Kolmnurk (The Triangle): delightfully surreal film about a husband, his wife and her midget lover

Priit Pärn, “Kolmnurk (The Triangle)” (1982)

Yet another delightful animation short from this Estonian animator back in the 1980s and thankfully for a non-Estonian speaker like me, the cartoon features no dialogue apart from the characters’ names. Viktor and Julia have been married for some time and the couple seem stuck in a rut: Viktor waits for dinner, reading his newspaper, while Julia makes breakfast, lunch and dinner for him. The relationship clearly is very one-sided: Julia’s emotional and sexual needs are going unmet while Viktor and his tummy are doing very well out of the marriage. Unexpectedly, a little door opens up at the bottom of the stove and out pops Lilliputian-sized Eduard, a suave Latin-lover type, attracted by the smell of Julia’s cooking, who jumps up onto the kitchen bench and eats all the cooked food. Julia patiently cooks more and Eduard gulps it all down. Viktor, enraged at his wife’s acquiescence to Eduard’s amorous attentions to the food, leaves home and Eduard takes his place at the table and newspaper. Viktor later relents and returns to his wife. They reconcile and Eduard skulks back home where his wife Veronika has been waiting; the two take up their appointed places at table with newspaper and stove respectively.

There’s no obvious moral which is perhaps one reason Soviet government censors at the time of the short’s release didn’t take too kindly to the film and limited its cinematic release. The film probably says something about the uneven relationships between men and women in marriage at the time. The animation style is based on pencil drawings and looks superficially simple and straightforward but it’s definitely not a film for children: the animation uses a lot of cut-outs of faces, eyes and sensuous lips to hint at Viktor and Julia’s sexual yearnings and unmet needs, and Julia’s body with its ample breasts also is the focus of Eduard and Viktor’s attentions later in the film. There is much surrealism in the film as well: cooking flavours travel far through the country, Eduard morphs into a necklace for Julia and Viktor floats through the air while running away from home.

The black humour, the deliberately crude, pencil-drawn animation style, whimsical story and surrealistic dream elements make this film a worthy one to watch for animation students.

Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass): study of a dreary, run-down, post-industrial society

Priit Pärn and Hille Kuusk, “Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass)” (1987)

Inspired by the Edouard Manet painting “Luncheon on the Grass”, this 25-minute short follows the lives of two women and two men in an Estonian city and the alienation and deindividuation they experience in four installments. An anonymous woman braves surly behaviour and sexual harassment from various strangers as she tries to do her daily shopping and eventually has to grant a sexual favour to a fruit-seller for a measly apple. In the second installment, a man called Georg undergoes identity loss while trying to work the system to his advantage to get a job as a manager. Up next, Berta also suffers identity loss as a result of becoming a mother. Finally, Eduard joins a queue and sucks up to a slimy bureaucrat in order to leap over hurdles to get a certificate.

All the characters above join for a picnic in the park and pose as models for the Manet artwork. This is the only time in their lives (presumably) when they are able to demonstrate their individuality to the outside world. They then return to their humdrum lives. Although the film does not have English sub-titles, mercifully for me whatever Estonian-language dialogue is present seems to be secondary to the film’s plot and themes and acts as background noise that reinforces the soullessness of the society around our four comrades.

The artwork is mostly pencil-drawn save for Georg’s segment in which stop-motion animation is used on realistically rendered characters and backgrounds that turn out to be part of Georg’s day-dreaming. The animation is deliberately childish in style to emphasise the petty nature of society and how it reduces people to infantile and boorish behaviour. In Berta’s segment, the woman loses her face and any features she attempts to apply to her blankness end up primitively drawn and easily wiped off. Meanwhile photographs and paintings of her are beautifully scribbled by pencil and she tries in vain frustration to emulate these pictures before destroying them.

Although the film looks very simple, it’s quite subtle and complex: throughout the piece, sinister grey figures drag an artist through the streets while accompanied by sinister black birds. This perhaps says something about the society’s attitude to art and culture, how it derides and crushes things of beauty and individual expression. At the end of the film, the artist lies in agony on the road, his arm obliterated by a tractor. Various scenes in the film portray the little ways in which people are ground down by their depressing urban environment; as Georg’s domestic scene demonstrates with oozing black goop coming up through the kitchen sink drain and through the paintings on the wall, even home is no cozy cocoon against the grim outside world.

The film has many surreal elements and acknowledges its debt to surreal artists like Salvador Dali (early on, there is a reproduction of one of Dali’s works in the background) but even surrealism gives way to dreary reality and in the end is made to reinforce the dismal look and conduct of Soviet Estonian society in the late 1980s. Worth watching for its style and varied use of animation and those people interested in what a run-down, post-industrial society might look like when all its wealth has been exhausted and everyone is reduced to living like rats ought to watch this piece.

Suur Tõll: colourful, almost psychedelic animation about a mythical Estonian hero

Rein Raamat and Kulno Luht, “Suur Tõll”(1980)

In Estonian mythology Suur Tõll is a giant hero king who rules the island of Saaremaa off the coast of western Estonia in the Baltic sea. He gets the animation treatment in this 14-minute short directed by Rein Raamat and Kulno Luht and featuring artwork by Jüri Arrak. In a colourful, almost psychedelic cartoon dominated by shades of yellow, orange, dark browns and tan, and with a brassy music soundtrack to match, the great king strides about the island battling evil where he finds it. As the short progresses though, he loses his wife to a demon and then in a fight against an army of demons, the demon king beheads our hero. In a rage, Suur Tõll kills the demon king and defeats the army; he then recovers his head and goes away to die. His body turns into a stony hill and his head becomes a boulder on a plain to remind the Saaremaa inhabitants of his heroism and feats of strength and bravery.

The constant music soundtrack with its deep-voiced, almost inhuman choruses and the blaring brass trumpets gives the short an epic, almost Biblical feel. The giant, his wife and their various enemies look so monumental in their simple cut-out cardboard silhouette figures and big blocks of colour so it’s a real shock to discover that the couple is mortal after all. The animators assume that everyone watching the short knows the stories about  Suur Tõll so they blend the best-known tales about him in one film and the action proceeds silently with just the music as sonic accompaniment.

The bright hues, the almost child-like outlines of the characters and their blocky shapes with very few details of clothing and the way they stride rather than walk, fling things rather than throw or toss, and go WHACK! with their swords, scythes or spears rather than fight, together create something that is very dream-like and surreal, and fitting for an age when giant heroes really did stride across the landscape and sometimes deigned to help humans with their problems. The short is very distinctive in look and style but if viewers want to know more of Jüri Arrak’s work, they are best referred to his paintings and drawings which really are the bee’s knees.

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.

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest: thoughtful low-budget sci-fi film about how humans and other intelligent beings can co-exist

Marek Pestrak, “Pilot Pirx’s Inquest” / “Test Pilota Pirxa” / “Doznanie Pilota Pirksa” (1979)

A joint Polish-Estonian production, this low-budget movie about a space trip that nearly ends in tragedy examines the theme of how humans and human-like robots might co-exist if the robots, made to serve humans, realised they were superior to their masters in some ways. A corporation that manufactures intelligent androids is keen to begin mass production but meets resistance from the public and governments. It is proposed that a small crew of humans and androids be sent on a mission to place two probes in the rings of Saturn: a simple enough job but the purpose of the mission is to observe the behaviours and interactions between the humans and robots. Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitski) is selected to head the mission. He refuses at first but changes his mind and accepts the role after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. During the mission, some members of the crew including crew physician Tom Novak (Alexander Kaidanovski) confide in him and reveal their identities as either human or robot and insinuate that other members may not be human. Pirx isn’t sure who’s telling the truth and starts feeling a little paranoid about what’s happening around him on the ship Goliath. Still he’s determined to find out who is human and who is not, figuring that knowing who is which is critical to the mission’s success. In the meantime a rogue member of the crew carries out small acts of sabotage on the ship and sends Pirx a recorded warning and threat which Pirx plays. When it’s time to insert the probes, the Goliath goes wildly off course through the ring belt, the ship is forced to accelerate suddenly and the humans on board face death from being turned into schnitzels from the incredible G-forces the Goliath encounters.

The special effects are uneven and often elementary to the extent of appearing cartoonish but they are adequate for the purposes of the film which gives the impression of being “hard science fiction” with its emphasis on scientific realism. There are just enough effects to make the society credible as scientifically and technologically advanced and at the same time a society we can recognise as ours. It’s as if the movie takes place in an alternate 1970s where the spending priorities of governments and corporations were different enough that some areas of robotics and cybernetics developed faster than they did in our 197os, and so the parallel Earth got androids and we didn’t. The world in “Test Pilota Pirxa” otherwise looks no different than what ours looked like over thirty years ago and the film itself now appears as a fictional historical drama.

The acting is low-key and straight with Desnitski dominating the bulk of the movie’s scenes. He underplays his role as do all the other actors in a film heavy with dialogue whose sole purpose is to push the plot and explore the human-versus-robot theme. As Novak who reveals his robot identity early on, Kaidanovski impresses in a minimalist, subdued way as a being who understands little of human nature and its ways yet is keen to help Desnitski. Interestingly his character and another robot voice their hope that Desnitski’s opinion of robots will be negative so that their makers can’t go ahead with mass production, otherwise the robots that already exist will lose their individual identities and won’t be able to exult in their special abilities which help form those identities. No point in being an Übermensch if you have so many millions of clones like you who can do the same things you can do; you would just feel like … well, you would just feel like yet another machine-cog in a vast network of machine-cogs.

The music soundtrack by famous Estonian holy minimalist composer Arvo Part is not impressive: it’s a mix of conventional orchestral formal compositional music, spider-like organ music that almost sounds a little electronic and some near-futuristic percussion rhythms and beats.

The plot’s resolution suggests that co-existence between humans and robots will always be ambivalent. Trying to second-guess what robots might be thinking and why they might do certain things and not others will be a major human preoccupation. As long as human and robot natures are kept separate with humans allowed to be irrational and robots restricted to acting logically and rationally, humans will always be able to control robots. Not a very satisfactory conclusion to reach; how human and robot natures will remain separate is never explained. The relationship between humans and technology already is a dynamic one in which technological advances and breakthroughs force us to change and re-evaluate our reliance and dependence on machines constantly so the same would be expected of human and android interactions.

The film can be slow and doesn’t really start until halfway through once the Goliath blasts off. The early half of “Test Pilota Pirxa” plays a little like a straight spy thriller. Once we’re in space and Desnitski begins questioning the crew, the paranoia and the tension start to increase. The climax isn’t especially dramatic and no, it doesn’t actually come when the rogue member’s identity is revealed and he meets a just punishment – it comes much later after Pirx’s court case, in which he is prosecuted for having endangered his crew during the mission, ends.

As is, “Test Pilota Pirxa” could have done better in its investigation of human-android interaction and whether humans and androids can live together amicably. It takes for granted that robots will always be logical and there will be large-scale human resistance towards them; this attitude wouldn’t necessarily exist in real life. Much depends on what the robots are designed to do and how generalised or specialised we humans want them to be. At least the film treats its audiences as intelligent and able to consider its concepts. The ambiguous conclusion suggests a reluctance on the film-makers’ part to commit to a definite opinion as to whether co-existence is possible and if so, can be successful; what could be implied instead is a plea for tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude.