Põrgu (Hell): good versus evil in homage to a 20th century Estonian surrealist artist

Rein Raamat, “Põrgu (Hell)” (1983)

While watching “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees”, I noticed that Thronoi the Bear who had uploaded this film in its entirety to Youtube had also uploaded some Estonian animated films so I decided to check out some of those. “Põrgu” is a remarkable short piece by noted animation director Rein Raamat and is based on three drawings, or three sets of drawings, by the early 20th-century surrealist artist Eduard Wiiralt: these are called “Hell”, “Cabaret” and “The Preacher. The original drawings, made during the 1930s while Wiiralt was struggling for recognition in Paris where he was living at the time, appear at the end of the film and have a very nightmarish and deliriously erotic quality; it is this quality that Raamat captures in this animated chimera tribute to Wiiralt.

A lively cabaret filled with dancing couples and drinkers, nearly all of whom look debauched and corrupted by sensuous materialism, becomes a battleground between the forces of good, represented by a fiery-eyed preacher, his hair standing on end and all messed up as such passionate, near-fanatical desert prophet fellows usually have their hair styled; and the forces of evil in the guise of a Pan-like devil playing merry tunes on a cornet. The various dancers switch from sedate tango to lively can-can music and back again as the preacher first claims back the dancers and drinkers from the satanic embrace and the devil rallies his fires and can-can girls to lure back the hapless couples and drinkers. The dastardly one calls on giant robot figures with gun barrels in their eyes and mouths, ready to shoot. A battle royale ensues, the dancers contort and change into monsters and for a while it seems that Evil has triumphed over Good. But Good soon revives and sends out new shoots and branches of life that overcome Evil. Too late though Good comes to save any of the dancers who are too far gone in their enslavement to the pleasures of lust and other sins when under the devil’s spell and even the preacher himself is unable to withstand the intense attractions and powers of Hell.

The drawings are astonishingly detailed and highly individualistic; each dancer, each bar customer has his or her own particular jaded and corruptible look. One woman character, unmoving, appears extremely monstrous in her wrinkled face and neck. Women’s bodies ooze with eroticism even under their diaphanous gowns though their bodies may not be of the babelicious hour-glass kind. People’s heads, necks and shoulders seem to have an odd phallic silhouette to them. The animation sticks closely to the style and fluid neuroticism of the two-dimensional drawings so there’s no colour to the film and the only sound is that of the music which bounces between violin-dominated tango and woodwind-led dance music.

It seems odd and rather old-fashioned for an animated short to posit tango and can-can music together as rivals for the souls of humanity but the difference between the two turns out to be one of degree. I guess the fact that the dancers and drinkers are already in the cabaret shows that to some extent they’re already compromised beings in succumbing to hedonism for its own sake. There are Biblical figures including doves and a naked nude female statue in the pose of a sacrificial virgin who in the humour of a Svankmajer or Borowczyk film sprouts several breasts brimming with milk, all trying to save humans from ruin by their appetites.

The film is worth watching as an introduction to the work of a significant Estonian surrealist artist of the early 20th century and the spirit of that work.

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