Soviet films and animation always had a particular style unique to the Russian school of cinematography. Due to the political nature of filmmaking, the history of the country, and peculiarities of the Russian mentality, some of the greatest works of cinematography to emerge out of the USSR revolved around themes of war and suffering mixed with a grim determination to fight to the bitter end.
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Russian cinematography has borrowed much from its early traditions of documentary-type movies, with an emphasis on scope, realism, and striking imagery that engrains itself deep into the mind of the viewer (White & Corrigan, 2012). The theme of war and peace, inherited from Leo Tolstoy, are found in almost every film or animation made from the 1930s-1980s. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the narrative structure, style, and motifs of a short Soviet animation titled Story of a Puppet (История Одной Куклы), directed in 1984 by Boris Albynin.
Story of a Puppet (Boris Albynin, 1984) is a film about a Don Quixote puppet that is made by a prisoner in a German death camp to entertain other prisoners and children and to pass the time. The puppet and its horse are made out of various scrap materials found around the camp. Replicating the original story of Don Quixote, the puppet battles a windmill made out of a German swastika and an old helmet. The first battle against the windmill is unsuccessful, as the puppet is thrown off and its strings become entangled.
The puppet show abruptly ends as a German officer rounds up the prisoners and chooses who to execute for disobedience. The creator of the puppet is among the people executed. The puppet witnesses its creator’s death and sheds a tear before rising on its own and striking down the windmill with several fearsome blows (Albynin, 1984). The film ends with the puppet represented on a monument on which children place flowers, indicating that the story was based on real events.
The Use of Scenery, Color, and Music in Story of a Puppet
Story of a Puppet is a short animation only 9 minutes and 16 seconds long. Also, the story featured no audible narrative, meaning that every message in the story had to be illustrated using scenery, color, and music. To tell a story in 9 minutes, the director made every scene with a motif that evoked strong emotions in the viewers.
The use of color in Story of a Puppet is very interesting and helps convey the overall message. Short scenes of peace at the beginning (before the war) and at the end (after the war) are in color, whereas the scenes of the concentration camp are black and white, with several scenes directly borrowed from concentration camp documentaries (Albynin, 1984). This technique greatly increases the contrast between scenes of peace and imprisonment, further magnifying the scenes and showing the grim realities of concentration camps.
Music in Story of a Puppet is used to create an atmosphere. At the beginning of the film, the radio music is cheerful and uplifting but quickly changes to a grim, depressing tune when an artillery cannonade shatters the image of peace and tears apart photographs of families and children, signifying the many lives broken or lost in the war (Albynin, 1984). The music in the concentration camp revolves around themes of grim hopelessness and presents itself as borderline grotesque. Sometimes it is too loud, almost like a screech that overpowers any other sound in the scene and acts as a message of its own.
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The tune of hopelessness and suffering changes after the puppeteer is executed and the puppet witnesses his death. As the puppet raises its sword, the music changes to that of grim determination, signifying a fight to the bitter end. Every blow the puppet delivers to the windmill is accompanied by sounds of an artillery barrage, like a battering ram slamming at the gates of the concentration camp, and after the final blow, the windmill falls, as do the gates of the camp, with prisoners being freed. The film ends on a bittersweet note, as children bring flowers to the puppet displayed on one of the monuments. In this scene, the music creates an atmosphere of mourning and remembrance (Albynin, 1984).
The scenery is the last piece that clicks into place to convey the powerful message behind this work of animation. The author makes heavy use of symbolism throughout the entire film. There are three particularly powerful scenes. The first one is the beginning of the film when the march of Nazi militants creates a whirlwind that shatters many pictures of women, children, and families (Albynin, 1984). This scene is made in the form of a collage, with the pictures laid over the documentary footage (Pontierri, 2012).
The scenes involving Don Quixote are created using stop-motion – a popular technique utilized in many Soviet puppet cartoons, such as The Mitten (Roman Kachanov, 1967), Crocodile Gena (Roman Kachanov, 1969), and 38 Parrots (Ivan Ufimtsev, 1976-1991) (Pontierri, 2012). The central scene for the entire film is when the puppet witnesses the death of its creator and sheds one large tear from its empty eye socket before raising its blade to war, representing the will of the people to fight. The last scene is a scene from a documentary, where children bring flowers to the monument of Don Quixote, at the base of which the puppet is placed behind glass as another casualty of war.
Characters and Motivations in Story of a Puppet
Since the short movie is only 9 minutes long and features no dialogue, the viewers do not get to know the characters well. Due to the artistic devices used by Boris Altynin, the only character with a face is the puppet itself, as we never get to see the puppeteer. The Nazi officer in charge of the execution is not shown to the viewers either – he is only present as a sinister shadow on the wall. The puppet itself is characterized by feelings of love towards its creator and willingness to fight in his name.
However, these characters do not exist in the story as individuals. They are symbols. The faceless prisoners represent the millions of innocent people slaughtered in concentration camps. The faceless Nazi officer typifies the brutal and efficient death machine of the concentration camps. The puppet is the personification of the will of the conquered nations of Spain, France, Poland, and many others who rise to fight the Nazi windmill even when all hope is lost (Pontierri, 2012).
Story of a Puppet is a short but very powerful piece of late Soviet animation. It was meant to be shown to children to teach them about the horrors of the war fought by their fathers and grandfathers. It is a very mature work and utilizes a multitude of artistic and narrative devices to convey its message without a single word uttered on screen. It is an excellent example of how the greatest tragedies can be told using scenery, music, and color alone.
Altynin, B. (Director). (1984). Story of a Puppet. Web.
Pontierri, L. (2012). Soviet animation and the thaw of 1960s: Not only for children. London, UK: John Libbey Publishing.
White, P., & Corrigan, T. (2012). The film experience: An introduction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Bedford-St. Martin’s Publishing.