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Koch Lorber presents
The Soldier's Tale (1980)

"A few days, he told me, a few days. A few years must have passed and now they take me for a ghost!"
- The Soldier, Ilya Vertov (Dusan Makavejev)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: July 13, 2004

Stars: Max Von Sydow, Dusan Makavejev, Andre Gregory
Other Stars: Galina Panova, Brother Theodore, Mike Mearian
Director: R.O. Blechman

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (dealings with the devil, disturbing war photographs)
Run Time: 00h:50m:47s
Release Date: July 13, 2004
UPC: 741952301691
Genre: animation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+D+ B-

DVD Review

Igor Stravinsky's music was frequently programmatic, from such balletic works as The Rite of Spring to The Firebird to Petrouchka. One of his more interesting settings is of the Russian folktale that forms the basis of this animated film made for Great Performances in cooperation with WGBH Boston.

In 1918, a Russian soldier, Ilva Vertov (Dusan Makavejev) is returning from the front to marry his sweetheart. But along the way, the Devil (Max Von Sydow) hears the soldier playing his fiddle and offers to trade the soldier everything for the fiddle and the skill to play it as he does. The soldier agrees, and goes with the Devil to Hell for three days. But when he returns with his book that foretells the future and holds the key to everything, he finds that years have passed and that his sweetheart has married and has a child. Dejected, the soldier sets about a way to outsmart the Devil at his own game.

The animation is based on the art of R.O. Blechman, whose name may not be familiar, but whose distinctive art will be readily familiar to readers of the New Yorker and from numerous television commercials (some of which are collected in the extras). His tremulous line work provides a nice resonance to the insecurities that are outlined in the story. The animation does suffer a bit from cheapness, with frequent repetition of animation and shooting single cels for 2 or 3 frames instead of one apiece, which results in a certain jerkiness. Silent film techniques are often adopted to good effect (and appropriate for the period setting). There are affecting photos of war carnage that set the scene but are somewhat at odds with the fairy tale aspect of the story itself.

As was the case with Boulez's controversial staging of the Ring cycle a few years earlier, Blechman sets technology as a force of evil and darkness; a dancer that seduces the soldier turns out to be an automaton; the Devil's hell is a technological wasteland. This industrial fury is contrasted with the natural butterflies, doomed to capture by the Devil and presumable torture and death. Only when the soldier retreats into a fairy tale fantasy land with only medieval technology does he find happiness, while an automobile disrupts this pastoral world and forms the basis of his eventual undoing. It's a bit hackneyed but given the often bumptious and rural character of Stravinsky's music it's not inappropriate.

Max Von Sydow, having played The Exorcist a decade earlier, makes for an excellent devil, conveying a sly jocularity in his voice that reminds one of a smoother version of Mr. Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster. The contrast of European voices with the American voices of Andre Gregory as the narrator and Mike Mearian as a radio announcer is often a bit jarring. Notable voice Brother Theodore makes a couple of appearances as minor characters, with his inimitable gravelly tones well-suited to Stravinsky's often-raucous score.

The music is performed by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Gerard Schwarz. The performance is spirited, particularly the important solo fiddle (which isn't credited). Stravinsky's music is interrupted at various spots to include spoken materials (stretching the music out to fill an hour slot). A variant opening that was part of the original airing is included in the supplements.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame picture looks decent for the most part, although video noise is extreme during the opening and end credits. That's not a problem during the program proper, however, so this may well be an issue inherent in the optical processes used to generate the titles. Color is very good, with the water coloring nicely shaded. The lines are clean and don't display significant edge enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: While the music sounds quite good for the most part, the audio track is hurt by huge amounts of hiss and noise. That's particularly the case on the original 2.0 track; the 5.1 track not only sounds beefier but has been cleaned up somewhat by the device of moving much of the hiss into the surrounds. The disc defaults to the 2.0 track, however, so viewers should be aware of the option. Bass is reasonably deep, and occasionally louder brass sections have a distorted edge to them.

Audio Transfer Grade: D+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Wooden Man's Bride, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, In July, God is Great, Safe Conduct, Pigalle, Sister My Sister
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by R.O. Blechman, animator Tissa David, associate producer George Griffin
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: generic plastic two-disc keepc
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: In addition to seven miscellaneous trailers for Koch Lorber product, there are some useful extras here. Starting things off is a commentary from Blechman as well as two others involved in the making of the film. There is some interesting discussion of influences, from Kandinsky and Miró to Henry Kissinger, as well as identification of the diverse animators who worked on different sequences. Blechman doesn't seem happy with a fair amount of the film, and is refreshingly forthcoming about his thoughts. Unfortunately, the other participants are very poorly miked, and they're seldom audible in any clear way.

The deleted scene mentioned above gives a longer introduction to the piece, but really feels like filler and probably is best left off (though Blechman registers surprise at its absence in the commentary, which indicates that this wasn't his doing). A collection of other work by Blechman (with a Play All feature) incorporates his famous ads for Alka Seltzer, CBS and Volvo along with excerpts from other films. The most substantial is No Room at the Inn, a cockeyed retelling of the Nativity story excerpted from Blechman's 1977 TV anthology program Simple Gifts. These materials would be more interesting if there were some sort of background information provided; the segments are just dumped onto the viewer without any further identification or even liner notes.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

It's a short program, but decently transferred. Unfortunately the audio track is quite noisy. There are some substantial extras though the commentary is problematic.


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