Sõda: political satire as animal fable takes on a dark tone

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, “Sõda” (1987)

It has the look of a political satire disguised as an animal fable and I would say that the hapless little bat represents Estonia, buffeted by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Our flitter-mouse friend takes shelter in an abandoned water-mill and initially whiles away its time catching flies to eat and exploring its new surroundings. Before long though, the water-mill is invaded by crows from the sky, having found their way through a hole in the roof, and the bat is under siege from the birds which peck at it and try to dominate it. If that weren’t enough, hordes of rats from underground flood into the water-mill and attack the bat in the few refuges it can find. Soon the crows and rats start fighting over possession of the water-mill and the bat does its best to escape the crossfire and occasionally swing the battle in its favour.

The stop-motion animation has a raw and crude look which is effective for the film’s theme and plot. The puppets look cartoonish enough yet (in the case of the crows and rats) convey sinister menace. The music soundtrack is not intrusive and helps define the characters and the plot trajectory. The general look of the film is dark and grey-ish, in agreement with its sombre theme.

The film’s theme is adequate for a mainstream audience in scope though the reality is more complicated: Estonia did in fact collaborate with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, helping to round up Roma gypsies and Jewish people for incarceration and extermination. Currently Estonia finds itself losing people due in part to following an austerity program (which is eroding social services and infrastructure) and being part of the Schengen zone (meaning Estonians can travel to any part of the European Union to find work without needing visas) within the EU; and has accepted American troops in its territory on a supposedly temporary basis to defend itself against supposed Russian aggression. It seems that the bat is now up against forces more powerful and terrible than the crows and rats ever were. The film’s conclusion takes on a darker tone than the film-makers intended.

Kapsapea: an entertaining parody of action adventure / romance films

Riho Unt, “Kapsapea / A Cabbage” (1993)

A stop-animation parody of action adventure films like the Indiana Jones movie series, “Kapsapea” revolves around the travails of a humble farming family that discovers a giant cabbage has grown on their plot. The farmer, who conducts scientific experiments with alcohol on the side, imagines the fame and fortune that will accrue so he takes his giant vegetable down to his local pub where it is photographed by reporter Harrison for The New York Times. News of the giant cabbage spreads far and wide and it’s not long before American gangsters, agents from the KGB and spies from Communist China turn up in the neighbourhood eager to claim the cabbage for themselves. Most of the film is taken up with chases around the Estonian countryside as the farmer is pursued by hoodlums and spooks alike who’ll stop at nothing to grab the cabbage off him. Meanwhile Harrison falls in love with the farmer’s young daughter but their romance is nearly derailed when they fall foul of the Russians.

The action is tight and easily understood by audiences who don’t speak Estonian, although some of the finer points of the film, like any satire, will be lost on outsiders. One has to overlook the racist stereotypes surrounding the Chinese and Russian spies. There is plenty of slapstick comedy, some of it quite crude, and some scenes in the pub put the film out of reach of young children. The animation is well done although some of the action sequences are a bit hard on the eye and I’m not really sure what was chasing Harrison and his lady love while they were barrelling through an underground tunnel, in a recreation of the opening scenes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The characters are stuffed dolls made of cloth and various other soft materials, and look rough-hewn.

It’s definitely very light entertainment with not much of a moral or deeper meaning behind the plot. The farmer and the men who chase him are played for greedy buffoons while the women around them either faff about or strut sluttishly.

Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass): animation revisits an earlier animation based on famous painting

Priit Pärn and Mari Pakkas, “Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass)” (2011)

Nothing like revisiting the scene of the crime when you want an idea for a new animation and Priit Pärn does so in a new version of “Eine Murul” which like his 1987 animation is based on Edouard Manet’s painting “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)”. This time, the film isn’t about four individuals battling their way through the problems of Soviet Communist society and their own inner demons of self-worth and loathing; they’re simply making their way across the grass in a drunken state towards one another. Their efforts are set to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s repetitive piece “Boléro”, performed in an equally inebriated stupor, and their efforts continue, sometimes laughably and sometimes painfully, until as though by sheer good luck they find themselves in the very positions and postures the original picnickers of the painting are portrayed in. Off-screen audiences applaud enthusiastically and the film closes there and then.

Abandoning pencil-drawn animation, Pärn and Pakkas opt for stop-motion animation of stuffed puppet figures whose floppy invertebrate forms are well-suited for apparent aimless ambling in which they can barely hold their shopping bags let alone move their soft and wonky arms and legs. The backgrounds are minimally portrayed in solid blocks of green or blue colour over which pencil scrawls in different colours suggest blades of grass or reflections in the water.

Not much of a social message can be found here unless Pärn is suggesting that the modern consumer society made possible by corporate capitalism is befuddling people so much that it’s a wonder they get anything and everything done and if something like a pose that resembles Manet’s famous painting occurs, it’s more a miracle than anything intended. After the event, an explanation that makes it less accidental and more intentional must be made.

Põhja Konn: strange little film based on Estonian fairy tale

Riho Unt, “Põhja Konn” (2007)

Quirky 14-minute short that mixes live action and stop-motion animation of sculpted figures, “Põhja Konn” is a strange, almost surreal piece for me, all the more so as part of it is in Estonian with no sub-titles so the plot and theme are inaccessible to me. A young soldier returns from the Napoleonic wars and arrives at a castle in ruins, in the middle of which is a banquet spread out for aristocrats in mediaeval dress who are asleep. Only the court jester is awake and ambling around the ruins. The soldier takes a swig of wine from the table and is soon transported into another realm when he comes to a fountain in which he meets a mysterious and beautiful maiden. He obtains her ring and returns to the ruined castle; he acquires a metal Trojan-horse construct and takes it away with him. The aristocrats awake from their robot slumber and commence feasting.There is a break and the short returns to the live action scene with the s0ldier and the maiden falling in love, only to end with the fountain destroyed and a giant frog sprawled over it.

There was an Estonian animated film of the same name made in 1959 based on a fairy tale by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, the writer of the Estonian national epic “Kalevipoeg”, and Unt’s film may well be a homage and reinterpretation of the original animation. Whatever Unt intended his film to be, it is a very beautiful little piece to watch. The ambience is dreamy and unreal yet not at all sinister with white and airy backgrounds. The live action scenes between the soldier and the girl are completely silent and the two actors’ movements are floaty and unnatural; the scenes are also filmed in monochrome. Colour intrudes only in the stop-motion animated scenes more than halfway through the piece when the mechanical aristocrats come alive and begin stuffing themselves.

The animated figures are crude and cartoony in appearance and the birds on the swing come across as Statler and Waldorf characters, commenting on the action and the soldier below them, rather than as avians of ill omen. At the end of the film, the swing is empty as though the birds fell off in shock and surprise.

I must admit that the film completely flummoxed me though its visual production values look quite impressive. The film’s title translates as “North Frog” or “North of the Frog” and refers to the giant amphibian dominating the ruins at the end of the film.

Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life: animated criticism of Soviet life and loss of childhood innocence and fun

Priit Pärn and Kulno Luhts, “Harjutusi iseseisvaks eluks / Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life” (1980)

In typically insouciant style, animator Priit Pärn serves up another short cartoon that in its faux naif style criticises the Soviet regime ruling Estonia in 1980. The narrative divides into two complementary threads in which a boy and a man, who might almost be aspects of the same person at different ages or be son and father, demonstrate how the demands of modern life turn them into automatons. The boy learns by imitation and acculturation the habits he must adopt to function in adult society and the man in his business suit repeatedly carries out those habits ingrained in him since he ceased being a child. The short flits between the two characters continuously to show how their actions are steadily converging into the one set of behaviours.

The animation looks dead simple at first but the drawings are more technically sophisticated than what initially meets the eye as the businessman comes into focus and starts pushing paper around his desk and answering the telephone. Colours around the businessman are of various drab shades of brown and grey while for the boy they come in a wider range of bright and joyful primary hues. As the short progresses, the colours associated with the boy start to dull and the colours for the businessman become brighter near the end as his robot routine unravels and objects around him begin to rebel. The animator himself pushes the rebellion along by using a stop-motion animation of his pencil-wielding hand to place the telephone on a different spot of the desk, upsetting the businessman’s autopilot mode of thinking and living.

The start and the end of the short are bookended by a similar sequence of actions performed by the boy (at the start) and the man (at the end): they race across a field, turn into a growing tree, meet a lamb that transforms into a sheep, dive into a river and become airborne swallows. The boy gazes with a puzzled (perhaps even slightly disapproving?) expression at the businessman as the older character cavorts through the field under a brilliant blue sky, rediscovering his old zest for life. A neat and somewhat worrying way of saying that the child becomes father to the man and the man, in reclaiming a life, loses  his son to society’s grasp.

As I’ve come to expect from Pärn, surreal images abound and there are plenty of stream-of-consciousness free associations of images and objects blending into one another. The music matches the narrative and actions and foreign viewers need not worry about having to understand Estonian as the film features no dialogue.

Nael / The Nail (dir. Heino Pars): inventive stop-motion animation short about human nature and revenge

Heino Pars, “Nael / The Nail” (1972)

Droll little animation short “Nael” consists of four stories that illustrate aspects of life in Soviet Estonia in the 1970s using stop-motion animation. First up is a story of two nails who fall in love and have a baby only for the bigger nail of the two to turn deadbeat runaway dad. The second story is of a young nail investigating a hammer who suffers the inevitable smack-down. Third up is a gangland fight that ends only when one nail is arrested by the police (represented as a magnet). The fourth story takes place in a circus in which the lion-tamer orders his kitty to perform various demeaning tricks such as jumping through a ring of fire. The lion reserves its best trick at the very end though which of course means a kat-astrophe for the lion tamer.

The animation is inventive with a minimalist style. All the action is silent so Pars must work at telling his stories and he succeeds . Particularly original is the way Pars gets his nails to conceive babies in the heat of lust, punch one another’s lights out and turn bow-ties into rings ablaze with fire. Viewers quickly acclimatise to the blank backgrounds in which the only stage props are windows are indicated only by matchsticks. Nothing moral or dark is illustrated here apart from perhaps the second story which might be a “curiosity killed the cat” morality story or a snide poke at the Soviet system. Viewers will warm to the fourth story which, although predictable, has a very cheeky sense of humour.

Linn (City): a well-meaning if dated moral tale about industrialisation

Reino Raamat, “Linn / City” (1988)

Earnest and well-meaning, Raamat”s “Linn” is a moral tale of what happens when a town is overcome by industrialisation and the warped, mechanised culture and soulless values that follow in its wake and the town citizens are worn down by the sheer enormous scale of the changes and their seductive embrace. In the context of its time, the animation short might be seen as a nationalistic protest against the Sovietisation of Estonia and  how it reduces everyone to the lowest common denominator, robbing people of their ethnic, religious and other identities as well as their individuality. The short begins in a nameless town, already stacked with cardboard-like anonymous high-rise buildings in which people are living like rats anyway, cultivating their dreams and indulging their love in their children (obvious symbols of the future), which is invaded by huge black blocks that crowd the existing buildings together. Outraged, the citizens of the town form a movement, symbolised by a huge figure, to push back the block. For a short time they succeed but the black block sends out rays of gold money and infiltrate the buildings with lubricious ladies of the night and the men of the town are quickly entranced and enthralled by these gifts. While some stalwarts put up a strong resistance, in the end their efforts come to nought as the women are forced to cradle mini-blocks and the whole town is swallowed up in the miasma of mass industrial society and culture.

The black-and-white animation shows the issue in all its brutal starkness and scenes of mass assembly manufacture verge on Konstruktivist abstraction. There’s a fair amount of female nudity and tastefully portrayed sexual intercourse so the short clearly isn’t intended for children. Characters are representative of various social strata and adhere to traditional gender stereotypes. Women are portrayed either as Madonnas or whores and men as either noble and heroic or weak and easily corrupted. Music varies according to the needs of the narrative with electronic music representing the onslaught of mass industry and its filthy insinuations into people’s lives.

Though the animation is very good, the theme and thus the narrative and characterisation are dated, even for the period portrayed. Workers and capitalists can’t simply be portrayed as good against evil any more: in modern societies now, be they capitalist, corporate fascist, socialist or other, ideologies valuing economic rationality and progress, technocracy, human control of nature, debt-based finance and belief in economic competition and nationalism still hold sway and can be just as destructive of human happiness and life as  Communism was in Estonia from 1945 to 1991.

Aeg Maha (Time Out): Soviet Estonian animation at its most surreal

Priit Pärn and Hille Kusk, “Aeg Maha / Time Out” (1984)

“Aeg Maha” is animator Priit Pärn at his most defiantly surrealist best. The entire short is one big surrealist dream with practically no plot save for the fact that the character dreaming it is journeying in the dream with no particular aim in mind other than to have a good time. All the action takes place on a stage and concerns a cat in thrall to time as represented on an alarm clock. At 9:30 am the main action begins in a whirlpool and the cat plunges right into it like Alice into the rabbit hole.

The cat’s adventures proceed amid a riot of visual gags in which ripples become an island which becomes a manhole cover; palm trees can be chopped into mini helicopters; elves’ long hoods do multiple duty as river streams, umbrellas, fish skeletons and moulds for wolves’ teeth; a woman’s bra becomes a sail; and even the cat’s own tail gets him out of trouble by chainsawing the palm trees and then whacking a predatory shark. Everything is all free association: there’s no narrative within the dream, no apparent moral, it all seems to be just nonsense.

Is it really though? The alarm clock rings and the cat discovers it was all a dream. The curtain falls and all the characters he met in the dream gather in front for audience applause.

There might just be a message, one the Soviet authorities missed completely: within the prison that was Soviet society at the time, you can be free to do whatever you like within your imagination – with the proviso that your time in the clouds is strictly rationed by the clock.

Nõiutud saar (The Enchanted Island): a sweet and charming film with a moral about unity in diversity

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, “Nõiutud Saar (The Enchanted Island)” (1985)

Another gem from Tallinnfilm studios and this time it’s a cute stop-motion animation short with no dialogue, just harmonica and string-based tune fragments to substitute for speech and emotion and to emphasise action. The style is simple and sweet with appealing characters; even the monster that pops up with rows of sharp teeth bared in the middle of the body where the head should bounce up is endearingly cute. Initially the film appears to be aimed at children but there is a slight sexual though harmless innuendo in the middle of the short.

A small group of fishing folk lives on a tiny island in the middle of a vast flat sea. Each day they row out to catch fish. One member of the group – usually always the youngest or most inexperienced – has trouble putting his boat out to sea and nearly always drowns while fishing. One day though the fishers are overcome by a monster whale; the little guy turns out to have the most guts and gets rid of the whale. However it seems the monster whale has cast a spell over the rest of the group, all the fishers having gone spastic in their attempts to appease their god, so the little feller converts himself into a bird-machine and flies to another realm to fight the evil spirit. He has to do this three times before the spell is finally broken and the fishers return to their normal functioning selves.

The little characters are Swiss-knife cybernetic organisms that change their forms and this is where the animation is most inventive; the little guys’ hands change from fins to harpoons to wings whenever required. They have expressive eyes but otherwise don’t show emotion. The evil that confronts our hero comes in various forms: firstly as a leviathan whale, then as a beguiling lady flamenco dancer (whom our hero defeats by turning into an old-fashioned gramophone player) and then as an even more colossal whale with a hidden secret weapon. The music is charming and whimsical: harmonica represents our hero’s character including his initial awkward klutziness and later bravery while other characters are accompanied by other instruments, mainly strings.

It’s a funny, sweet and charming little film with a little moral for children that it doesn’t matter if they’re not the same as other children in certain skills: everyone is unique and might have a special talent that helps everybody survive together. The fishing folk accept our hero in spite of his incompetence as a fisher as he has other abilities that help them all. The one flaw people might find is that the fishing folk tend to ignore our hero throughout the film and don’t appear to change their attitudes towards him; some change in the way they interact with him might have lifted the film to universal greatness. Disney-style sentimentality is not called for here, just a slight acknowledgement of what he’s done for them is all that’s needed.

Jänes (The Hare): trippy bionic bunny tale reconciles science and nature

Ando Keskküla, “Jänes (The Hare)” (1976)

One of the trippiest animation films I have seen since starting this blog and I have seen a fair few, I can tell you! Let’s genuflect on our hands and knees and thank Thronoi the Bear for uploading a treasure trove of Soviet Estonian animation films to Youtube. Compared to cartoons coming out of the West and Japan during the same period, “Jänes” might not feature such wonderful special effects and the latest technical advances but it overcomes its disadvantages by featuring a heart-warming story about acceptance of outsiders and reconciliation between science and nature in a colourful yet warm and cosy psychedelic style.

 A scientist / inventor, looking remarkably like a paunchy Roger Federer, shuts up his assembly-line cyborg machine for the evening and goes home. His menagerie of animals is curious about the machines in his laboratory and a rabbit ventures inside. It gets lost inside the machine, turns on some knobs and the machine scans its features and accepts them as instructions for a new cyborg. After two false starts, the cyborg bunny is created and leaps out after its original model. Rejected by the other animals though, the cyborg wanders into the city where in the morning it causes peak-hour traffic mayhem and makes headline news on TV. Our Victor Frankenstein sees the lab lagomorph on his TV, calls up his mini-copter and flies into the city in search of his inadvertent creation. Finding it in an alley, exhausted and dented after one too many encounters with deranged drivers, the scientist brings his bionic bunny home and the animals in the menagerie take pity on it and hold a party to cheer it up. The scientist opens a flap in the techno-rabbit’s head, twists a few knobs, and retreats. Instantly a Meccano set of beams, screws and levers pours out of the critter’s head and transforms into a rollercoaster, then an entire fun fair.

The plot is easy enough to follow with a medium-to-fast pace and there’s no Estonian spoken so the film can be enjoyed by everyone within and without Estonia. The animation is sometimes difficult to see and appreciate in the first third of the film which takes place at night. City scenes, based on photographic stills, are sometimes a wonder to see with all their detail though it might be hard for people unfamiliar with Estonia to appreciate the style and ambience of Tallinn as the action moves quickly and the stills are on the scene for a few seconds each. There are lots of yellows, oranges and browns in the characters and some scenes and the look of the film is warm and molten. In the final scenes where Robo-rabbit transforms, bright lights appear and the look can be very abstract as the camera goes up and down the rollercoaster. A peacock provides the disco lights with its tail and bears boogie and dance and go for rides on the rollercoaster, Ferris wheel and flying scooters. 

There’s a wonderful message about how science and nature can co-exist happily together away from humans, and hope might be expressed that the humans can follow the example of the animals and learn to accept outsiders, machine or not, in society.