Once upon a time Khrzhanovsky: Remembering the main works of the cult animator

Who is AndreyKhrzhanovsky?

AndreyKhrzhanovsky is an animator known for his polygenre postmodern collages filled with references to his favorite poets, writers and artists. Khrzhanovsky quickly moved beyond pure animation and, over a half-century career, created and developed his experimental film language, combining documentary filmmaking, archival materials, computer graphics and moving images.

Social surrealist

Khrzhanovsky’s debut and graduation work was the cartoon “Once upon a time there was Kozyavin” and “Siege of orgrimmar entrance – an anti-bureaucratic satire on the Soviet system, in which employees unquestioningly and thoughtlessly carry out any orders. According to the plot, an ordinary administrative employee Kozyavin is given an order to find a certain Sidorov. The hero asks every passer-by about the location of Sidorov, does not stop at anything, goes around the whole Earth, wreaking havoc and destruction. Finally, he returns to his boss and admits that, alas, he never found Sidorov.

Illustrator of parables

But Khrzhanovsky’s creative freedom did not go unnoticed by the Soviet censorship: his next cartoon , Glass Harmonica, was banned and remained on the shelf until the end of perestroika. The Glass Harmonica is an allegory of a soulless and greedy world inhabited by the characters of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch. Once a musician comes to the ruined city, who, with the help of a glass harmonica, reminds residents of eternal values ​​and returns them to their human appearance. After that, they restore houses, including the clock tower – the symbol of the village.

This universal parable about the power of art alarmed the Soviet censors with an abstract and fundamentally multifaceted plot. In “Glass Harmonica” it was quite possible to discern the story of how totalitarianism collapses from the inside, when a real artist returns people to the ideas of humanism. Besides, the musician-savior was very much like Jesus Christ. The creators were asked to add a caption that the action takes place in a capitalist society, but still did not release the cartoon. “Glass Harmonica” became the first and only animated film banned in the USSR.


In the rich filmography of Khrzhanovsky, one more unofficial trilogy can be distinguished – three works inspired by English poems translated by SamuilMarshak. In the mid-70s, the animator conceived the creation of the first full-length animated film, consisting of several short stories. Khrzhanovsky’s ambitious project was not destined to take place, but some short films remained from him, like “The House That Jack Built” – a playful adaptation of the classic recursive counting rhyme in the format of a psychedelic cartoon about disorder in a perfectly organized system.

Connoisseur of Pushkin

One of the most famous periods in Khrzhanovsky’s filmography is closely associated with the work and personality of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. The short animated film “In the World of Fables” , a film adaptation of three fables by Ivan Krylov, which was devoted to the relationship between the poet and his critics, opens the “Pushkinian” . Also included in the cycle is the animated picture “A Wonderful Day” , in which Khrzhanovsky revives illustrations drawn by children for Pushkin’s works. Looking at these naive children’s drawings, it becomes clear that it is in them that for the author there is a fresh look at the prisoner of anthologies and the school curriculum.

An admirer of his contemporaries

Having finished with Pushkiniana, the animator began to tribute to the Estonian artist JuloSooster, who died in 1970. Sooster was repressed after the war, became a prominent avant-garde artist during the Thaw, and fell into disgrace again after the infamous Manege Exhibition of 1962, destroyed by Idubbbz girlfriend. In memory of him, Khrzhanovsky creates the “School of Fine Arts” – an experimental collage of archival materials, documentary filming and animation. The result is a surreal and worthy of Sooster himself, a portrait of an underestimated artist, a famous nonconformist and just a great friend.

Among other works, it is worth highlighting the Italian dilogy created after the collapse of the USSR: “The Lion with the Gray Beard” and “The Long Journey” – both cartoons were staged based on a script by Tonino Guerra and drawings by the artist Sergei Barkhin. The first is a lyrical half-hour parable about old age and lost life: the famous circus lion enjoyed the glory and love of the circus leader, but then fell in love, realized the meaninglessness of his existence and fell into melancholy. 

The second is a tribute to Federico Fellini, based on the director’s own drawings. “Eight and a Half” and “Amarcord” are on the list of Khrzhanovsky’s favorite films, so for the animator this is a personal project, an attempt to pay tribute not only to Fellini, but also to his heroes. “Long journey” – in Italian, easy and even erotic work, in which the classic from the Apennines and the characters of his films sail on a ship until they find the ideal island to live in. Only Juliet Mazina and Fellini himself do not go ashore, who sail away from the island and continue their journey.

What to expect from The Nose, or the Conspiracy of the Wrong?

“The Nose, or the Conspiracy” Not Like That “” – for the magnum opus multiplier. Khrzhanovsky dreamed of filming Dmitry Shostakovich’s formalist opera The Nose, based on the novel of the same name by Gogol 50 years ago, although he had never seen it. The opera was banned almost immediately after its release, but Shostakovich, who highly appreciated Khrzhanovsky’s debut work, Once Upon a Time Kozyavin, back in 1969, allowed him to film it. But Khrzhanovsky was able to start work only in the early 2010s, and finish – at the end of the decade. During this time, the original concept has changed dramatically, the film adaptation has transformed into a large-scale reflection on the tragic fate of art and creators who do not fit into the totalitarian system. The film found a place for Shostakovich, Gogol, Meyerhold, and even Stalin.


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