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Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2017/6 posted by hidden europe on

With mention of fairy tales and film, thoughts often turn to Disney. The cinematic adaptation of fairy tales is often judged in the west to be a peculiarly American prerogative. But central and eastern Europe have a very fine tradition of progressive cinema and a vast store of fairy tales upon which to draw.

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Dear fellow travellers

With mention of fairy tales and film, thoughts often turn to Disney. The cinematic adaptation of fairy tales is often judged in the west to be a peculiarly American prerogative. But central and eastern Europe have a very fine tradition of progressive cinema and a vast store of fairy tales upon which to draw.

The 1985 Slovak production Perinbaba is a remarkable film deploying magic quilts, stepmothers and avalanches in a story which is altogether more edgy than anything from Disney. It's based on a Grimm Brothers story called Frau Holle. Directed by Juraj Jakubisko, the film showcases Slovak landscapes and has a very Mitteleuropa feel, although the lead role is played by Italian actress Giulietta Masina, the wife of film director Federico Fellini.

In the Soviet Union, there were endless debates about whether the emancipated workers and their children really needed fairy tales at all. It was Maxim Gorki who helped rehabilitate the fairy tale as a legitimate player in Soviet literary space. "A good children's book can have more impact than a dozen articles," he wrote, imploring fellow members of the Union of Soviet Writers to write fairy tales.

Where writers led, film-makers followed and there was a galaxy of silver screen adaptations of Russian fairy tales. In the 1930s the animator Aleksandr Ptushko produced films based on stories by Pushkin and Tolstoy. Stories from the tsarist period which poked fun at the nobility were good grist to the mill of Soviet film making. In that vein, the old rag-to-riches tale of the humpbacked horse came in handy. The very fact that the tsarist authorities had banned it boosted the story's popularity in the Soviet era. It's about a young lad's improbable rise to tsardom, aided by a witty humpbacked horse. The animal surely informed the characterisation of the amiable donkey which in this century has accompanied the ornery ogre in the American Shrek series. Ivan Ivanov-Vano's 1947 film The Humpbacked Horse is a gem. The dance of the firebirds scene in that film has a rare magic beauty and rates among the finest animation sequences in the history of cinema.

Ivanov-Vano went on to make some other celebrated classics, among them his 1952 film Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) which uses music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to good effect. By the 1970s, fairy tale classics had become staples on Soviet television, with made-for-TV feature movies and short films attracting huge audiences. Film-makers moved with the times and the productions of the Brezhnev era didn't quite have the utopian silver lining which had been a hallmark of fairy-tale cinema of earlier years.

In Poland, the Solidarnosc era spawned a fairy tale film adaptation which was to enthral a generation. Pan Kleks draws on stories by a Jewish-Polish writer who used the nom de plume Jan Brzechwa. There's a touch of Hogwarts about the magic academy featured in Pan Kleks. The first series was broadcast in 1983, providing a fabulous piece of escapism from the everyday trials of a Poland enduring martial law. Sequels continued to be made right through into this century, demonstrating the capacity of a good story to transcend political and social changes.

Despite the relentless advance of globalisation, film adaptations of fairy tales continue to strike a local chord, often reflecting the lives and landscapes of the region where such films are produced. The different comic style of central and east European cinema, indeed the very different nature of storytelling beyond the Iron Curtain, created a rich genre of film and television which deserves more attention in the west.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.