Jiri Trnka -- Walt Disney Of The East!
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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 Dreamand -- 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 Dreamfailed 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 Dreamwas 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 Hand
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 Handis a merciless political allegory, which strictly follows story outline without developing lyrical details as usual; it had a strong dramatic arc with deep catharsisin 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 Handwas 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 Handwas 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 Handwas 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 Handwas 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.

To learn more about Trnka's work, view clips from The Emperor's Nightingale and One Drop Too Many.

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.


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