Issue 72 (2021)

Andrei Khrzhanovskii: The Nose or The Conspiracy of Mavericks (Nos ili Zagovor “Ne takikh”, Russia, 2020)

reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova © 2021

nosDescribing visually arresting animated films as “dreamlike” is a common critical cliché, typically meant to evoke a sumptuous aesthetic, a wistful atmosphere, and free-flowing movement unbridled by the laws of physics. But dreams are often cacophonous, provocative, gloriously unhinged, and downright grotesque. The Nose: A Conspiracy of Mavericks, self-defined as “a story in three dreams,” is all of those things. A complex, multi-genre effort combining elements of drama, essay film, biopic, and satire, veteran animator Andrei Khrzhanovskii’s feature is a love letter to the Russian avant-garde and a historical exploration of the relationship between art and politics in the USSR under Stalin’s regime. Using a mixed-media technique, including archival photos, documentary footage, cutouts, and drawn animation, The Nose tells three interrelated, intermingling stories: the production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera of the same name, a satirical, fanciful reimagining of Mikhail Bulgakov’s relationship with Stalin(ism), and a chronicle of public attacks on formalist art, the rise of socialist realism, and the devastating toll of the Great Purge.

For viewers familiar with Andrei Khrzhanovskii’s oeuvre, this feature film will represent a culmination of themes and issues that have preoccupied the director since the early years of his long career, such as the struggle to create under oppressive conditions and censorship, the stifling influence of the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus, and the transformative power of art. The Nose has also inherited the stylistic signature of Khrzhanovskii’s most celebrated short, The Glass Harmonica (Stekliannaia garmonika, 1968), with its experimental collage aesthetic, intertextual art references, and surrealist spirit. On the other hand, audiences who have not previously encountered his work are likely to be equal parts surprised and challenged by The Nose’s bold formal choices and the dense network of historical and cultural allusions woven into its narrative and visual design.

nosThis virtuoso multi-level intertextual engagement with artistic references is one of the film’s notable achievements. Weaving the work of key avant-garde figures into the visual fabric of the film feels appropriate for a narrative celebrating their lasting legacy. The discerning viewer will derive enjoyment from noticing visual nods to well-known art pieces, such as Marc Chagall’s “Over the Town” (1918), whose airborne lovers flit across the screen momentarily during the first “dream.” Similarly, audiences will be rewarded for their knowledge of Sergei Eisenstein’s films (featured prominently in this one) and his theory of montage, which is alluded to throughout The Nose and eventually employed to great effect in the last section. Live-action shots of Stalin holding a rifle or pointing off-frame are intercut with firing squad and mass grave footage, followed by images of repressed artists and writers. The resulting associative links generate an arresting depiction of state repression while paying homage to an artist whose creative freedom—and ultimately, health—suffered greatly under the increased pressures and restrictions of Stalinism.

nosHowever, The Nose’s pastiche approach, combined with its loose narrative structure and its occasionally frenetic visual barrage of creative fiction intermingled with historic data may occasionally prove overwhelming. The film’s “third dream” in particular will likely be less accessible to an international audience, as it requires more than basic knowledge of Stalinism, its impact on the arts, and 1930s Soviet culture. While some of the familiar USSR kitsch included in Khrzhanovskii’s collages of Soviet iconography will be widely recognizable (including busts of Lenin or wartime propaganda posters that have become commercialized even in the West), other allusions are more obscure. Those include footage from the ending of the classic musical The Circus (Tsirk, 1936, dir. Grigorii Aleksandrov), posters with phrases central to the cultural lexicon of the era (“life has become better, comrades, life has become happier”), and references to the pioneer youth organization.   

nosRegardless of familiarity with its historical context, however, The Nose is worth seeing for its masterful animation alone. The marriage of artforms at the heart of Khrzhanovskii’s visual approach allows the film to embrace and mirror the experimental spirit of the avant-garde; for example, in the opera scenes, the notation and libretto are overlaid on top of the cutouts, and they move dynamically in accordance with the rising action. The director plays with their size and arrangement, exploding words all over the frame and capturing the frenetic energy and emotional impact of a live performance. In general, The Nose’s cutout sequences stand out, with their finely detailed, exquisitely intricate compositions, as well as their expressive movements and masterful lighting. In a church scene which features the titular facial appendage praying, the candles appear to flicker ever so slightly, while the nose itself is bathed in a soft glow, lending the space an ethereal, solemn air. Such impressionistic touches demonstrate a mastery of the technique while immersing the viewer in a fully realized, captivating world. The cutout technique also enhances The Nose’s depiction of political terror and repression; at the end of the second “dream,” silhouettes of artists are blacked out or replaced with suggestive backgrounds (such as barbed wire), alluding both to their real-life “disappearance” and to Stalin’s famous photo doctoring efforts aimed at erasing repressed former allies from the public record. As these scenes demonstrate, this choice of medium seems especially fitting, given the film’s intellectual project; the layering effect of cutout animation evokes the layers of historical memory that the narrative peels away while also illustrating the fragmentation of personal and state narrative(s) that render straightforward accounts inadequate.

nosDespite its focus on historical trauma, The Nose is not devoid of humor. On the contrary, the film features a number of excellent visual gags. In the opera scene, the motion of cutting bread is accompanied by violin strings, creating the impression that the person is “playing” the bread. In another sequence, Eisenstein watches a stage performance and gets inspiration for the famous Potemkin baby carriage scene from there. The budding friendship between Stalin and Bulgakov imagined in The Nose’s most satirical portion is depicted in a series of increasingly absurd vignettes, including a frame in which the two men, naked and tastefully obscured by steam, enjoy a rejuvenating birch branches(veniki) treatment at the bathhouse (banya). Such moments are often accompanied by delightful gestures of self-reflexivity vis-à-vis the animation process, such as a brief shot of an animator drawing the background we are about to see in the next scene or carefully arranging cutouts with tweezers. In its exploration of the expressive power of art, The Nose does not forget to tip its hat to its own medium, celebrating traditional animation as it demonstrates its creative potential.

nosThe film’s earnest worship of art(ists) has its pitfalls, however. At its worst, The Nose reads like a clumsy (if impassioned) nationalist myth-building effort. While mostly tempered by the feature’s satirical streak, the narrative’s glorification of the Great Men (never great women) of Soviet culture occasionally slips into tired tropes. From its live-action prologue, in which the director points out (seemingly apropos of nothing) that “English people” published “a list of one hundred books every cultured person should read before they die” and Gogol’s short story is one of them, The Nose is haunted by the specter of institutionalized worship of artistic genius. But while such appeals to global recognition are clearly meant to evoke the widespread and longstanding impact of Gogol’s cultural legacy, they paradoxically register as traces of insecurity; it’s as if someone accidentally included part of the investor pitch in the finished festival cut.

nosThe feature’s treatment of Stalinist terror is likewise not completely free of bland, uninspired pathos. Given how imaginative and unbridled the rest of The Nose is, the third dream’s depiction of Stalin’s purges—a close-up of firing squad orders with the number of victims underlined for the audience as mournful strings play—feels somewhat heavy-handed; in its attempt to treat historical evidence of repression with the solemnity it deserves, the film takes an abrupt tonal turn and loses a lot of its momentum and energy. The ending, in which planes named after artists who fell victim to the regime soar in the sky, feels too neat and falsely uplifting, especially in a project that is otherwise loath to take the easy way out, artistically.

Such shortcomings have ultimately done little to diminish The Nose’s critical appeal. It received the prestigious Jury Award at the 2020 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, arguably the most high-profile event in this industry. This is hardly a surprise; Khrzhanovskii’s feature is a quintessential festival film: narratively and visually complex, painstakingly crafted, and politically charged. Needless to say, mainstream success is unlikely, as it is virtually incomprehensible for children and will prove confounding to anyone who still believes children to be animation’s default intended audience. Despite being somewhat challenging upon first viewing, however, the text’s richness ultimately rewards repeat viewing and heightened attention. Anyone teaching (or learning about) Soviet art, culture, and history will likely find it a fascinating, thought-provoking pedagogical tool. And yet, judging it merely by its didactic potential would not do it justice. It is, above all, a masterfully crafted, emotionally powerful celebration of art and its lasting legacy.

Mihaela Mihailova
University of Michigan

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The Nose or The Conspiracy of Mavericks (Nos ili Zagovor “Ne takikh”), Russia, 2020
Color, 89 minutes
Director: Andrei Khrzhanovskii
Animation: Marina Azizyan, Aleksandra Pavlova, Aleksander Khramtsov, Varia Iakovleva
Screenplay: Iurii Arabov and Andrei Khrzhanovskii
Music: Dmitri Shostakovich
Editing: Taisiia Krugovykh
Production company: School-studio SHAR
Release (RF): 11 September 2020

Andrei Khrzhanovskii: The Nose or The Conspiracy of Mavericks (Nos ili Zagovor “Ne takikh”, Russia, 2020)

reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova © 2021

Updated: 2021