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A scene from Yuri Norstein’s “Tale of Tales,” found on YouTube. | Courtesy Wikipedia

Yuri Norstein’s ani­mated short “Tale of Tales” is only a half-hour long, and available on YouTube. Check it out; it’s well worth the watch. 

The short film is based on an old Russian lullaby, sung at the beginning of the movie as a baby suckles at his mother’s breast. Here’s an English trans­lation:

Baby, baby, rock-a-bye

On the edge you mustn’t lie

Or the little grey wolf will come

And will nip you on the tum,

Tug you off into the wood

Under­neath the willow-root.

A series of par­allel nar­ra­tives follow, tied together through the little gray wolf, who watches the horror of war and the tran­quility of domestic life unfold equally before his eyes. There is an adorably dis­con­solate jump-roping bull. Men and women dance. Sol­diers die. 

And the little gray wolf does steal the baby. It cries and cries, and as he tries to rock it to sleep, it only cries harder. The movie ends shrouded in uncer­tainty.

Norstein attempted to make a movie that would unfold the way mem­ories appear in the mind as they are remem­bered. He comes close, closer than anyone in the free world. “Tale of Tales” is a movie well studied in the special Russian sort of suf­fering — foreign to Amer­icans — but that Alek­sandr Solzhen­itsyn said gave his people a “spir­itual devel­opment of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spir­itual exhaustion does not look attractive.” 

And “Tale of Tales” is alien to Western car­toons. Many film scholars con­sider it the best ani­mated film in exis­tence. And it may very well be — unless matched against the director’s other major achievement, “Hedgehog in the Fog.” 

This mon­u­men­tally suc­cessful ani­mated short so cap­tured the Russian imag­i­nation when it came out in 1975 that Kiev erected a mon­ument to the hedgehog in 2011 and both films received a shout-out at the 2014 Winter Olympics, alongside other Russian greats like Fyodor Dos­to­evsky and Leo Tolstoy. 

Norstein is still alive, but he hasn’t made a movie since “Tale of Tales.” He’s too busy attempting to animate Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” which he believes is fun­da­mental to the Russian under­standing of art. He’s been working on it for nearly forty years, and has freely admitted to curious inter­viewers that he is nowhere near fin­ished — and may never finish.

But the Russian aptitude for suf­fering keeps spurring him to try.