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.
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
Yellow Submarine with Monty Python, Magritte, and Dali.
I can see why any repressive dictatorship would censor this.
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…
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
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.
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.