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The Spirit Of Genius: Feodor Khitruk

William Moritz discovers Otto Alder's excellent documentaryon Feodor Khitruk, where Alder uncovers not only the life and works of theelusive Cold War soviet master, but also sheds light on the soviet animationregime.

Feodor Khitruk. Photo © Otto Alder.

To many, Feodor Khitruk may be more or less an unknown quantity. His prime films were made during the "Cold War" years, and did not find wide distribution in the west, even though they won prizes at film festivals like Cannes, Venice, Oberhausen and New York. Khitruk himself was active in ASIFA, and appeared at many festivals as a distinguished guest, without his films being seen too often... Otto Alder's fascinating 1998 hour-long documentary, The Spirit Of Genius, goes a considerable way toward redressing the situation. Spoken mainly in German, with an English version that uses both subtitles and some voice narration, Alder's film documents not only Khitruk's life but the whole milieu of soviet animation. A Brilliant Man At the very beginning of the film, some 10 people, including prominent animators like Yuri Norstein and Eduard Nazarov, give brief testimonials about Khitruk. Their statements approach idolatry: Andrei Khrzanovsky hails Khitruk's films as "absolute masterpieces," Mikhail Aldashin says Khitruk is "the personification of goodness" and Aleksandr Tatarsky says he is like Christ... The viewer may suspect that some flattery or blind adulation lies behind this acclaim, but when Khitruk himself speaks, it is easy to understand. He is wise and philosophical: "The animator, like God, breathes a soul into his creations...," "Animation contains all the other artforms: the art of acting, the concentrated emotion of poetry...," "It takes two to make art: the artist and the audience...." Moreover, he is generous, patient, witty, urbane, etc., etc., etc. Khitruk's life itself is fascinating. Born in 1917 of a Jewish mother and an ardent Communist father, he went to school in Moscow at the time when the great films of Eisenstein were screening at the local cinemas. In 1931 his father was sent to Berlin on goverment business, so Feodor attended a school of commercial art in Stuttgart and reveled in the glories of the classical music of conductor Otto Klemperer and the great tenors Josef Schmidt and Richard Tauber -- and he saw them banned with the rise of Nazism, before the family returned to Moscow in 1934. A screening of Disney's Three Little Pigs made him want to be an animator, and he joined the state-run animation studio in 1937, where he worked primarily on children's films. He was drafted into the army, and served until 1948 since his knowledge of German and Germany made him an ideal translator for the post-war occupation. By 1949 he was back in the government animation studios, working as an animator for the "Russian Disney" Ivan Ivanov-Vano on features like The Snow Queen, and shorter films like the delightful The Magic Toyshop and a version of Pinocchio, Buratino. Around 1960 he became a director in his own right, and began to produce art-films with serious messages, creating for Russia (despite the stern censorship of the arts) something like the revolution in graphic style of UPA and Zagreb, and the dark social criticism of Polish animators like Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. The success of films like Story Of A Crime, Film Film Film, Man In A Frame and his Winnie The Pooh adaptation, The Little Bear, made him the dean of a whole generation of young animators, whom he taught and supported tirelessly.

Norstein and his mentor, Khitruk. Photo © Otto Alder.

A Fascinating Peak

Otto Alder uses many clips from Khitruk's films throughout the documentary, sometimes to express information about artistic matters or societal events. If one does not know the films as a whole, it would be hard to get an idea of their individual structure or meaning. For example, when Khitruk visited the Disney Studios in Hollywood, Woolie Reitherman told him that he thought Khitruk's version of Winnie the Pooh was better than the Disney version -- but we would not be able to judge whether that were true from the excerpts in this documentary. Ideally, the documentary should be distributed (as the National Film Board of Canada did with Norman McLaren's Creative Process) in a two-tape set, with one containing a selection of complete Khitruk films. In addition to Khitruk's own work, the film contains generous excerpts from a spectacular 1929 film Post, animated by Mikhail Tzekhanovsky in the sleek dynamic style of the soviet Constructivist art movement. The closing sequence, in which Khitruk pays a visit to Yuri Norstein, contains a few priceless minutes of Norstein's legendary unfinished The Overcoat, as well as a close look at the jointed cut-out figures with which Norstein works. Khitruk played a key role in protecting and furthering Norstein's work during the gloomier soviet times, and Norstein's fond warmth for Khitruk is evident in their visit. Norstein reads from some of the witty Pushkin sketches which he had animated for Khrzanovsky's film, and he excuses his own tardiness in finishing The Overcoat with a marvelously appropriate joke: "A man in an asylum was writing a letter. Someone asked to whom it was addressed. `Myself,' he replied. `What is it about?,' the other man asked. `I don't know, I haven't received it yet,' the writer replied." When Khitruk takes his leave of Norstein in front of his snowy Moscow studio, Alder appropriately recalls the wintery sequence from Norstein's Tale Of Tales in which the boy remembers his father trudging through the snow. The father in Tale Of Tales, however, seems rather stern and mean, while Khitruk (and Norstein) seems rather like the personification of goodness. To obtain a copy of The Spirit of Genius, contact: Tag/Traum. Cornelia Volmer. Weyerstr. 88. D-50676 Cologne, Germany. Tel.: +49 221 235933 Fax: +49 221 233894 E-mail: William Moritz teaches film and animation history at the California Institute of the Arts.