The Russian Animators Who Have Spent 40 Years Animating Gogol’s “The Overcoat”

“Steady Pushkin, mat­ter-of-fact Tol­stoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irra­tional insight which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly blurred the sen­tence and dis­closed a secret mean­ing worth the sud­den focal shift,” writes Vladimir Nabokov in his Lec­tures on Russ­ian Lit­er­a­ture. “But with Gogol this shift­ing is the very basis of his art.” When, “as in the immor­tal ‘The Over­coat,’ he real­ly let him­self go and pot­tered on the brink of his pri­vate abyss, he became the great­est artist that Rus­sia has yet pro­duced.” Tough though that act is to fol­low, gen­er­a­tions of film­mak­ers around the world have attempt­ed to adapt for the screen that mas­ter­work of a short sto­ry about the out­er­wear-relat­ed strug­gles of an impov­er­ished bureau­crat.

One par­tic­u­lar pair of Russ­ian film­mak­ers has actu­al­ly spent a gen­er­a­tion or two mak­ing their own ver­sion of “The Over­coat”: the mar­ried cou­ple Yuri Norstein and Franch­es­ka Yarbuso­va, who began the project back in 1981.

Their nine­teen-sev­en­ties short films Hedge­hog in the Fog and Tale of Tales had already received inter­na­tion­al acclaim from both fans and fel­low cre­ators of ani­ma­tion (their cham­pi­ons include no less an auteur than Hayao Miyaza­ki), with dis­tinc­tive­ly cap­ti­vat­ing effects achieved through a dis­tinc­tive­ly painstak­ing process. Whol­ly ana­log, it has grown only more labor-inten­sive as dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy has advanced so rapid­ly over the past few decades — decades that have also brought about great social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic changes in their home­land.

The Atroc­i­ty Guide video above offers a glimpse into Norstein and Yarbuso­va’s lives and work on the “The Over­coat” — to the extent that the two can even be sep­a­rat­ed at this point. Once, they were vic­tims of Sovi­et cen­sor­ship and sus­pi­cion, giv­en the ambigu­ous morals of their visu­al­ly lav­ish pro­duc­tions. Now, in their eight­ies and with this 65-minute-film nowhere near com­ple­tion (but five min­utes of which you can see in the video above), the prob­lem seems to have more to do with their own artis­ti­cal­ly com­mend­able but whol­ly imprac­ti­cal cre­ative ethos. They work to “sadis­ti­cal­ly high” stan­dards on a film that, as Norstein believes, “should be con­stant­ly chang­ing” — while also prop­er­ly express­ing the Gogo­lian themes of strug­gle, pri­va­tion, and futil­i­ty that can “only be cre­at­ed amid feel­ings of dis­com­fort and uncer­tain­ty” — hence their insis­tence on stay­ing in Rus­sia.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Niko­lai Gogol’s Clas­sic Sto­ry, “The Nose,” Ani­mat­ed With the Aston­ish­ing Pin­screen Tech­nique (1963)

Three Ani­mat­ed Shorts by the Ground­break­ing Russ­ian Ani­ma­tor Fyo­dor Khitruk

Watch The Amaz­ing 1912 Ani­ma­tion of Stop-Motion Pio­neer Ladis­las Stare­vich, Star­ring Dead Bugs

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

A Sovi­et Ani­ma­tion of Stephen King’s Short Sto­ry “Bat­tle­ground” (1986)

Enjoy 15+ Hours of the Weird and Won­der­ful World of Post Sovi­et Russ­ian Ani­ma­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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