The Soldier’s Tale [l’Histoire du Soldat] (1984)

This DVD sat on my wishlist…well…I’ve been pursuing it since I discovered it existed two years ago. It was one of the first things I tried to order at work once I moved to Borders.

I found the film as I had put in a tape of things from TV at one point and fell asleep somewhere along the way. I woke to flashes of colour, odd patterns and images and the voice of Max Von Sydow–though this was nigh on to 10 years ago, so I didn’t recognize it, he just has a wonderful voice.
I rewound the tape as I had to see the whole thing from the beginning, and have noted its existence forever after.

I had not seen it in at least some months, if not years, but much of it has stuck with me as I re-watched it now. It’s the story of a Russian soldier who is walking home from the battlefront to return home to his village and his fiance√©, thence to marry her. Along the way, a stranger offers to buy his violin, and when gold and diamonds are not enough for Ilya Vertov, the stranger offers him “everything”–a book that foretells the future, specifically, the future of Vertov’s company in the stockmarkets. When Vertov accepts this exchange, the stranger finds that, though he now possesses the violin, he is unable to play it, and Vertov’s befuddlement at the stock market information is no different. So, they agree to return to the stranger’s home, there to teach each other the ways of the two items.

The stranger is, of course, the devil. He is voiced by the excellent Max Von Sydow, and Vertov the soldier by one Dusan Makavejev, whose voice has a wonderful, tired, gravelly, honesty and innocence to it, a voice that has stuck in my head since I first heard it. If you are not clear yet–yes, this is an animated film, based on the work of (and in fact, designed by) R.O. Blechman, sometime artist for The New Yorker and animator since 1977. It holds the look of many New Yorker cartoons–unfinished lines around objects, all lines bearing a trademark lively wigglyness, and colours based on mis-aligned watercolours and coloured pencils.

It is, for lack of a better term, fucking brilliant.

The use of perspective is absolutely stunning, as is the animation from scene to scene–nevermind the transitions used–which varies from simplistic motion which brings to life the drawings of Blechman, on to surreal, abstract oddities of colour and pattern set to the music of the film. Oh, did I forget to mention this is all based on Igor Stravinsky’s l’Histoire du Soldat? Yes, it is, as well as the libretto written for it by C.F. Ramuz. Stravinsky’s music is, unsurprisingly, amazing, with simple, often near solo instrumentation throughout–I cannot get enough of the fiddle piece that is played throughout, nor the later trumpet section, which starts off at a melody that feels familiar, then begins to rocket all around in unexpected yet completely natural directions at breakneck speed. These themes reappear constantly and are not that long, and are few in number–yet they never wear themselves thin.

The transitions are fantastic–objects transform quite believably into more relevant ones for the next scene. A familiar trick, at this point, but carried perfectly into this form–Vertov’s false ID as a doctor flickers and flips to the ground and becomes a playing card, leading into an incredible card game between Vertov and the devil, illustrated in stopgap single images–all silhouettes, a change from the animation style of most of the film, yet completely natural. It’s not the only such change either, as some scenes are rendered in three dimensions–at least in the sense of shading a globe to appear three dimensional, while others bear that aforementioned simplicity of line. One scene is treated as a filmstrip, and plays as an early silent film, with title cards describing the action and the whole thing rendered in that familiar early flicker–leading to the parting of curtains that are invisible until moved and slowly reveal more detail and colour and even change the appearance of the character behind them.

I cannot recommend this film enough, it simply isn’t possible. If you like animation at all, if you can appreciate a nicely paced, somewhat modern (1918) classical piece and wonderful voice-acting–SEE THIS FILM.

Of extra, amusing note: Brother Theodore voices the Herald in the film, and fans of The Last Unicorn will easily recognize his gruff voice and thick German accent as that of Ruhk–he also appeared as “Uncle Reuben Klopek”–one of the deranged family members.


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