His book illustrations and animations have influenced generations of children. Understandable then that Czech artist, puppeteer and stop-motion film-maker, Jiří Trnka was known as the “Walt Disney of the East.”
From the moment he could hold a pencil, Trnka drew pictures. But drawing wasn’t enough for him, no, he wanted to bring his pictures to life. So, he started making puppets and opened a wooden puppet theatre on Prague’s Wenceslas Square. It was here in 1945, that Trnka and his colleagues started making stop-animation films based on the ideas and stories developed in the theatre. Trnka was legendary, as Studio Director, Zdena Deitchova recalled in 2007, “[he] was the symbol of a great artist and a great illustrator, and everybody in the studio in those days looked at him really with great admiration.”
In 1947, Trnka made The Czech Year (Špalíček), which told six separate folk tales of Czech life. It was a defining moment for Trnka as he won several international awards three years running across Europe. Trnka’s next film was the Song of the Prairie, and then, in 1949, he made The Emperor’s Nightingale a beautiful, poetic and unforgettable film, adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, and voiced by Hollywood star Boris Karloff.
Though he worked with puppets, Trnka’s unique drawing skills were still very evident, as author Edgar Dutka recalled in a memoir:
“He transferred this style of book illustration into puppets, so they are very typical. If I see Trnka’s puppets, I say: ‘Oh, that’s Trnka. His roots are in Czech village, in Czech culture, so those puppets are villagers: short legs… farmers…’ They’re lovely. It’s a special style. That’s why his fairy tale won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 1946, because it was something new.”
Over the next ten years, Trnka made four of his best known works, The Merry Circus (Veselý Cirkus, 1951), Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české, 1953), The Good Soldier Svejk (Dobrý voják Švejk, 1955) and arguably his greatest film A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sen noci svatojánské, 1959).
Then in 1965, he made his last film The Hand (Ruka), with which he moved away from traditional Czech tales to a political critique of his country under Russian domination. It was a controversial and very dangerous film to make, one that:
...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…
...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.
In The Hand Trnka predicted his own fate, as he died at the early age of fifty-seven in 1969. Like the Artist in his last film, he was buried with full State honors. This documentary gives a fascinating insight into Trnka’s brilliant creative world.
Previously on Dangerous Minds