Edgar Dutka takes a look at the career of Czechoslovakia's great master, Jiri Trnka. His puppet films are masterpieces of subtle rebellion and sophisticated themes.
"Jiri Trnka -- Walt Disney Of The East!"
This was the heading of an article written by an English journalist after he saw Trnka's wide screen puppet feature film The Midsummer Night's Dream at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. He exaggerated in many ways, as there were many differences between the two great artists. The least of which is that Disney focused his work on the children or family audience, while Trnka addressed most of his films to the adult audience. He arrived to the first post-war Cannes Festival in 1946 with his three cartoons (his filmmaking career had only begun on May 29, 1945, when a group of young animators asked the famous book illustrator to become their boss!) Despite the fact that his fairytale cartoon The Robbers and the Animals won the festival, another film that was entered, The Present, was of more importance to Trnka's work. The Present(written by J. Brdecka) was a cartoon for adults -- a satire with Trnka's very own individual art design and a non-Disney way of storytelling. This film was completely misunderstood until Stephen Bosustow congratulated Trnka on it three years later. If you compare The Present with UPA's productions you know why! It was a visible step that divided post-war animation into two groups: the productions of big studios (classics) and films that were modern expressions, created in form and content by strong, individual personalities.
But Trnka loved puppets and he preferred puppets to all other kinds of art. That is why he, along with his fellow animators wanted to try "to make puppets move on the screen" and established a small studio of puppet films (called The Studio of Jiri Trnka today) in 1946. From this very year on, Trnka created one puppet feature film each year (The Czech Year, The Ceasar's Nightingale, The Novel with a Base from Chekhov's work, a Western parody The Aria of Prairie and Bajaja). The Czech Year is a very significant work for Trnka's career. (The film's Czech title is Spalicek, which refers to illustrated folk songbooks and also a piece of wood.) When he was asked twenty years later, which of his films he prefered most, he remembered The Czech Year. It was not his patriotism at all. The film is a cycle of six parts illustrating the old Czech folk customs around the year. It was prior to Christmas 1946, so Trnka decided to start with The Bethlehem sequence, which was inspired by his own painting. The short film was very successful and he got the idea to go on - the cycle finally reaching six parts. The Czech Year, his first puppet feature film, was internationally acclaimed for his beautiful, brilliant animation of simple puppets (pieces of wood) and music inspired by Czech folk songs (V. Trojan).
Starting in February of 1948, even the Communists enjoyed his work and subsidized all of his following films. It seemed to them that puppets were for children, and that they could not cause any political harm; however, until the late '80s two parts of the film Spring, with a procession of Christians, and The Legend of St. Prokop were banned as church propaganda. When Trnka finished the national fairytale Bajaja in 1950 he was greatly honoured by the regime.
But when he wanted to adapt Don Quijote in 1951, his project was banned by the Government as too cosmopolitan. There always existed two sides to the Government's "generous" hand. Instead of Don Quijote, he was pressed to create historic myths in The Old Czech Legends(1952). Trnka didn't want to. He'd rather have quit working at the studio and gone back to illustrating children's book, but in solitude he found the clue to this theme. There are strong and brilliant scenes in the film, great character animation and superb music, more in the way of Janacek than Smetana. Trnka became a real filmmaker with this film but he was right: such a theme had a very limited audience. Even Czechs did not appreciate a filmed version of the history that they had to learn at school.
Several of Trnka's films were banned for religeous images like this one in The Archangel Gabriel and Lady Goose. © Kratky Film Praha. Trnka at work on Good Soldier Shweik. © Kratky Film Praha.
After this limited success, he did three short adaptations of Hasek's famous classic The Good Soldier Sweik(1954) which made Trnka loved by the whole nation at last. But he was still looking for an internationally known classic story where he could speak to the audience using his art. He was a kind of Renaissance man unfortunately born in the wrong time and wrong country. But in 1955 he started and in 1959 he finished his masterpiece, the wide screen puppet feature film The Midsummer Night's Dream and -- it failed. Both abroad and at home too. Even -- or because -- this adaptation of Shakespeare contains Trnka's entire opinions and esthetic notions about a puppet film. The elements he used were: an internationally known story, a carefully prepared screenplay (co-writer J. Brdecka), perfect characters and brilliant puppet animation, not too much dialogue and only a few lines of narration from time to time. Trnka never allowed lip-synch, he thought it was barbaric for puppets-sculptures-subjects of art to be treated in this manner. Music was always preferred to the spoken word. He often discussed his projects with the composer (V.Trojan) before he beginning work on a screenplay. When the musical score was composed before the animation and he liked it -- he would even change his animation arrangement to fit the music. I think it is obvious why his Dream failed by most of journalists abroad and by ordinary adult audience too: they felt themselves lost in the picturesque but intricate story. I'm afraid they were not prepared for it. Trnka was strongly criticized at home as creating l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake) and loosing touch with the working class. Let's see the film today! Not on TV but on the wide screen at the cinema as it was intended and created by its creator to be. Trnka shot the film with two parallel cameras (classic and wide screen format which was a novelty at that time) because he did not believe in "compositions seen through a mailbox slot." Thus he created gorgeous work.
A reception of The Dream was a great disappointment for Trnka, he worked for years on it. Days and nights were spent in shooting, with everybody sleeping in the studio. It cost him his health but he was a strong man and a workaholic. He went back to his book illustrating, painting and sculpture but in the next few years he made another four short puppet films: The Passion(1961), The Cybernetic Grandma(1962), The Archangel Gabriel and Lady Goose after Boccacio(1964) and the classic The Hand (1965).
The Artist from The Hand. © Kratky Film Praha.
Watch a clip from The Hand and witness why Trnka is the master. © Rembrandt Films. All Rights Reserved.
The last of Trnka's films, The Hand, was an unexpected and surprising break in his work thus far. It was something completely new in content and form. The Hand is a merciless political allegory, which strictly follows story outline without developing lyrical details as usual; it had a strong dramatic arc with deep catharsis in the end. Trnka had used a combination of his typical funny-foolish but undefeated, ordinary man puppet as the protagonist and a live-action human hand (naked or in gloves) as the despotic antagonist. When The Hand was released it was officially declared as Trnka's criticism of the Cult of Personality (Stalin), but for all people, it was an alarming allegory of human existence in a totalitarian society. The film had the strong up-to-date story about the Artist and the omnipresent Hand, which only allowed the Artist to make sculptures of the Hand and nothing else. The Artist was sent to a prison for his disobedience and pressed to hew a huge sculpture of the Hand. When the omnipresent Hand caused the Artist's death, the same Hand organizes the artist's State funeral with all artists honoured. Trnka, for the first time, openly expressed his opinion about his own inhuman totalitarian society. The Hand was one of the first films that helped to open the short Prague's Spring. It is curious that Trnka predicted his own fate in it. When Jiri Trnka died in November 1969 (at only 57 years of age), he had a State funeral with honours. Only four months later, The Hand was banned; all copies were confiscated by the secret police, put in a safe and the film was forbidden for screening for next twenty years. A seventeen minute long puppet film intimidated the unlimited power of the Totalitarian State. In the 1970s and 80s, we already could find many such examples: films by Jan Svankmajer at the time. The importance of gifted and intelligent animation for an adult audience will never fade. I am sure if Trnka's film The Hand was seen by people in any totalitarian country today, it would help them to believe, as it helped us to believe: We shall overcome! And we did.
A collection of Trnka's world famous puppet films is available in a 3-tape collection at the AWN Store.
Edgar Dutka is a scriptwriter, animation historian and professor at The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.