This February marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the Czech Republic’s greatest animators, puppeteers and illustrators, Jiří Trnka. This milestone is being marked in the Czech Republic by the country’s National Film Archive; its Prague-based Ponrepo cinema screening a collection of Trnka’s films and documentaries about the artist until March 16th. Czech Centres around the globe – which exist to promote the Czech Republic - are also marking the anniversary heralding an exhibition called “Jiří Trnka: In the Service of the Imagination” which kicked off in Munich and also runs until March.
Trnka has often been described as “The Walt Disney of Eastern Europe”. I asked Michal Bregant, director of the National Film Archive, if this was a fair statement.
“Absolutely not, because Trnka was so rooted in Czech history, in the Czech mentality and the Czech visual style, so he is certainly famous both at home and across the globe, but he is incomparable to Walt Disney.”
Jiří Trnka was born in the city of Plzeň in 1912. After studying in Prague, Trnka began to work in the theatre as a set designer but eventually began to entertain viewers with his own puppet show. In 1945, he and several colleagues set up what they called the “Trick Unit” and over the next few years began to make a series of animated shorts. It wasn’t long before basic animation shifted to Trnka’s preferred stop motion puppetry – utilising real models meticulously moved and photographed one frame at a time. Over the next two decades, Trnka made six feature films including 1947’s Špalíček, 1950’s Bajaja and 1955’s Good Soldier Švejk. Trnka also made countless short films, including perhaps the most famous, 1965’s The Hand.
As Bregant notes, Trnka was a methodical auter:
“It may be rather abstract but when we say that he was absolutely responsible for his own talents, I think that is appropriate. For example, when he finished his own version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a very complex and beautiful stop motion animation feature film, he decided to cut out a ten or fifteen minute-long scene of I don’t know how many puppet couples dancing. So if you only imagine what kind of work was involved in that to get all those puppets dancing for twelve minutes – and all the puppets had five fingers on each hand; now animation characters usually have three. His puppets really were not caricatures of humans but they were very human and had a certain psychology in their physiognomy. So that was his responsibility to cut that out because he said ‘here the film is losing pace; the rhythm is not really working and it’s not supporting the story, so he just cut it out. And that’s something that an animation filmmaker would not typically do.”
In a recent Czech Television retrospective Trnka’s daughter, Helena Trösterová, recalled how her father worked:
“He had great manual dexterity; even as a child he was already making puppets. His mother was a dressmaker, so he had access to fabrics and other such materials and he taught himself to sew. He was also a very skilled self-taught wood carver, and basically taught himself to make puppets from scratch, including their costumes. So later, he could tell seamstresses exactly what kind of costumes he wanted and he always painted the heads of the puppets by himself. But the oversight went beyond that too. He wrote his won scripts, directed his own movies; all he needed, apart from himself, was animators and musicians. My father didn’t have a studio anywhere else so he worked from home and we children could go in there whenever we wanted. This is something he wouldn’t permit adults to do, but we children were allowed to watch, to comment, to critique; in the morning we’d see something that he’d created overnight and were allowed to express our views on it. He valued our critiques even though there really weren’t any as we always liked all of it!”
Trösterová also recalled her favourite film from her father:
“My favourite film is Bajaja. And there’s a personal perspective here as I feel that it was in this film that he somewhat presented his own life story. The prince that has to battle with a multi-headed dragon and before he achieves some kind of victory and gets the princess, a great deal of energy has to be expended and much work undertaken and many battles fought. And this multi-headed dragon: that’s incomprehension of his work and battles with authorities – even on matters of censorship. Basically, it was every possible hurdle that you could put under his feet. And I don’t think that it was just a matter of the communist era, as he somewhat managed to skirt around that in part, but I think that there was also some envy there as he was one of those people that everything he touched, he could execute well.”
Michal Bregant noted that finding keys to Trnka’s personality in his work was something of a rarity:
“Trnka as an artist and as an auter was not obsessed with himself; he was not autobiographical. But I’m sure that we can find some of his personal little details: the concept of a hero and of an individual human being, of an artist is something that has some undertones, which are rather personal.”
The 1965 short The Hand is often cited as one of Trnka’s greatest films. But its undertones – the story of an artist trying to make a pot for his favourite plant having his creativity stifled by a giant hand – upset the communist authorities and ended up being banned. Michal Bregant again:
“The Hand was made in 1965, which was a time when the Czechoslovak New Wave was blossoming and many critical and politically-centred films were made in Prague’s Barrandov Studios. So we can say that there is this free spirit and certain social and political criticism in it, which is something pretty rare for animation films. It’s something that you probably wouldn’t find in a lot of animation films anywhere in the world at that time. Trnka himself, I would say that he was very often used, if not abused, by the authorities. When they were sending his films abroad to international film festivals, he would usually win the competition and I would say that Trnka was sometimes used as a triumph of the communist cultural politics. They would typically say ‘look, the Czechoslovak government is supporting the film industry and all the artists and filmmakers are able to do whatever they want.’”
The Hand proved to be Trnka’s last film, as the artist returned to his other love painting and illustrating. He passed away in 1969 at the relatively young age of 57. Michal Bregant believes that the Soviet invasion of 1968 may have played a role in the artist’s early death:
“He had lung disease and had problems breathing and was a heavy smoker and so on and I would say that he lived a very fast lifestyle. But I think that in 1968, 1969 and 1970, there were several people whom I consider to be the victims of the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia. Simply, for the sensitive soul of an artist, it may have been too hard to accept that the country was not free anymore.”
Jiří Trnka left an indelible mark on Czech culture, helping to embody a distinct visual palette not just for Czech stories and fairytales, but also bringing to life the works of Shakespeare or Lewis Carroll. During his life, Trnka received global recognition of his talents a number of times, in 1968 winning the Hans Chrisitan Andersen Award for his illustrations of children’s books as well as being recognized at film festivals in Venice and Cannes.
Michal Bregant summed up Trnka’s style:
“If you look at his films, each one is different. Maybe lyrical, but not sentimental and there is always a certain sense of humour. So maybe this combination of lyricism and humour is something that is quite typical for Czech fairytales. You can always feel the point-of-view of this artist in his own work.”
Helena Trösterová added that quality was a guiding principle for her father.
“My father’s chief guiding principle was that children’s stories should be done with great quality. He liked children and that was the spark behind his work. And I think that if someone has ability, and undertakes the execution of their talents in an honest and well-thought-out way, then the results should be self-evident.”