Unearthed from Moscow's legendary Soyuzmultfilm Studios (est. 1935), the 41 films in ANIMATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA span sixty years of Soviet history (1924 - 1984), and have never been available before in the U.S. The set is divided thematically into four discs, all dealing with different subjects of the Soviet propaganda machine:
AMERICAN IMPERIALISTS (disc 1) contains seven films, almost all of which are drawn from the Cold War era. The recurring image is of the money hungry industrialist self-destructing because of his greed.
FASCIST BARBARIANS (disc 2) is a 17 film reaction to the Nazi invasion of 1941. While Americans were mocked relentlessly, at least they remained human. After breaking the non-aggression pact and declaring war, the Nazis became animals in the propaganda films, turning into snarling warthogs and depraved vultures.
CAPITALIST SHARKS (disc 3) contains six films that take on the bourgeoisie the world over - and sometimes beyond. In INTERPLANTERY REVOLUTION (1924), capitalists escaping to Mars discover the revolution has spread throughout the galaxy.
ONWARD TO THE SHINING FUTURE: COMMUNISM (disc 4) contains 11 works, most of which mythologize the state and envision the inevitable utopias of the future. Dziga Vertov's SOVIET TOYS (1924), however, offers criticism of the state. Generally agreed to be the first Russian animated film, it satirizes the communist members who cashed in on Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP), which introduced a limited form of capitalist enterprise.
Containing 6 hours of rare material in all, this four-disc DVD set offers a fascinating look at the history of Soviet propaganda. It is an invaluable resource that displays how one of the greatest and most reclusive powers wanted their people to envision the rest of the world, as well as being an idiosyncratic tour through Russia's rich and varied history of animated art.
1924 - 1984 Russia B&W and Color
Say the word "Propaganda" and you'll get a number of different reactions. Any movie with a point of view will be called propaganda by someone strongly opposed to that point of view, so there's little to be gained by labeling one film 'evil brainwashing garbage' and another film 'a helpful advocacy documentary.' The newspapers are presently debating whether the feature film 300 is pro-war pro-brutality, or anti-war and pro-insurgency. Box Office and Brutality seem to be winning. When the WW2 Why We Fight series of morale boosting 'informational films' was shown on TV in the 1980s, Frank Capra appeared in person to defend the charge that his pictures were, in terms of pure facts, just as distorted and dishonest as the hateful Nazi films of Leni Riefenstahl and others. Capra insisted that Why We Fight was planned as a weapon of war, not as the entire truth. The fact that he was using his filmic talent on the side of freedom and justice is what made the difference.
Americans label as nonsense the idea that a filmmaker can show them a picture and influence what they think, but Madison Avenue advertisers have had success operating on that principle for a full century now. The word propaganda in Spanish means an advertisement, after all. And the idea of mind control doesn't stop with non-fiction. Whenever a critic feels that a film is pulling them in an unwanted emotional or intellectual direction, the director is charged with being 'manipulative.' What the mass public finds acceptable to view has a definite effect on how we think.
Children of the Cold War heard many stories about nasty Soviet propaganda but were rarely if ever shown any. We were instead brought up on oddball bits of American anti-Soviet propaganda, which filtered down into television shows and genre films. We were told that the Soviet Union was evil and wanted to take over the world. The worst examples of Hollywood's anti-Commie films -- The Red Menace, Red Planet Mars, Big Jim McClain and Invasion U.S.A. -- were enough to make one give special preference to what the other side had to say. According to our propaganda, the Russians were spewing out a constant flow of lies. The crazy humor of Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three is actually not so crazy ... most of its satirical jabs at both the West and the Soviets have a basis in truth.
The new disc set Animated Soviet Propaganda: From the October Revolution to Perestroika serves up six hours of original, uncut animations designed to mold public opinion within the Soviet Union. All are from Moscow's Soyuzmultfilm Studios, which apparently specialized in animation. The contents will have an instant appeal to animation fans curious to see techniques from behind the Iron Curtain. Moscow animators copied Disney and Fleischer trends just as did everyone else. Historians will look for parallels between what was happening in the Kremlin and what showed up in the films. Lenin proclaimed film as the best medium to 'inform' the masses of the glorious collectivist future, and the collection allows us to see cinema theories put to the test. Interestingly, the less experimental films in the collection tend to communicate better.
Most importantly, the collection demonstrates that American anti-Communists were justified in considering the Soviets a serious threat. Soviets always presented their expansionist policy after WW2 as a process of freeing the workers of other countries from colonial rule. Faced with an all-powerful America with nuclear weapons, the USSR rationalized their oppressive domestic policies by emphasizing the presence of their enemies.
Frank Capra's Why We Fight justified Total War on the simplistic choice between A Free World and a Slave World, graphically presented on screen as light and dark parallel globes. Animated Soviet Propaganda -- aimed at Russian citizens -- makes the dramatic case that complete Utopia will only be possible when the Fascists and Capitalists have been defeated. The 'perfect' Communist state is the center of all human progress, but it is under constant threat by terrible villains and monsters.
The discs include extras coordinated by Professor of Film Sociology Igor Kokarev. In an insert booklet, Kokarev presents a basic primer of life under the Communist Party leaders. News, discussion and even mail from outside the nation was prohibited and Western publications held by libraries were viewable only for specific studies. Radio and television were controlled and filtered by the Party. The society was ruled by fear, secrecy and censorship. Citizens censored their own thoughts before speaking. Public conversation adhered to slogans and acceptable discourse, and private political thoughts could be expressed only in hushed tones.
The animated film was another weapon in the Totalitarian war of ideas. In a Soviet Union where over a hundred languages were spoken, moving pictures communicated ideas better than words. Animated cartoons were also ideal to teach small children. The influential power of film is undisputed, even here. Only a few years ago, Americans still subscribed to the idea that if something was on TV, it had to be true. Responsible people were in charge, right?
The films are divided by disc into four basic groupings. This list follows the actual contents of the discs, not the incorrect order given in the insert booklet. A straight chronological order may have been more desirable but this arrangement works well enough.
BLACK AND WHITE (1933) Whenever the collection criticizes American racism, its credibility goes way up. We start with this shocking, graphic exaggeration (?) of America as a land where slavery still rules.
MISTER TWISTER (1963) This poem-based tale uses cute animation to tell the story of a racist American who rejects a St. Petersburg hotel room because a black man is in the next room. This is a fine film, except for the fact that racism can be found in any country. I don't see why Russia should call herself an exception.
SOMEONE ELSE'S VOICE (1949) Loving, Bambi-like animation becomes a hideous endorsement of intolerance and conformism. A bird 'back from abroad' is publicly thrashed by an angry mob for singing decadent jazz instead of traditional songs. Just the sort of oppressive horror we expect from the late Stalinist period.
AVE MARIA (1972) This anti-Vietnam piece cheats by contrasting beautiful music and religious images with American horrors. Yankee fat cats celebrate Christmas while their evil Air Force bombs helpless civilians. Faceless soldiers gun down Vietnamese tots holding baby dolls. Propaganda doesn't get any more savage than this -- the film was clearly designed to be shown to Russian children.
MR. WOLF (1949) An odd, not entirely mean-spirited story animated in a style reminiscent of a Fleischer Superman cartoon. A frightened millionaire and his family escape to an "Island of Peace." But the American forgets his commitment to pacifism as soon as his fortune is threatened.
THE MILLIONAIRE (1963) This nasty satire has a bulldog inherit his master's fortune. He soon behaves like the rest of the Capitalist creeps, barking at peaceniks with the rest of his Wall Street cronies, etc. Because he's rich, the dog can urinate on a cop and receive a smile in return. He ultimately finds the perfect location to practice his corruption, the U.S. Congress.
SHOOTING RANGE (1979) This truly hateful show uses Zap Comics- style imagery to present a fable of an unemployed young American (with an English sports car!) who finds a job in a Times Square shooting gallery -- as a target. The evil Capitalist eventually gets the idea of letting the boy build a family, and employing them all as targets to be shot at.
KINO-CIRCUS (1942) Hitler is caricatured and lampooned in three blackout skits. The Russian stage emcee looks like Charlie Chaplin, but we're told he's a caricature of the famous Russian clown Karandash.
FASCIST BOOTS ON OUR HOMELAND (1941) Horrible, inhuman Nazi invaders are eventually repelled by noble Soviet planes. Standard stuff not that much different than our own wartime cartoons; all that's lacking is a sense of humor.
THE VULTURES (1941) More of the same. Nazis are pigs and carrion birds.
FOUR ANTI-HITLER NEWSREELS (POLITICAL SATIRE) (1941) Quick animated lessons, showing the need to crush the Germans and defeat their treacherous spies. A positive episode lauds cooperation with the English "Tommy" ally. It's the only time in any of the shows that a country other than the USSR is praised.
TO YOU, MOSCOW (1947) A color ode to the 800th anniversary of the founding of Moscow, celebrating its defeat of invaders through history and the miracle that it still stands.
THE ADVENTURES OF THE YOUNG PIONEERS (1971) Young Pioneers are essentially Red Boy Scouts. Three enterprising Russian kids (one is a girl) withstand the Nazi invaders, hoisting a Red Flag over the German headquarters. They're saved from a firing squad by a noble Soviet tank commander. Character-building "fun" for small kids.
THE PIONEER'S VIOLIN (1971) Small kids also need a good dose of bittersweet Russian misery, it seems. Beautiful, frightening animation shows the only survivor of a Nazi attack to be a child. Ordered to play his violin, the Young Pioneer refuses, and then decides to play a rebellious tune that infuriates his captors. Strong enough to mark a sensitive child for life.
VASILYOK (1973) More interesting animation highlights this odd tale of a boy searching for his grandfather, lost in the war. The old man returns, in spirit, in the form of a warship bearing his name. What ordinary grand-dad can compete?
A LESSON NOT LEARNED (1971) Creative techniques elevate this story of a Nazi war criminal protected by the Allies and encouraged to run for public office in West Germany. The 'angel' of Hitler follows him everywhere. Since history bears out parts of this show, it's more effective than many of the others.
ATTENTION! WOLVES! (1970) A scary, semi-abstract story of the West encouraging the raising of 'Wolves' -- feral children representing the threat of Neo-Nazism, come back as strong as ever. Ends with a genuinely frightening montage of war atrocities.
TALE OF A TOY (1984) An artsy, difficult-to-follow and disturbing blend of animation, newsreel and stop-motion collage work. Images of Spanish and German Fascism destroy the notion of Don Quixote, just for starters.
WE CAN DO IT (1970) American Generals and Capitalists hatch an evil black bird from a Nazi egg, threatening lovers and children the world over with nuclear doom. But the peace-loving pacifists of the world unite to defeat the monster. Even in "pacifist" propaganda, it's apparently important to demonize the USA. Oddly, the giant black bird bears some similarities to our old Sci Fi film The Giant Claw.
INTERPLANETARY REVOLUTION (1924) Soviet political science fiction. The glorious revolution spreads conquers Mars in this odd collage of images. When Earth Capitalists finally reach the Red Planet, they find it already worshipping Lenin.
WE'LL KEEP OUR EYES PEELED (1927) A Government bond drive is promoted with the claim that a foreign trade embargo is responsible for Soviet economic problems.
THE SHAREHOLDER (1963) One of the better-animated films, this one has real style even though its warped view of America is definitely filtered through alien eyes. A worker loses his job but still has one share of company stock, which becomes the center of an ironic joke.
PROUD LITTLE SHIP (1966) Amusing but repetitive, this uses excellent animation to tell the tale of a little toy ship, Aurora, that defies entire fleets of evil Capitalist warmongers.
PROPHETS AND LESSONS (1967) A pack of White-Russian vermin expelled to the West, goes to a Capitalist prophet (?) who inspires them to assault the Soviet Union. But their every attempt is turned back by the mighty hammer of the Red Worker. The West predicts economic doom but the unstoppable Red industrial machine prevails.
CHINA IN FLAMES (1925) An early and rather lengthy example of direct political propaganda, the film shows China divided up by evil colonial powers. Communist hope Sun Yat Sen finally appears, but the film seems incomplete -- there's no last chapter with a prediction for a Communist future in China.
ONWARD TO THE SHINING FUTURE: COMMUNISM
FORWARD MARCH, TIME! (1977) This one is elaborate but very confusing ... and uses rock music as well. It is "based on ideological poems written by Vladimir Mayakovsky in the 20s, as well as advertisements Mayakovsky created during the New Economic Policy with avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko." I couldn't follow it.
SOVIET TOYS (1924) An early attempt to sway public opinion on a specific issue, in this case against party bosses allowed to function as old-style entrepreneurs to help the economy shift into a socialized pattern. The same old images dominate -- a fat, spoiled Capitalist eats everything he sees. The Red Army eventually forms a Christmas tree. Stubborn types (Churchmen, fat cats, bourgeois women) are executed and hang from its branches, while the workers place a Red Star on top. Ho Ho Ho.
SAMOYED BOY (1928) An early, weird animation that shows an Inuit Eskimo rescued from the ice and brought to study in Moscow.
THE MUSIC BOX (1933) Another weird early animation poking fun at pre-revolution Russia. A town needs a new mayor, so the royal authority sends a moron with a clockwork brain to run things.
LENIN'S KINO PRAVDA (TRUTH IN CINEMA) (1924) Supposedly directed by the famous Dziga Vertov, this is a baffling parade of odd images and Communist claims. Difficult to understand.
RESULTS OF THE XII PARTY CONGRESS OF COOPERATION (JOIN THE COOPERATIVE) (1925) Simple animation urges strength through solidarity -- little farmers unite to compete with the big outfits. Also criticizes profiteering "company private shops."
VICTORIOUS DESTINATION (1939) Ugly Western Capitalists object and obstruct, but Stalin's economic miracle triumphs anyway.
WAR CHRONICLES (1939) Foreign powers dream about dividing up the new Soviet Union for their own profit, but all attempts are turned back! This one even depicts Japanese hostilities in the East. Once again, smoky factories and bold worker-soliders lead the way.
A HOT STONE (1965) Excellent animation can't quite make the moral lesson of this one stick. A boy finds a magic stone that will allow people to live their lives over again. His bearded, noble Grandfather prefers his life of hardship, revolution and Communist victory to remain just as it is.
SONGS OF THE YEARS OF FIRE (1971) A nostalgic, expensive-looking ode to the Red Army using bold revolutionary designs to illustrate four or five songs of the civil war years. Beautifully orchestrated music; all so we can sing along to a peppy tune about "My happy machine-gun cart."
PLUS ELECTRIFICATION (1972) This looks like it was originally in 70mm and widescreen; the picture is slightly letterboxed and cropped. Lenin's idea that electricity and the new government would unite is given a Utopian workout, depicting the whole country (and the European Eastern Bloc) united by electric light. It's no more convincing than our own Disney-fied Carousel of Progress propaganda.
Each disc comes with an 'overview' documentary that presents a few interviews with helpful comment on some of the titles. Dr. Kokurev dominates, but we also hear from Soyuzmultfilm directors, writers and the granddaughter of the writer of "Mister Twister," the story about American racism. But the bulk of these edited pieces are simply repeats of sections of the films. In a generous move by the disc producers, the entire first Overview chapter is viewable in preview form on the Russian Propaganda website.
Propaganda never looked quite so stunning as it does in Animated Soviet Propaganda, a four-disc compilation of political material produced by the Soviet government throughout its five decades of control over Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries. As expected, the tone is anti-Western, and anti-American material dominates the entire first disc (titled "American Imperialists"), but Nazi Germany is also targeted (on the second disc, "Fascist Barbarians"), along with England and other foreigners (on the third disc, "Capitalist Sharks"), while the final disc, "Shining Future," promotes the positive side of the Soviet movement and its intended ability to bring equality to all. Naturally, an element of camp creeps into the single-minded focus of the material, but it is largely nullified by the striking visual content of the films; the influence of the avant-garde movement of the '20s can be glimpsed in several films, while regional art informs the classic "Samoyed Boy," which attempts to convince the viewer that Soviet indoctrination will help the indigenous people of the area. Similarly, "Soviet Toys," by the legendary Dziga Vertov, adopts the style of newspaper caricature to illustrate the revitalization of the Russian economy in the post-Revolution period. The entire set runs some six hours--an exhaustive overview of this little-seen (by Western eyes, at least) period in animation history, and the films are abetted by commentary from scholars and the surviving filmmakers, as well as a half-hour featurette on the films and their creators on each disc. Since the material is so new to many viewers, it might have been more productive for the DVD producers to include more of the interviews in each featurette (as it is now, there are short clips, but no significant detail), but fans of political history and world animation will find much to savor in the impressive movie art contained in this set. -- Paul Gaita/Amazon.com
From 1924 to perestroika the USSR produced more than 4 dozen animated propaganda films. They weren't for export. Their target was the new nation and their goal was to win over the hearts and minds of the Soviet people. Anti-American, Anti-British, Anti-German, Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Fascist, some of these films are as artistically beautiful as the great political posters made after the 1917 revolution which inspired Soviet animation. A unique series. With a unique perspective. Includes interviews with the directors of the animated films which are still alive and commentary by a leading Soviet film scholar. Two hours of documentary and six hours of animated films: 1. American Imperialists; 2. Fascist Barbarians; 3. Capitalist Sharks; 4. Shining Future.