From April to May, the UK is being treated to a retrospective Jiří Trnka’s animation, through a collaboration by the Czech Centre London, the Czech National Film Archive and specialist cinemas in London, Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Known as ‘The Walt Disney of the East’, Trnka was the father of Czech animation, which really only came into existence after World War II. Although he was initially influenced by Disney’s animated cartoons, it was in puppet animation that Trnka ultimately developed his own style and became influential in his own right. He founded his puppet film studio in the 1940s and his first feature film, The Czech Year (Špalíček, 1947) was immediately successful with both domestic and international audiences.
Typically containing no dialogue, Trnka’s films are easily accessible to viewers young and old, all over the world. Although animation is popularly associated with children’s entertainment, most of Trnka’s films were aimed at adults. Many of his shorts and features were literary adaptations drawn from diverse sources, including Czech folk tales and fables (Old Czech Legends/ Staré pověsti české, 1953), contemporary domestic fiction (The Good Soldier Švejk/Dobrý voják Švejk, 1955), and international literature from authors such as Hans Christian Andersen (The Emperor’s Nightingale/Císařův slavík, 1949) and Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Sen noci svatojánské, 1959). During the 1960s liberalisation period in communist Czechoslovakia which triggered the birth of a cinematic New Wave, Trnka’s own work also became more political, culminating in his kafkaesque final feature, The Hand/Ruka (1965), made just four years before his death.
I was able to catch a programme of ‘Trnka Shorts For Adults’ at the British Film Institute on the final day of the Trnka Retrospective in London. The selection brought together a delightful range of films that gave a broad overview of Trnka’s career: his early cartoon satire of Nazism, Springman and the SS (Pérák a SS, 1946); his playful Western Song of the Prairie (Árie prérie, 1949); the cheeky Boccacio adaptation of The Archangel Gabriel and Mrs Goose (Archanděl Gabriel a paní Husa, 1964), a whimsical study of man’s lifelong addiction to speed in Passion (Vášeň, 1962) and his final political film mentioned above, The Hand. While all but Springman were stop-motion puppet animations, this collection of films is marked by its diversity. The puppets in Song of the Prairie come across as innocent dolls, like children’s toys, whereas those in The Archangel are far more sexual, from the wiggling hips of the bejewelled female puppet to the disturbing tactility of the wizened priest, lurking inside a hessian cassock. Passion is different again: not taking its inspiration from either literature or live-action narrative cinema, its structure is much freer. Like The Hand, Passion is more symbolic, and gives fuller scope to the flexibility of Trnka’s imagination: to name just one example, an old man steals the knights from pensioners’ chessboards and feeds them into his motorised wheelchair to increase its horsepower. The Hand effectively brings Trnka’s career full-circle, echoing the political criticism of his early cartoon Springman, but with an important difference: whereas the 1946 film celebrated the end of Nazism, The Hand targeted a state censorship which still existed, and which would reassert itself following Trnka’s death and the end of the Prague Spring.
In addition to the imaginative ingenuity and playful humour evident in the visual detail of these films, I was struck by two elements of Trnka’s aesthetic. First of all, I noticed its dynamism. In animating puppets, the temptation (and easiest option) would be to concentrate on the motion of the puppets and keep the camera static. In Song of the Prairie, there is an incredibly dynamic shot early on: the stagecoach is racing through the desert, the drivers shaking the reins to spur on the horses, the fringes on the coach blowing in the wind, and a female passenger leaning from the window to sing a duet with a cowboy riding alongside. Co-ordinating all these different types of motion is already a huge challenge, but Trnka creates an additional one: the camera is in motion too, panning across the scene. It gives the audience the magical impression that the puppets are living their lives in their own autonomous world.
A second notable feature of Trnka’s work is its combination of expressivity and tactility. The aesthetic of many of Trnka’s films can feel dated, the puppets and sets too grubby for twenty-first century tastes, like toys already old even in Trnka’s time. This patina of age is not reassuring, but speaks of a childhood long past, by definition dead. Yet there is a timeless vitality in the puppets’ gestures combined with the textures of real materials, brought to life by stop-motion animation. In an all-too familiar gesture, the cowboy in Song of the Prairie takes the time to self-consciously comb his shock of red hair, even in the midst of a chase. In The Archangel Gabriel, the tip of the repulsive priest’s cassock gestures ominously, as clearly as a real hand: the crudeness of the material adds to the impression rather than taking away from it.
The tactility and lifelike gestures of the puppets can create a sense of the uncanny, and the programme of Trnka Shorts for Adults frequently made me think of the work of Trnka’s compatriot Jan Švankmajer, another influential and much-admired animator. While Švankmajer’s dark humour and strong grounding in the realm of the physical are also characteristic of a particular Czech sensibility, his skilful stop-motion animation with its strong element of tactility also speak of the time he spent working in Trnka’s puppet studio. Trnka’s influence extended to other present-day animators including the Quay Brothers, so that going to see his films is not only a pleasure in itself, but will help audiences appreciate the historical context of stop-motion animation in general.
Remaining screenings of the UK Jiří Trnka retrospective will take place at Glasgow’s Film Theatre: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (6 May) and the programme of Trnka Shorts for Adults (13 May). For those who can’t make it, some shorts including The Hand and Springman and the SS are available to watch on YouTube.