“The very name conjures up childhood & poetry.” (1)
– Jean Cocteau

“‘Mr. Deitch, I am a very famous man!’

Jiří Trnka was indeed a very famous man – in Czechoslovakia and in the entire world of animation. When we first met, he said the above words to me. It was, I learned, in his usual ironic code. Translation: ‘I am not a free man!’”
– Gene Deitch (2)

Jiří Trnka

2012 marked the centenary of the birth of a giant in the history of animation. This was Jiří Trnka, a Czech renaissance man who, despite becoming synonymous with puppet animation, seldom animated anything directly himself. He did, however, make full use of his wildly protean artistic abilities in the production of numerous exquisite animated films, for which he was almost always designer, scenarist and director.

Prior to embarking upon a career in animation, the ambidextrous Trnka was already a successful painter – “a Czech heir to Odilon Redon” (3), even, as well as an illustrator who would go on to beautify upwards of 130 works of literature and to win a Hans Christian Andersen Award. He was a puppet-maker, a sculptor, and a set and stage designer. All of these talents were abundantly well utilised in his highly distinctive film work.

Often wordless – at least, until foreign distributors sometimes had their way with them – Trnka’s puppet films nonetheless are full of characters whose every emotion is eminently discernible. This was despite Trnka’s almost wholesale refusal to allow his puppets any changeability of facial expression.

As regular collaborator, and fellow animation great, the late Břetislav Pojar observed, “It was simply Trnka’s way of creating puppets. They had character, and yet to a certain extent a neutral expression, so that they could vary emotional states through body position or silhouettes.” (4) While animation historian Edgar Dutka claimed: “Trnka never allowed lip-synch, he thought it was barbaric for puppets-sculptures-subjects of art to be treated in this manner” (5).

Trnka’s intransigence was in no way to the detriment of his work. His privileging of a language of gesture was complemented by a highly expressionistic employment of cinematic form and style, in perfect harmony with Václav Trojan’s superb tailor-made scores. Indeed, Trojan’s soundtracks made for matches as perfect for Trnka’s films as did Zdeněk Liška’s for Jan Švankmajer’s early works.

Despite being mentored from a young age by Josef Skupa, creator of famed marionette duo Spejbl and Hurvínek, it was not, however, through puppetry that Trnka first made his name in animation.

In the immediate wake of World War II, Trnka founded Bratři v triku (“Brothers in Tricks”, but also, per its logo, “Brothers in T-Shirts”) with fellow animators Eduard Hofman and Jiří Brdečka (6). This studio, dedicated to the production of traditional, hand-drawn animation, lives on today.

With one short film quickly behind him, Trnka had three hand-drawn shorts screened at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946. While Dárek (The Gift) was received as a truly radical work – Stephen Bosustow, co-founder of United Productions of America (UPA), was later to declare it a great influence upon his studio’s graphic approach, and to declaim Trnka “the first rebel against Disney’s omnipotence” (7) – it was Zvířátka a petrovští (The Animals and the Robbers) which won Trnka the Grand Prix.

Despite the bouquets for Trnka’s cartoons, he was eager to move on to animating puppets. He was dissatisfied with the industrial nature of drawn animation, feeling that “too many middle-men (artists, colour technicians) weakened the originality of the author’s drawings” (8). Furthermore, he was keen to create and shoot in three dimensions. That said, he would never entirely forego traditional animation; it would still appear intermittently in his later work, often through ingenious in-camera superimposition.

Trnka had previously illustrated Špalíček veršů a pohádek, a collection of Czech rhymes and fairytales by František Hrubín. It was to this source that he turned in the Yule of 1946 to make his first puppet films, beginning with the correspondingly Christmassy Betlém (Bethlehem). Humbly intended as a test run for his newly founded puppet film studio, the ten minute long Bethlehem made for a remarkably accomplished debut. Trnka’s stocky wooden puppets are full of charisma and remarkably lissom as they enact Czech folk rituals and revel to Václav Trojan’s folk song-inspired choral score. Already, too, his camera is far from static; rather, it dances and pirouettes every bit as gracefully, and sometimes even more frantically, than the puppets whose movements it captures.

A further five lyrical instalments followed, each presenting a different folkloric slice of seasonal life in the Czech lands. With the six parts compiled, Trnka had in Špalíček (1947) his first feature-length film, and a Venice Film Festival prizewinner, marketed in Anglophone nations as The Czech Year.

The Hand

Trnka’s growing prestige was something the Communist Party wanted a piece of upon their assumption of control of Czechoslovakia in early 1948. Henceforth, all of Trnka’s subsequent output was subsidised by the state, a situation which, just as for many compatriots in animation and in live-action, was liberating even as it was stifling. It wouldn’t be until his final film, 1965’s Ruka (The Hand), however, that Trnka would unequivocally “kick against the pricks”, but there would be no few brushes with the authorities in the meantime. Even two innocuous segments of The Czech YearJaro (Spring) and Legenda o sv. Prokopu (The Legend of St. Prokop) – wound up banned until the late 1980s, perceived by the communists as containing religious propaganda.

Trnka could at that time have accepted a post at an American university. However, he resisted the allure of the putative land of the free – “I cannot make little cowboys; I know how to make Czech peasants, and nobody in America is interested in those. I am local”  (9) – and stayed instead under the watchful eyes of the regime in Czechoslovakia, where he turned his attentions to a feature-length adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Nattergalen” (“The Nightingale”).

Widely acclaimed, the delightful Císařův slavík (The Emperor’s Nightingale, 1948) differs from its source in that it contains a framing story. Live-action sequences bookend the animation of the familiar fairytale, which is presented as a fever dream. Forbidden from joining a girl (Helena Patočková) outside to play, the loneliness of a sickly, well-to-do boy (Jaromír Sobota) finds a rhyme with the plight of the dreamt, animated Chinese Emperor, who is similarly imprisoned.

Filmed without commentary, it was unnecessarily, but not regrettably, given one for French distribution by Jean Cocteau, while Boris Karloff supplied a charming narration for its American release.

Regime-approved literary adaptations and fairytales would remain Trnka’s principal stock-in-trade until the 1960s.

As Antonín J. Liehm put it, “it was much harder for the watchdogs to penetrate the land of fairy tales, folk stories and poetic visions, in pursuit of puppet film, all the more so since at that time folklore was recommended and defended by the state” (10).

The communists were, nonetheless, not altogether thrilled with the themes of thwarted liberty they sensed running through the two narrative strains in The Emperor’s Nightingale. However, in the mid-1950s, when Trnka turned for inspiration in three short films to Jaroslav Hašek and his relatively contemporary folk hero, the Good Soldier Švejk, the communists might really have had grounds for suspecting a snook was being cocked in their direction, at least as much as towards the source material’s expressly pre-regime targets. After all, the ostensibly buffoonish protagonist of the much-loved book is seemingly at odds with any authority, not just the dimming Habsburg Empire.

With Švejk, Trnka won back Czech audiences who’d been indifferent to Staré pověsti české (Old Czech Legends, 1952), effectively a sequel in seven parts to The Czech Year, which the Communists had pressed him to make after refusing him his wishes to adapt Don Quixote. Notwithstanding Old Czech Legends’ virtuosity, local audiences were unenthusiastic about a film that retold stories they’d been forced to learn at school. Outside of Czechoslovakia, though, his work still had audiences marvelling. Trnka, according to Peter Hames, was beginning to be talked about “as a ‘peasant poet’, with French critics comparing his work to the paintings of Henri ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau” (11).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Far less explicable was the lukewarm initial response to Trnka’s 1959 feature-length masterpiece, Sen noci svatojánské (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a stunningly beautiful, highly faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Several years in the making, the puppet animation is more liquid, more balletic than ever. The scenes between love-struck Titania and ass-headed Bottom, in particular, are achingly tender, with Titania an especially astonishing, luminous creation – her train is constituted of tens of fairies, individually animated amidst reams of gorgeous, extensive coral garlanding. The film is distinguished by exquisite design throughout and, exceedingly rare for Czech productions of the period, was shot on glorious, and expensive, Eastmancolor stock.

Atop reaching a new pinnacle of craftsmanship, Trnka took a remarkably prescient step, in an industrial sense, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He undertook the extraordinary measure – it pains one to even consider how many re-shoots this must have necessitated – of shooting every frame of the film with two cameras: one shooting in Academy ratio, the other in the new and still relatively novel CinemaScope. Trnka found the idea of his widescreen compositions ever appearing in a letterboxed presentation so abhorrent that he produced an in-camera pan-and-scan version of his own incredibly intricate film at the same time as he shot it in ’Scope. Consequently, two “definitive” versions of the film can be said to exist. Neither though can be said to include Richard Burton’s narration, per its later English language release.

Also curiously anticipatory are scenes in which the camera swirls panoramically around statuary depicting gods and heroes from Greek mythology. These shots are remarkably similar to those in the film-within-a-film in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963).

In the 1960s, Trnka’s cinema turned darker. 1962’s half-hour long Kybernetická babička (Cybernetic Grandma) remains one of the most original and horrifying dystopias ever filmed. The novelty of its vision of a grim future, in which child-rearing might be farmed off to some sort of cross between a robotic armchair and a babbling Angel of Death, is undiminished by the passing of 50 years.

While the future imagined by Cybernetic Grandma is bleak indeed, Trnka’s heartbreaking 19-minute long final film, The Hand, is utterly despairing. A peerless allegory for the life of the artist toiling under a totalitarian regime, it is also nothing less than an unprecedented act of dissent, three whole years ahead of the all too brief flowering of the Prague Spring.

An innocent little potter lives in a dilapidated little bedsit. He is a simple, happy fellow. Sculpting little pots to place colourful little flowers in is more than enough to sustain him. One day, however, he starts to be menaced by a giant white-gloved hand, which resorts to an intensifying series of ingenious ruses and break-ins to hound him into sculpting likenesses of it instead. Resist as long as he might, the artist inevitably succumbs to the pressure exerted against him and, encaged and literally turned into a puppet – he is made into a marionette operated by the hand itself – the artist does his persecutor’s bidding and sculpts a monumental hand.

With that task accomplished, the artist, exhausted, is rewarded for his toil; the hand pins medals to his chest and places upon his head a laurel wreath. Horror of horrors, he has been appointed a “National Artist”, just as Trnka was himself in 1963. The artist is not in a good way. Lit by flickering candlelight, he now resembles Maria Falconetti’s Jeanne in Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

While he soon makes good an escape from his cage, rejecting his compromising honours as he takes flight, he dies in his home very soon after, only to be given a tremendously ironic state funeral in public disavowal of his dissenting actions. A national hero he will remain! However, the ghastliest irony of The Hand concerns Trnka’s own fate. When he died at the close of 1969, aged only 57, he too was given a state funeral. The Hand, meanwhile, was disappeared from Czechoslovakian sight altogether, and would remain so for another 20 years.

Nevertheless, The Hand did meantime manage to infiltrate the wider world. It won the Grand Prix at Annecy, the “Cannes of animation”, in 1965 and, fascinatingly, Harry Belafonte has a producer’s credit for its American release in 1967.

Jaroslav Boček wrote that

at a time when Czechoslovak art was answerable to temporary needs of propaganda, Trnka polarized the entire development of cinematography with his orientation toward permanent values and ideas that for years comprised both the development of national history and the essence of Czech culture. (12)

Yet, Trnka’s legacy stretches far beyond Czech lands. It’s not only successive generations of Czech and Slovak animators who’ve drawn inspiration from his work. To cite but two significant examples of the wide reach of Trnka’s influence, Japanese animator Kihachirō Kawamoto travelled to Prague in 1963 to study under Trnka for a year ahead of producing a superb body of work of his own. And probably the pre-eminent artists in the field of puppet animation today, the London-based but Pennsylvania-born and bred Brothers Quay, sought and attained the counsel of Milena Nováková, a technical assistant to Trnka and Břetislav Pojar, when they realised they “needed elementary instruction in the art form as a matter of some urgency” (13) ahead of producing their first puppet film, Nocturna Artificialia (1979).

One can only presume that Trnka’s influence would be all the greater if his films were only more readily accessible, and on formats that would do their beauty justice.

Dubbed the “Czech Méliès”, his contemporary, Karel Zeman is the focus of a new museum in a very prominent location in Prague, which has started issuing budget-priced DVD editions of recent restorations of his most revered work. Meanwhile, the extensive body of work of the man dubbed the “Disney of the East” is scarcely anywhere to be found, not even in the year after his centenary celebrations, and more than 40 years after his death.

It can only be hoped that Trnka’s family reconcile their differences sooner rather than later; this, apparently, is the principal obstacle to access to Trnka’s lifework. Sadly, this is a scenario all too common in those countries once a part of the Eastern Bloc, where rights to creative produce, once owned by the State, are transferred to squabbling family members after the principal creator’s death. It will be a day to celebrate indeed, should that day finally come, when Trnka’s glorious animated films once more enter wider circulation and again receive the acclaim they still eminently deserve.


  1. Quoted by the uncredited narrator in Jirí Trnka: Puppet Animation Master (1999), a short documentary included on Rembrandt Films’ DVD compilation, The Extraordinary Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka. No directorial credit is given, but it does credit Michael J. Sudyn as editor.
  2. “43. Jiří Trnka”, Genedeitchcredits: http://genedeitchcredits.com/roll-the-credits/43-jiri-trnka/.
  3. Mira Liehm and Antonín J. Liehm, The Most Important Art: Soviet and Eastern European Film After 1945, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1977, p. 107.
  4. Miloš Fiala, “O Jiřím Trnkovi se Stanislavem Látalem a Břetislavem Pojarem”, Film a doba, 1970, p. 180, quoted in Pavel Horáček and Malvína Toupalová, “Loutka musí zůstat loutkou/Jiří Trnka a varianty pojetí filmové loutky”, Cinepur no. 80, 2012, p. 27. Author’s translation.
  5. Edgar Dutka, “Jiri Trnka – Walt Disney Of The East!”, Animation World Magazine vol. 5, no. 4, July 2000: http://www.awn.com/mag/issue5.04/5.04pages/dutkatrnka2.php3.
  6. The Bratři v triku logo was designed by another Czech animation great, Zdeněk Miler, creator of Krtek, the little mole.
  7. Jaroslav Boček, Jiří Trnka: Artist and Puppet Master, Artia, Prague, 1965, quoted in Adam Balz, “The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka”, Not Coming to a Theater Near You: http://www.notcoming.com/features/jiritrnka/.
  8. Giannalberto Bendazzi, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1995, p. 168.
  9. Translated from Red, “Trnka”, CoJeCo 19 October 2005: http://www.cojeco.cz/index.php?detail=1&id_desc=99263&s_lang=2&title=Trnka; as quoted in “Jiri Trnka”, New World Encyclopedia: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Jiri_Trnka&oldid=956684. It bears mentioning that Trnka soon proved himself wrong; he made a wonderful short spoofing the Western, Árie prérie (Song of the Prairie), in 1949.
  10. Antonín J. Liehm, Closely Watched Films: The Czechoslovak Experience, International Arts and Sciences Press, New York, 1974, p. 112.
  11. Peter Hames, “The Hand That Rocked the Kremlin”, Sight and Sound vol. 22, no. 4, April 2012: http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49844.
  12. Jaroslav Boček, Film a doba no. 5, 1965, quoted in Mira Liehm and Antonín J. Liehm, p. 108.
  13. Michael Brooke, in the booklet accompanying the Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003, DVD box set, BFI, London, 2006.

Ruka/The Hand (1965 Czechoslovakia 19 mins)

Prod Co: Krátký Film, incorporating Studio Jiřího Trnky Dir, Scr: Jiří Trnka Anim: Bohuslav Šrámek, Jan Adam Phot: Jiří Šafář Ed: Hana Walachová Mus: Václav Trojan

Sen noci svatojánské/A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959 Czechoslovakia 76 mins)

Prod Co: Krátký Film, incorporating Studio Jiřího Trnky Prod: Jaroslav Možíš, Erna Kmínková Dir, Art Dir: Jiří Trnka Scr:Jiří Trnka, Jiří Brdečka, and Josef Kainar (narration), based on the play by William Shakespeare Narr: Rudolf Pellar Anim: Stanislav Látal, Bohuslav Šrámek, Jan Karpaš, Břetislav Pojar, Jan Adam, Vlasta JurajdováChor:Ladislav Fialka Phot: Jiří Vojta Ed: Hana Walachová Mus: Václav Trojan

About The Author

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Cerise Howard has been Program Director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival since May 2023. A co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque for several years now, she previously co-founded the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and was its Artistic Director from 2013-2018; she was also a co-founding member of tilde: Melbourne Trans and Gender Diverse Film Festival. For five years she has been a Studio Leader at RMIT University, specialising in studios interrogating the shortcomings of the canon and incubating film festivals. She plays a mean bass guitar.

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