Russia’s first animated feature: <em>The Lost Letter</em> (1945) Russia’s first animated feature: <em>The Lost Letter</em> (1945)
Feature Film

Russia’s first animated feature: The Lost Letter (1945)

This is why the Internet was invented. Here’s something I’d never seen or heard of before. “Niffiwan” in Toronto has post on You Tube a subtitled version of a formerly unknown (to me and all my reference books) 1945 Russian animated feature (43 minutes long). It could actually be considered the first traditionally-animated Russian feature, because there was actually a feature made with stop-motion animation in 1935. (The more well known, full-length, Magic Pony (The Humpbacked Horse) was released in 1947).

It’s called The Lost Letter, and it’s definitely worth watching. It was directed by the pioneering Brumberg Sisters (Valentina and Zinaida) with Lamis Bredis, and was based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol. Made during the darkest days of World War II, this film was practically unknown and unseen outside of the former USSR until now. Ben Ettinger from AniPages Daily wrote a nice mini-review of it back in 2005, though it was unsubtitled back then.

Below is part one (of four). Read more about the film, how it was subtitled and see the other three parts at Niffiwan’s Journal.

  • Saw this film (and many others) at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema last November. Joe Chen (and crew) had two retrospectives on Russian animated film in addition to the normal line-up of animated feature films. The films that he showed during the retrospective are still listed (with links to YouTube clips where applicable) on the WFAC website for anyone interested in Russian animated film. And niffiwan lists dozens of animated films on his livejournal page. Have been following his historical and translating work for the past few years. It’s definitely worth a look!

  • Chris B

    And this is why I love Cartoon Brew . So much information on past,present and futute projects. Thanks Jerry and Amid!!

  • tom

    Only 2 posts.. I guess people are busy posting about the new Looney Tunes.

    At first it made me wonder if they had seen Gullivers Travels, but the Soviet animators balanced out cartoony and “realism” better than the Fleischer film.

    I’ll give it a better look… thanks for posting.

  • Sunday

    That was just wonderful. To think of the context of 1944-45 and watch this exuberant opening 10 minutes… I feel like attacking life and hitting it deep. Get out there and breath a little deeper, ya’ know? Thanks for a wonderful post!

  • Niffiwan

    This movie is out of sync with the audience here. With most of the viewers coming from Cartoon Brew, currently less than 1/10th of the people who viewed the first part went on to watch the rest, whereas the usual figure for my channel is between a third and half “holdover”. Lack of patience, probably. Though its rating on the Internet Movie Database is currently 9.3 (I think it’s around an 8 myself).

    The 1935 “New Gulliver” starts off with 15 minutes of live-action footage, with most of the rest being animated puppets. It couldn’t be more different from this film. For one thing, it is very silly, and usually not in the good way, clumsily propagating the sort of simplistic ideas and ideology that can only exist in a society that has non-functioning mechanisms for getting rid of bad ideas. It reminded me of Soyuzmultfilm’s cartoons from the late 1930s. I’ll say this for WW2 – despite the enormous toll it exacted on the population, it benefited art enormously. Filmmaking, including animation, improved a great deal. Before the war, Soyuzmultfilm was a joke.

  • I got this movie from friends
    Others brewers will immediately change opinion about russian animation if they know that Miyazaki like Snow Queen /Snezhnaya Koroleva/.
    I am quite convinced that he saw and The Humpbacked Horse /Konyok Gorbunok/

  • tom

    Not that I was making too big of a point about it; but it was the 1939 Fleischer Gulliver that I referred to.

  • I realise that, Tom; I was referring to the 1935 “Gulliver” mentioned in Jerry’s original post.

  • What a find!

    I’ve watched all four parts now. It’s hard for American eyes to follow. First, because I speak no Russian I have no way to know how to take the English subtitles. Is a character saying a line sarcastically, ironically, suspiciously, straighforwardly… I can only guess and that will impart my own predjudices.

    My own prejudices enter because of my expectations of a Soviet film. There are surprising number of religious references in the film. The few other Soviet films I’ve seen are completely absent of such things. So I wonder…. are these mocking references… or are they intended as presentations of these people at that time… or are they artifacts of the temporary officially sanctioned religious revival during WWII… or are they simply common conversation, much like an atheist in the US might exclaim “Oh my god!” at something without any real spiritual intention?

    So it’s very interesting to watch, but very hard to follow.

    Too bad we can’t track down the artists on that film. I wonder to what extent they had seen American animation, what they liked, what parts they wanted to emulate…

  • Tezuka Osamu has mentioned Konk-Gorbunok as an influence on Hi no Tori and I think I’ve read of it being mentioned by Takahata or Miyazaki as well. But they’re definitely fans of it, as the 1947 version of it and 1948’s Seraya Sheyka are being released by the Ghibli Museum Library, as Snezhnaya koroleva was a few years ago (and the Fleischer’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town just recently; I’m more interested in how that could affect perceptions of American animation).

  • @robcat2075, I know it’s a bit late (I didn’t see your post before) – but if you have any questions about something that you didn’t understand, you can ask and I’ll be glad to answer (but not here because I’m unlikely to check this page; post on Youtube or on my blog).

    As for the religion… well, it’s an adaptation of Gogol, first of all, who’s a classic of Russian literature and has many religious references in his works. So it’s a historical representation, first. And also, the “WW2 religious revival” may have played a role. As well, the religious motifs in this story aren’t too threatening because most of them happen in a dream.

    What few films have you watched?

    What really happens in the story is that the tall fellow that our protagonist hooked up with played a practical joke on him – telling him a tall tale about the devil being after his soul, and making him promise to stay up all night. Then the Cossack drank too much and fell into a nightmare inspired by what he’d been told. In the morning, he immediately left his “new friend” and went directly to the capital without any detours this time.

  • “Too bad we can’t track down the artists on that film. I wonder to what extent they had seen American animation, what they liked, what parts they wanted to emulate…”

    A while ago, I translated a nice, short documentary that talks about precisely this topic. Google “Weightless Life”.

    Basically, Soyuzmultfilm was founded after the first Moscow International Film Festival when “The Three Little Pigs” became an enormous hit with the public, and its task was to imitate Disney cartoons, in both techniques and style (before that, Soviet animation was very different). And they did this, often embarassingly. During WW2, the flat characters and cheery optimism became out-of-touch with popular feeling, and cartoons changed quite a bit (also inspired by Disney’s “Bambi”). Gradually they moved further and further away from their “roots” in American animation, until in the 1990s Russia was flooded with American films, and now most films that aim for popular success try to copy American styles again (typically: Russian subject matter, entirely American execution). There’s still a great deal of resistance to the Americanization among the artists, but it survives only because the government funds these “non-commercial cartoons”. And this year that funding has been cut in half…