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Why the Soviets loved fairytale films

A scene from Soviet fairy tale Viy - Credit: Eureka/ Masters of Cinema

Amid the moralising and propaganda, the Soviet Hollywood also produced dark fantasy movies that were a world away from Disney’s saccharine output – and created a troubled relationship with the communist authorities. 

In the grand scheme of things, there are worse things about dictatorships than them telling audiences what they were allowed to watch, but even so: it must have been dispiriting indeed to know your evening’s entertainment depended on the official ideology. No wonder genuine escapism was embraced so warmly.

There’s no better example of this than communist Russia. To this day, the films of the old USSR have a reputation as dour propaganda, stressing the importance of tractor production and the like, designed to exhort the New Soviet Man.

But there’s a flip-side to that. Just as Walt Disney delighted the West with adaptions of beloved yarns, so Russia cultivated a tradition of fairy tale films of their own. Only, theirs weren’t exclusively for kids.

A good example of this is re-released this month, a spiffing blu-ray special edition of Viy (1967). Taken from a story by Nikolai Gogol, itself inspired by old tales of Ukraine, it gives the lie to dull, dutiful stereotypes, being instead a brightly coloured spook show about a young priest who has an unfortunate encounter with a witch. It is a perfectly judged excursion into the macabre, with nary a tractor to be seen: Lenin would not have approved.

The miracle is that such films were ever allowed to be made in a system which took a dim view of ‘peasant superstitions’ and the like. Indeed, in the years immediately after the revolution, they were all but prohibited. You’ll remember Lenin’s line, about how “cinema, for us, is the most important of the arts”.

That manifested itself with an emphasis on ‘socialist realism’ and a profound suspicion of make believe. Films were principally a vehicle for education (look at how ghastly the bourgeoisie are!) and enlightenment (all this upheaval is for your own good, you know!). There wasn’t much room for fripperies like fantasy.

Still, some filmmakers were able to game the system, realising they could get away with elaborate flights of fancy by stirring a bit of barely-disguised propaganda into the mix. For the 1925 creeper The Bear’s Wedding, director Konstantin Eggert adapted Prosper Mérimée’s tale of a rich man who believes himself able to transform into a bear (which is his excuse for murdering women). Deeply problematic in Soviet terms, but Eggert got away with it because it threw shade on the aristocracy.

Soon enough, however, things would change. As so often with communism, ideas that seemed fine in theory proved rather less successful in practice; cinema was not educating and enlightening the masses as it was meant to. If anything, the masses seemed to prefer more escapist fare, suggesting a small adjustment was necessary.

And so, under Stalin, the constraints were relaxed. By 1935, it was possible to make The New Gulliver, which re-worked Jonathan Swift’s travelogue into something more politically conscious. Part-live action, part stop-motion animation, it re-casts the Lilliputians as tiny capitalists who are radicalised by their visitor.

This was followed by The Magic Fish (AKA Wish Upon a Pike, 1938) which took its story from an old folk tale (itself something unthinkable even a few years before). It concerns a young man who finds a fish that can grant wishes, assists him to net his beloved and then escape the wicked tsar.

That tsar, of course, is painted in the most villainous terms throughout – things hadn’t changed that much – but it was possible, just about, to watch it without realising you were being educated and enlightened.

All these paved the way for the real breakthrough, which came in 1940. Vasilisa the Beautiful marked the true beginning of the Soviet fairytale film, establishing the form as it would flourish thereafter. There is political content, true, but it’s more muted here: we are invited to draw comparisons between the hero and the model communist citizen. Although he starts as a callow youth, he travels on a quest and meets people from across Russia, learning from their wisdom and ultimately succeeding with their help.

But for the first time the ideology isn’t shoehorned in. Instead, this is a tale told with conviction and joy: the titular Vasilisa is kidnapped by a witch and it’s up to the handsome hero to save her. Also, there are dragons.

The director of Vasilisa the Beautiful was Alexander Rou, one of the two great auteurs of fairytale cinema. He was actually born ‘Alexander Rowe’ – his father, an engineer who came to Russia to develop industry in 1905, was Irish – but he lapped up the folk stories of his adopted land and once the political situation finally allowed for it, he seized the opportunity to put them on film.

After doing his bit for the war effort, he returned to the subject, establishing himself as one of the most successful filmmakers – well, in terms of raw audience numbers, in the whole world. They flocked to see things like Kashchei the Immortal (1945), part mythology, part allegory for Russia’s wartime experience.

And after Stalin died, he was able to go even further. With Khrushchev dialling back his predecessor’s excesses, it became possible to make films which didn’t even pay lip-service to politics: Rou could vanish into undersea kingdoms – The Magic Weaver (1960) – invent a mirror world – Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1963) – or, if he wanted, a film about the difficulties of Christmas shopping – The Night Before Christmas (1961).

The most famous/ infamous of his films is probably Father Frost, ‘infamous’ because to Western eyes it is completely bananas. It starts as a Cinderella-style love story which gets interrupted by a little mushroom man who turns the would-be groom into a bear. Meanwhile, an evil witch decides to stick her oar in too and it’s up to ‘Father Frost’ – a sort-of Santa Claus figure – to sort it all out. It’s not the best advertisement for Rou and his talents, but only the most churlish could claim it’s not utterly charming.

Rou’s great comrade in fantasy was Aleksandr Ptushko. It was he who directed The New Gulliver (and, for that matter, Viy); a some-time animator, he was a master of illusion and trickery. Where Rou was a romantic, Ptushko was a magician, conjuring wondrous special effects to bring mythic tales to the screen. In Sadko (1953) his hero sails to the ends of the earth to find the blue bird of happiness, while Ilya Muromets (1956) battles dragons, ogres and demons, all realised – gorgeously so – without CGI.

Ptsucko and Rou weren’t the only practitioners of this art, even if they made the finest examples. Certainly the genre has endured beyond them (both died in 1973). It’s even outlasted communism itself: most recently we’ve had The Book of Masters (2009) – the first film from Disney’s Russian division – and The Last Warrior (2017), where a brave fighter journeys to save his family.

Alas, the hand-crafted, tactile effects that make the earlier films so delightful are a lost art: they have computers now. But then, times have changed. Modern Russia isn’t quite the Happily Ever After ending that might have been hoped for after communism expired, but at least they don’t need magic quite so urgently.

Viy is released by Eureka/ Masters of Cinema. Other titles are available from Ruscico

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You can’t talk about Russian folk tales, and the films derived from them, without mentioning their most notorious character. If there’s a witch in one of these movies, then chances are it’ll be Baba Yaga, a veritable superstar in the hag/crone community.

Certainly she makes Western witches look like mere part-timers, getting up to all manner of mischief (feasting on children? Check. Despoiling livestock? You betcha). And look at where she lives! You think a gingerbread house is a cool pad? Pah! Baba Yaga makes her home in a hut that stands on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence made of human bones.

Alexandr Rou was especially fond of Baba Yaga featuring her in both Vasilisa the Beautiful (1940), his last, The Golden Horns (1973) and a few times in between. On each occasion, the role was taken by Georgy Millyar. Poor chap – typecast as a hideous, bony harridan.

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