by James Graham
Despite all of their classic fairy tale elements, these are films full of communist propaganda, some containing very subtle lessons of camaraderie while others are just ridiculous romps of Marxism. Aleksandr Rou’s The Golden Horns integrates Communist imagery with the fairy story so seamlessly that we find ourselves cheering the heroic Party member mother as she searches the haunted (un–bulldozed) forest for her children, who have run away from the commune.Just after Khrushchev gave the Polit Bureau an atomic era make–over, the LenFilm studio produced Old Khottabych, an Iron Curtain version of The Thief of Baghdad, wherein a young Muscovite boy in a cadre uniform frees an all–powerfulancient genie from his bottle prison, then spends the rest of the film re–educating him. In a beautifully filmed Technicolor production, the genie’s old clothes and clunky special effects were meant to charm – and also to put down ethnicity, and silly old people and their ideas. When the genie (the amazing Nikolai Volkov) bestows a sultan’s palace on his young master, the boy insists that it be given to the Department of Education. Likewise, the magician’s flying carpet is depicted as very inadequate compared to the efficiency of modern Aeroflot jets.Many images from The Arabian Nights stories are presented here as clumsy, dirty, and antiquated, in what was probably an anti–Islamic, and definitely anti–Iranian,sentiment. By the end of the film the boy refuses to accept the infinite wealth available to him and instead insists that it be shared equally by all the collectives. This renders the genie heart–broken and useless, until he is given a job performing his tricks in a circus for the workers. This is probably the most heart–warming and charming communist propaganda film ever made – though Baba Yaga is given only a background cameo in a montage of negative Persian imagery.
Not all children’s films made in the Soviet Union found their way into the United States, and the most blatant propaganda from the 1950s and early 60s surely got screened out. The Soviets developed strategic relationships with many relatively neutral governments — thus Finland and Turkey became major portals for the export of cultural products to the U.S. and Latin America. Those countries, in turn, relied on Russian technology for their own fledgling film industries. Inevitably there was some sharing of folklore motifs and imagery, often in the art direction or characterizations,but sometimes in the form of full–on remakes – such as the truly terrifying Turkish language film Babasiz Yasayamam (1965),a horrific, violent, black–and–white film that looks like something Louis Bunuel could have made if he traded his humor for malice and evil. This may very well have been the film that scarred my young subconscious the most, but because the dates and titles of these films changed as often as they were re–edited and dubbed I may never know for sure. Finnish stags and reindeer wander into the film, as do distinctly Czech sequences of animation and Swedish stage design. For all of the Soviet superiority implied in the films, there is constant evidence of foreign influence on the look and feel of these productions.As children’s films, they flew far beneath the radar both of the Moscow censors and the American anti–communist forces,meeting little resistance as they traveled from Russia through Finland or other countries in the loosely made "co–production" arrangements that brought them to American and British children.
The irony here is that although the Soviets tried to retire Baba Yaga and erase her from their children’s memories, she eventually outlived her detractors and became the vehicle by which communist propaganda would reach the capitalists’ children in the West. While the American government of the McCarthy era tried so hard to protect its citizens from Soviet rockets and its children’s young minds from communist propaganda, Baba Yaga flew right past them on her mortar and pestle, bringing the most obvious of Marxist moral fables onto our movie screens.
Though there were official communist party lines that all films made in the USSR were expected to subscribe to, those rules were hardly consistent and followed filmmaking economies just like capitalist productions. The films of Gorky Studios and LenFilm were big productions, and thus were probably inspected very closely by the Polit Bureau, while smaller films like those of Alexander Ptushko and his MosFilm studio seem to have been less carefully watched. Ptushko’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan is a gorgeous Technicolor ballet of a fairy tale that does not sacrifice one ingot of monarchist opulence to tow the Communist Party line — though there is a very flattering portrayal of Soviet–style mercantilism and naval power, and the witch heredoes represent czarist corruption and assassination. Like Ptushko’s Novograd (1952) and Ilya Muromets (1956), The Tale of Tsar Saltan freely celebrates all the old gods of Russian folklore and the desires of the peasants for courtly gold, while tithing ten percent to the Polit Bureau by laying blame in the story on the misuse of magic and religion. Like their American colleagues in the McCarthy era, Soviet filmmakers probably learned to make one film for the censors and the press and the next one for themselves. This would explain Ptushko’s Tale of Time Lost, where four old warlocks swap places with young lazy slackers. Inevitably, they all learn a lesson about the evils of idleness and sorcery.
It is likely that by the time Aleksandr Rou made The Golden Horns no one could quite remember the reason that Baba and her confederates had been banished to the forest in the first place, and at last the old tales could be given the cinematic telling they deserved. Though this film contains some crude ethnic stereotyping and clumsy hints against recreational drug use, it is the most complete telling of the Baba Yaga story on film, and includes children’s bedtime songs, lovingly performed, to add to Baba Yaga’s legend.
While it is wonderful that NetFlix and Tivo now bring arcane fairy tale films to a new generation, it’s a pity that fathers can no longer take their television–deprived children to art cinemas to see them. I was traumatized by Baba Yaga and her monstrous house on chicken feet (which eventually drowns her by walking into the lake), but I was also thrilled by her. Those dancing houses, crudely dubbed mushroom people, and dark forests filled with glowing fruit trees are among my fondest memories of my childhood, and of my father.
Films of Baba Yaga:
Vasilisa Prekrasnaya 1939, directed by Aleksandr Rou
Here Georgi Millyar creates the role of Baba Yaga and also plays the woodsman father. The witch’s house is only shown in an abstracted artsy way after it has been defeated and toppled over like a Tsarist monument. Gorgeous black and white cinematography.
The Crystal Star (Father Frost, Jack Frost) 1964, directed by Aleksandr Rou
Contains all of the characters from the fables: the bandits, mushroom spirits, matchmakers, one of the most articulated depictions of Baba Yaga’s house, and a direct (yet comic) attempt at cannibalism on her part. Natalya Sedykh stars as Nastenka, one of the weirdest and eerie beauties ever committed to film. An excellent restored version is available on DVD, which contains fragments of the original silent version among the extras.
Babasiz Yasayamam 1965, directed by Bilgi Olgac
Little is known about this Turkish language production. It probably contained footage from The Crystal Star; with new scenes shot in Istanbul and dubbed. Hard to find.
The Tale of Tsar Saltan 1966, directed by Aleksandr Ptushko
Though the witch is hardly more than a cameo in this epic Ptushkin poem, she acts as sort of deus ex machina, playing a very Langian conceit that destroys the noble king’s life and sets off the adventure. A beautiful film that shows the Russian reverence for sweeping overseas romantic epics. This film contains the most reverent and beautiful of all the film versions of the swan princess legend.
Through Fire, Water and Brass Pipes 1968, directed by Aleksandr Rou
Baba Yaga is an almost peripheral character in this psychedelic romp that tells the tale of Kashchei Bessmertniy (the Immortal) weaving it through an innocent version of the Dazhbog pagan myth with elements of Stravinsky’s "Firebird" thrown in. In this retelling Baba Yaga wants her daughter to marry Kaschei!! He rejects her in favor of Alyonushka. The witch and her daughter are reduced to comic roles, benignly aiding Vasya to defeat the warlock.Her house is not shown, but the flying mortar and pestle are finally given their due. Hard to imagine for whom this film was made, as it is too silly for adults and far too scary for children. This does have one of the best, (and there are many) under–the–sea kingdom sequences. The films of this series have been lovingly restored by RUSCIO cinema and have an impressive library of DVD extras, including a "Museum" of fairy taleartifacts, and a very Russian explanation of the history behind the magic things, like Baba Yaga’s house.
Baba Yaga (The Golden Horns) 1972, directed by Aleksandr Rou
Georgi Millyar stars again as the witch. In one of the most complete reenactments of the fables. Along with The Crystal Star and Through Fire, Water and Brass Pipes, this was part of a series by the Gorky Studios which very nobly set to retell all of the main Russian fairy tales with a minimum of politics. Using the same narrating Babushka and the same production designers, these films are a corny yet faithful overview of the provincial folklore.In addition to the Baba Yaga and Vasilissa narratives, mushroom spirits, the stag, the greedy king, and the vain prince are all performed here by an amazing pool of repertory players including the amazing Aleksandr Khvylya, Georgi Millyar, Eduard Isotov and the truly serene dancers of the Pyatnitsky state choir.
Baba Yaga, (Devil Witch, Kiss me Kill me) 1973, directed by Corrado Farina
An English–language Italian production that has nothing to do with the Russian legend, but instead is a Barbarellaesque underground comic book film that tries to emulate Argento and Polanski. Quite amusing in that "witches are killer sexy leather bondage euro lesbians" kind of way.
Baba Yaga Protiv! 1979, directed by Vladimir Pekar
When Misha the Bear was chosen as the mascot for the 1980 Olympic Games, Baba Yaga (the witch) sets out to fight and become the mascot herself.
Spirited Away, animation by Hayao Miyazaki
An animated feature that reinterprets the tale of the witch and her house in a very Japanese way. Here it is a little girl who must rescue her parents who have been transformed. Bears become pigs and elves become ghosts but all of the personas in the Russian woods easily make the transition. Though here the witch, while still looking very Slavic, is fastidiously clean and uses her walking house as a bathhouse for the other worldly creatures. The duality of her evil/benign agenda is intact as is the heroine’s laborious journey.
To someone who wants a good overview of Russian fairy tale films one would do well to follow the career of the great Aleksandr Rou (1906–1973). Because he was more of a live theater impresario than a high tech filmmaker, it was his reliance on solid storytelling and performances that makes his charming films so insightful and faithful to the folk culture they describe. All of his films discussed here contain the main tenants of BabaYaga,/Kashchei Bessmertnyi /Vasilissa stories: the Stag, the hunter, the three bandits, tree spirits, and lots and lots of mushrooms.
Often called the Russian Walt Disney, Aleksandr Ptushko (1900–1972) is really more of a Soviet Peter Jackson/George Lucas combo. So favored by the government he was given seemingly unlimited resources to realize the most fantastic legends. While his films are almost always technically perfect and often stunning visually, they sometimes lack the human charm and spontaneity we find in Rou’s films. Through Ptushko’s films we can see how the Soviets wanted to see their own folk history and understand how they wanted to present Russian culture to the world.Several of his films, most notably Sadko, 1952, show a deep admiration of the voyages of Sinbad, while exporting Soviet naval superiority and an underlying distrust of Persians.
His Ilya Muromets, 1956, is a perfect companion yin to Baba Yaga’s Yang, Ilya being a kind of Paul Bunyan/Columbus figure who formed what is now Russia through spiritual purity and battle. This epic film surely had a great influence on Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus which began filming two years later. One should skip over his fairy tale films like Ruslan and Ludmilla (in which Baba Yaga’s sister appears in her absence) and explore his early work like The New Gulliver, 1935, for some truly wonderful special effects and puppetry.
Bearophobes be warned. These films are infested with bears. Really.