Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.1, April 1997
The Influence of Religion on Early European Animation
by P. Pluie-Toile
The relationship between religion and animation has long been a subject which I have wanted to address and one which, despite its transcendental connotations, has been an area of representational art that defies rationalization. I am grateful to Prof. Doktor Heinrich Schlepperman for his counsel and for putting my first steps on the sacred paths of this tenebrous area of research.
The Mystical Life
The father of Russian animation, Alexander Krolikov was deeply influenced by the metaphysical concepts of the early Orthodox Church in the Ukraine. If one studies, in particular, the icons of the Church of St. Nikolai in Kiev, it can clearly be seen that there are, underlying references to the mystical life. Krolikov based his early masterpieceSlivnoy Bachok Isportilsa (1912) on these dark recesses of primitive belief. Myenya Tashnit (1920) is a moving spiritual essay on forgiveness in which primitive anaglyphs fall to earth from the night sky. Krolikov's own life was frequently reflected in his work and the child in Zakat (1922) is thought to be a reference to his brother who died in infancy. The references to suffering and joy in this sombre film were the consummation of Schiller's statement, "kurz ist der Schmerz, und ewig ist die Freude."
Another Russian animator to be influenced by religious doctrines in his early films, and particularly Byzantine symbolism with all its allusive meaning, was Ivan Feodorovich. His seminal work Skuchniy (1931) is emblematic of the "religio laici" in its nonconfomism. His prophetic neorealism in Steppe II (1938) is overtly contemptuous of the early Christian etbic which he later abandoned.
The tragic visionary Sergei Sergeivitch renounced his secular life io 1946 to espouse Conformism and his last film before his untimely death, Eta Syer'yozna? (1948) has all the latent imagery of the early martyrs; the inverted scaffold showing a precise relationship between spontaneity and the optimum degree of repression.
A Dark and Gloomy Path
Polish animation has always walked a dark and gloomy path and perplexing dark Madonnas appear in abundance in the works of Zbigniew Wczjpycz. His obscure references to the Hypostatic Union in Lichtarze (1951) show empirically based elements of mysticism as the shadowy figures of nuns walk hand in hand through an apocryophal landscape chanting the hymn "Ratunka! Skradziono mi Raczre." Religious motifs also appear in Sam Spozywczy (1956), although here they are more syncretic.
France too has its share of visionaries, Claude Le Blagueur in his short film Lièvre (1939) gives life to the character of Saint Jeannot Punaises who later appeared in Lièvre II, which Le Blagueur made in Germany in 1967. Here Saint Jeannot struggles with the forces of evil in the shape of a hunter who attempts to seize the Holy Mohrrübe.
This feeling of Schadenfreude also appears in the work of the Hans Schabernack, the German abstract experimentalist, who used obscure and perplexing light shapes in Aberglaube (1937) to depict the fight between good and evil. In this concept, even at its most ethical, religion is nothing more than a Pantheistic comparison witb Nature. In a later work, Ein Scherz (1939), the relationship between magic and religion again appears as a strange semianimal shapes circle the figure of a tonsured monk who has persecuted them. The Gothic fantasies of Siegfried Schnipps, who worked in Germany until 1933, are characterized by the figure of Hölzern Specht, which gives rise to the question: Does this character embody the pestilence, or is its image evoked merely to characterize him? As yet, this question remains unanswered.
The deeply moralistic approach of Krny Knyrka, the Czechoslovak master of coup d'oeil, may be misleading. The images in Zajíc (1935) evoke an uneasiness and are the embodiment of pre-Christian Shamanism. Kachni (1936) is his definitive artistic statement and he portrays the ceaseless fight between good and evil by using the figure of Chemin-Courer, a 14th century French troubadour, who is constantly under attack by a terrifying demon, Astucieux.
The Archetypal Concept of Tragedy
Petru Petrunescu, the Romanian animator, used Italian art of the Quattrocentro in several of his films. In Am Pierdut Rata (1925), he uses the character of the Rata as the archetypal concept of tragedy and this chimerical representation is inspired by a spiritual iconoclasm. A later film on the life of Michel le Souris used this same concept. This highly moralistic work depicts the simple life of le Souris, his joys, his sufferings, and his devotion to his constant companion, a dog. In 1927, Petrunescu's wife, Waltraut Diesnicht, took a copy of this film to America where she disappeared. It was rumored that she had changed her name and went to Hollywood, but this was never proved.
Unfortunately, there is no space here to mention the work of Gyula Tibor Gyulas, the great Hungarian animator, who was influenced by the primitive church hierarchies of Kecskemet, nor that of Ron Rye the abstract painter working in Britain in the early thirties, and many, many others.
I would like to thank Ron Diamond for his inspiration for this treatise and end with a quotation. As Niais Schmendrik stated in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1986, "Où se trouvent les poissons d'avril?" I could not agree more.
P. Pluie-Toile is on the faculty of Film & Television, University of Balham. This article is adapted from a paper given at the biennial conference of the International Society for Semiotics in Religion at the University of Baden Unter-Wären, in 1996.
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