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Full Bloom: The Soul of the Weeping Willow—“Andriesh” by Sergei Parajanov and Yakov Bazelyan

The story of the weeping willow and how it resides in our hearts, in culture, and in the film “Andriesh."
Patrick Holzapfel
Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.
Ivana Miloš, Weeping Willow Meets Andriesh (2021), nature print, monotype and gouache on paper, 33 x 24 cm.
The soul of a tree is my soul; the heart of a tree is my heart; the sap of the willow is my life. 
The Story of Aoyagi, Lafcadio Hearn
Whenever you turn on the news these days, you are likely to see a burning forest. These images of fires across the world bring with them the unbearable sound of screaming tree spirits. They may only be audible to some of us, but once you finally hear them weep, you can’t sleep any longer. They are helpless cries, their age-old blessings vanishing into thin air: They can’t protect us any longer. In Andriesh (1954), a fairy tale co-directed by a then 30-year-old Sergei Parajanov together with Yakov Bazelyan, the horror threatening all life is represented by Black Storm, a wicked sorcerer who attempts to take away all the glory that has been filmed with the artificial looking Soviet color stock and thus destroy the beauty on Earth.
It’s up to a young shepherd with the help of a magic flute and all kinds of strange and enchanted creatures, as well as a weeping willow and an oak inhabited by spirits, to stop the blackness. In the realm of Soviet Thaw fairy tale cinema, Andriesh certainly doesn’t hold an exceptional place. The adaptation of Moldovan writer Emilian Bukov’s 1946 narrative poem has mostly been discussed as an interesting but flawed film, especially when compared to Parajanov’s later works. But the legendary director loved the story so much that he had first adapted it as his diploma project. However, after first encountering the film a couple of years back, the scene with the speaking weeping willow, weakened and wise, kept spinning in my head. There are several reasons for this and none of them will really lead anywhere, just like the gracefully drooping branchlets of the biblically named Salix babylonica, so very often planted next to water, though it never touches the surface, only looking down at their silver reflections moving sadly but proudly through time. 
The young shepherd hears the cries of the weeping willow standing all alone up on a hill. He approaches her (I can’t imagine a willow being a man and Celtic mythology confirms my intuition) and hears about her worries: 
The Black Hurricane has passed by, Andriesh. He has harmed me. He has chased the birds from my branches, Andriesh. He has bent me towards the earth. My leaves are shriveled, Andriesh. And my branches are twisted in pain. I feel now, I no longer belong here on my native earth. 
After resting on an impressive, painterly shot of the little boy standing next to the osier, bending towards the off-screen abyss, there is a cut into the midst of hanging branches and leaves, a strange life-like sensation thwarting the fairytale artificiality inspired by the illustrations in the Soviet edition of the source material and so very well created by Suren Shakhbazian’s cinematography. When the boy straightens some of the harmed branches, the willow rewards him with a leaf that will help reactivate the magic flute he carries with him.
Though the scene may seem overly didactic (if you treat trees well, they will help you) it reminded me so much of a time in my life in which I understood that trees have a soul. When I touched the smooth twigs of the old weeping willow next to the bridge on my way to school, I felt its resin on my fingertips as if it was my own blood and I ran for cover under its ever-obliging canopy in case of sudden rain. I observed the water dripping from the leaves into the river like real tears. 
Its weeping limbs fanned my unrest with dreams; / it lived here all my life, obligingly. / I have outlived it now, and with surprise. / There stands the stump; with foreign voices other / willows converse, beneath our, beneath those skies, / and I am hushed, as if I’d lost a brother
...as Anna Akhmatova described the willow, her willow, my willow and the passage between life and death so very present in this tree.
The Babylon willow has a very short lifespan, ranging between 40 and 75 years, but its mechanism of self-propagation is well developed. When the tree’s twigs break off, then they may fall into the water and take root further downstream or on the other side of a lake. In fact, the weeping willow of my childhood is no longer, but to my joy, I discovered two younger willows a bit further down the creek, which I am sure stem from the same tree. It’s such a lesson in resilience that one can only stand in awe of nature. It’s due to this process that the willow is sometimes referred to as the tree of immortality. The weeping willow in Andriesh knows she is dying and by giving the young boy a leaf, metaphorically secures her own survival. Famously, Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite tree on the Island of St. Helena, a willow under which he was buried, was later spread over the whole world when parts of it were taken as relics as part of the cult of fame surrounding this emperor. Humanity, in its endless naivety, once more created a cult around an emperor instead of the tree itself, so much more valuable to life on Earth. 
The most common association with the weeping willow is the act of mourning. It’s a somewhat transient, ghostlike tree marking the passage between the living and the dead. It’s tempting to compare the tree itself to cinema, the mechanical ghost, as Gilberto Perez labeled it, especially when one thinks about all the young willows growing from the branches of the older ones as mirrors and representations magically preserved through time. Like cinema and its fascination with death, weeping willows are often planted next to cemeteries and in some countries used as an ornament to symbolize grief. When it comes to its metaphorical power, the weeping willow is unlike any other tree because its appearance already bears resemblance to sadness... Of course, anthropomorphization plays a decisive role in the hanging shoulders and tears we imagine seeing.
Judging by its appearance, the weeping willow in Andriesh could very well be healthy. Whereas the cursed oak appearing later in the film has to be shown without leaves and black as death, the willow already epitomizes all the necessary emotions without any real damage. When it comes to acting, it is a very expressive tree, quite fitting the declamatory acting style employed throughout the film. It’s no coincidence I remember the willow of my childhood in the rain. When playing with my friends next to the tree or crawling in the mud next to its roots, the melancholy air lingered like a dark foreshadowing of feelings I had yet to encounter. Today I know that the willow had warned me and I am grateful for it.
It’s mostly in fairy tales and fantasy that we find enchanted, cursed or speaking trees. They have a conscience and, like stones, they know more than humans. Even if not all of them are old and wise, we comprehend that they see more and have more experience. Trees have been part of folk tales since the very beginning. As most of these stories emerged in times where whole districts and counties were covered with forests, this does not come as a surprise. Yet, the approach to trees changed and moved into a darker, more mystical realm when the forest was perceived as the edge of civilization during the Middle Ages. Trees represent a boundary which has been cast in a number of different perspectives: a boundary between the rational and irrational or between modern and primeval time, to name just a few. I can only speak for myself, but there is a curious longing connecting us towards trees.
In mainstream cinema, the most famous talking trees must be the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Writer J. R. R. Tolkien famously defined fairy stories making use of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of “suspension of disbelief,” which basically means that we must accept the rules of a fantasy world and thus believe in what we are reading or seeing. “The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.” Of course, there are huge differences between fantasy, fairy tales, and both of these genres in cinema, but the need for magic bridges those different forms and trees. It’s also a longing for childhood, when it was easier to forget everything and just disappear inside a work of fiction. 
I am a willow of the wilderness, / Loving the wind that bent me. 
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I don’t want to give the impression that Andriesh is such a work of fiction and that talking weeping willows don’t exist. It’s just that they are not always crying and speaking with a suffering voice. Some of them are quite happy, some are worried, some are just in love with their own reflection. You can find all kinds of conjuring tricks to do with weeping willows in books and online. Some might bring you love, others a longer life, but I suggest you just sit down next to one from time to time. Beneath the tree, you can listen to the very song the shepherd boy plays on his flute: 
I will not forget the care you have lavished on me. Here, take this gift. This leaf from the weeping willow. Put this leaf in your flute. Inside, the melody will awaken.


Full BloomSergei ParajanovYakov BazelyanColumns
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