Fyodor Khitruk is not particularly well known in western countries (due in part to a career unfortunately timed during the Cold War era and an unfortunate reluctance to import “commie” art), but Khitruk is a force in the animation world, both in his native Russia and the world over. While Khitruk’s career as an animator was incredibly prolific (with nearly 100 films to his name); he spent many years working in Russia’s state-run animation studies. He made only 15 films under the title of director. But those 15 films were enough to earn the immense respect of animators, politicians, and filmmakers around the world and at home. Khitruk has won more awards than he has directed films, including festivals at Cannes, Venice, and Krakow. He’s even won the State Prize of the USSR for his adaptation of Winnie the Pooh and for his short "O Sport, you - the world!"
In fact Vladimir Putin wrote of Khitruk, “You rightly belong to the constellation of the great, honored Russian cultural figures. A multifaceted and generous talent, your passion for your beloved occupation is a truly inexhaustible, a life-affirming energy that has earned you sincere respect and the utmost professional recognition.” In the documentary on Khitruk, The Spirit of Genius, famed animators praise the cartoonist with words that border on worship. Andrei Khrzanovsky calls Khitruk’s films “absolute masterpieces,” Mikhail Aldashin calls the cartoonist “the personification of goodness” and Alexander Tatarsky compares the animator to Christ.
Why such veneration? After twenty years of Socialist realism, the dawn of a Soviet animation renaissance is often attributed to a single man - Fyodor Khitruk. Khitruk’s independent film work began with the immensely successful Story of a Crime in 1962 and ended with 1983’s The Lion and The Bull. Why Khitruk was able to create the films he did at the same time that filmmakers like Sergei Parajanov were being imprisoned for breaking outside the Soviet realism mold is a mystery. Perhaps the twenty years Khitruk devoted as an animator in the government animation studios lent him an air of trust. Perhaps his service in the army as a German translator during the post-war occupation did the same. Or perhaps animation, as most Russian animation films were blatant Disney imitations at the time, were not considered a medium where critique and serious art could even occur.
Khitruk himself said, “Animation that used to be only an entertaining art at present is becoming more and more intellectual, whereas numerous topics and issues previously considered the privilege of feature and documentary cinema are successfully used by animators nowadays. I am sure that the possibilities of this kind of cinema are practically inexhaustible” He was, of course, right. The next several decades would see animation arts explode with possibilities, making contemporary animation films like Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir possible.
Khitruk’s own films range from the delightful trio of Winnie the Pooh adaptations (made around the same time as the Disney classics) to the film industry parody “Film Film Film” and the more serious “Man in the Frame” and “Island.”
“Man in the Frame” (Человек в рамке, 1966) satirizes bureaucrats by tracing the life events of a single cartoon man in a frame. He hangs in a small frame on the wall of his life, obsessing over vertical ascent up the nondescript wall. As he climbs the ladder of “success,” his frames grow more and more ornate, but never larger. His life is continually boxed in by the frame he hammers himself into. When the real world beckons, he stays firmly within the confines of his world, framed by self-importance. In this film, Khitruk uses cartoon animation solely to depict the bureaucrat, his two-dimensional life and self-created world. We do see scenes of the real world outside this wall of frames and hierarchy, and each time, the real world uses vividly colored photographs. Khitruk uses one reoccurring image in particular – a photograph of a girl jumping rope outside, birds on telephone wire above her heard. He animates the photograph to move up and down, as if she’s jumping. And as the man in the frame ascends to his highest hierarchical heights, the girl jumps in a vertical movement that looks truly free. She rises, unencumbered by frames. The man’s frames overtake him, boxing him out completely until he nothing more than a lifeless prisoner to status.
“Island” (Остров, 1973) is a fully animated short that shows the isolation of a man in the modern world. He is stranded on an island so small it has barely enough room for him and a lone palm tree. He stands at its shore waving a handkerchief for someone, anyone to come rescue him. And many people come from all over the world. But no one has come to save him. It’s a recurring portrait of people oblivious to anything other than their own wants or needs. Party-boat tourists smile and wave at the man as if he’s the latest attraction. Missionaries come to proselytize and save his soul, but leave his body. Warships come to claim the island as their own, making the man a citizen without a nation. Men come to chop down the palm tree for wood and pump the island for oil, exhausting the island’s every meager resource until he is stranded with only the vestiges of an oilrig. Even his island is lost. In the end, the man finds another a stranded as he, and together, they swim out into the vastness of the world.
Khitruk’s critiques are as sharp as there are vivid, each filled with brilliant, saturating color. And though his films are critical of the world around him, each presents a hopeful alternative as bright as the hues in animations. Khitruk seemed as hopeful about the world as he was about the possibilities for animation. He ushered in an era where animated films could be more than slapstick humor or morality tales for children. And he when his directing years were over, Khitruk stayed deeply involved in the industry as a teacher for the next generation of animators. In 1993, he and three other prominent animators (Yuriy Norshteyn, Andrey Khrzhanovsky, and Eduard Nazarov) founded SHAR Studio, an animation studio and school in Russia. In the studio’s short history, animated films produced there have already gone to win prizes at film festivals around the world. His commitment to animation has been life-long. At 91 years old, he released a two-volume book, The Profession of Animation, based on his 50 years of experience animating and teaching. If Khitruk himself could not begin to exhaust the possibilities of animation, he’s making sure that the animators of the world will take up the challenge.
“The Spirit Of Genius: Feodor Khitruk” by William Moritz at Animation World Magazine
Fyodor Khitruk bio at Russia-ic.com
“Developing Animation” at Standford.edu
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.