Thaw in the 60s, sev­er­al artists were sub­ject to “severe cen­sor­ship” by the Par­ty, writes Keti Chukhrov at Red Thread, for their “’abuse’ of mod­ernist, abstract and for­mal­ist meth­ods.”

But one oft-exper­i­men­tal art form thrived through­out the exis­tence of the Sovi­et Union and its vary­ing degrees of state con­trol: ani­ma­tion. “Despite cen­sor­ship and pres­sure from the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment to adhere to cer­tain Social­ist ideals,” writes Pol­ly Dela Rosa in a short his­to­ry, “Russ­ian ani­ma­tion is incred­i­bly diverse and elo­quent.”

Many ani­mat­ed Sovi­et films were express­ly made for pro­pa­gan­da purposes—such as the very first Sovi­et ani­ma­tion, Dzi­ga Vertov’s Sovi­et Toys, below, from 1924. But even these dis­play a range of tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­i­ty com­bined with dar­ing styl­is­tic exper­i­ments, as you can see in this io9 com­pi­la­tion. Ani­mat­ed films also served “as a pow­er­ful tool for enter­tain­ment,” notes film schol­ar Bir­git Beumers, with ani­ma­tors, “large­ly trained as design­ers and illus­tra­tors… drawn upon to com­pete with the Dis­ney out­put.”

Through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry, a wide range of films made it past the cen­sors and reached large audi­ences on cin­e­ma and tele­vi­sion screens, includ­ing many based on West­ern lit­er­a­ture. All of them did so, in fact, but one, the only ani­mat­ed film in Sovi­et his­to­ry to face a ban: Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s The Glass Har­mon­i­ca, at the top, a 1968 “satire on bureau­cra­cy.” At the time of its release, the Thaw had encour­aged “a cre­ative renais­sance” in Russ­ian ani­ma­tion, writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, and the film’s sur­re­al­ist aesthetic—drawn from the paint­ings of De Chiri­co, Magritte, Grosz, Bruegel, and Bosch (and reach­ing “pro­to-Python-esque heights towards the end”)—testifies to that.

At first glance, one would think The Glass Har­mon­i­ca would fit right into the long tra­di­tion of Sovi­et pro­pa­gan­da films begun by Ver­tov. As the open­ing titles state, it aims to show the “bound­less greed, police ter­ror, [and] the iso­la­tion and bru­tal­iza­tion of humans in mod­ern bour­geois soci­ety.” And yet, the film offend­ed cen­sors due to what the Euro­pean Film Phil­har­mon­ic Insti­tute calls “its con­tro­ver­sial por­tray­al of the rela­tion­ship between gov­ern­men­tal author­i­ty and the artist.” There’s more than a lit­tle irony in the fact that the only ful­ly cen­sored Sovi­et ani­ma­tion is a film itself about cen­sor­ship.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter is a musi­cian who incurs the dis­plea­sure of an expres­sion­less man in black, ruler of the cold, gray world of the film. In addi­tion to its “col­lage of var­i­ous styles and a trib­ute to Euro­pean painting”—which itself may have irked censors—the score by Alfred Schnit­tke “push­es sound to dis­turb­ing lim­its, demand­ing extreme range and tech­nique from the instru­ments.” (Fans of sur­re­al­ist ani­ma­tion may be remind­ed of 1973’s French sci-fi film, Fan­tas­tic Plan­et.) Although Khrzhanovsky’s film rep­re­sents the effec­tive begin­ning and end of sur­re­al­ist ani­ma­tion in the Sovi­et Union, only released after per­e­stroi­ka, it stands, as you’ll see above, as a bril­liant­ly real­ized exam­ple of the form.

The Glass Har­mon­i­ca will be added to our list of Ani­ma­tions, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sovi­et Ani­ma­tions of Ray Brad­bury Sto­ries: ‘Here There Be Tygers’ & ‘There Will Come Soft Rain’

Watch Dzi­ga Vertov’s Unset­tling Sovi­et Toys: The First Sovi­et Ani­mat­ed Movie Ever (1924)

Watch Inter­plan­e­tary Rev­o­lu­tion (1924): The Most Bizarre Sovi­et Ani­mat­ed Pro­pa­gan­da Film You’ll Ever See

The Bizarre, Sur­viv­ing Scene from the 1933 Sovi­et Ani­ma­tion Based on a Pushkin Tale and a Shostakovich Score

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Martin Cohen says:

    Yel­low Sub­ma­rine with Mon­ty Python, Magritte, and Dali.

    I can see why any repres­sive dic­ta­tor­ship would cen­sor this.

  • Tyson Bender says:

    I thought of Mon­ty Python too.

    But, don’t for­get Di Chiri­co, Rem­brandt, Cha­gall, Bosch & Van Eyck. All(and many more) rep­re­sent­ed in this film.

    It was not the peo­ple’s place to think…

  • paul kollmar says:

    the best sur­re­al­ist turkey was gormenghast–tv. great brit­t­ian– august 2001 aired on pbs tv in nyc– the crit­ics were wise==3 parts peetered out/ and it lost gas.. end­ed like methane ‑it had its points; but the book it was based on had a gen­er­a­tion of loy­al­ists over there—forgotten for a good reason–its music was the weak­est link===rrodney ben­net


    Thanks for this beau­ti­fl ani­ma­tion Open Cul­ture long may you flour­ish

  • Niffiwan says:

    Although a very neat film, this line — “Although Khrzhanovsky’s film rep­re­sents the effec­tive begin­ning and end of sur­re­al­ist ani­ma­tion in the Sovi­et Union” — is not even close to being true. On my web­site “Ani­mat­siya” (not giv­ing the link here just in case there’s a spam fil­ter, but it can be eas­i­ly found through Google), under Browse > Gen­res, there are over 100 films in the genre “Sur­re­al­is­m/­dream-log­ic” (though some are more “dream” than “sur­re­al­ism”). The Glass Har­mon­i­ca may indeed have been the first, but it was by no means the last, despite being banned. It was a notice­able minor pres­ence from the late 1960s onward, became wide­spread in Esto­nia in the 1970s, became wide­spread almost every­where by the late 1980s (even for­mer­ly “reg­u­lar” direc­tors were doing it), kept being made in the 1990s and 2000s (not as intense­ly, but still quite a lot — in stu­dent works or wher­ev­er the gov­ern­ment would give mon­ey for it, so not in the places where ani­ma­tion stopped being allo­cat­ed resources), and grad­u­al­ly became less com­mon there­after. Per­haps its fre­quen­cy is inverse­ly pro­por­tion­al to a state’s and soci­ety’s sta­bil­i­ty.

  • Madeline says:

    Awe­some arti­cle; very infor­ma­tive and help­ful to under­stand­ing the con­text in which the movie was made and released. I am great­ly sur­prised, how­ev­er, that in this piece there was no com­ment on the film’s bla­tant anti­semitism. For myself and many oth­er view­ers, this was the aspect that stained, if not ruined, the entire work.

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