The Year of Blood, Sweat, and Music: Remembering Jiri Trnka 50 Years Later

New Year’s Eve, 1969

The year of blood, sweat, and music came to grissly, dismal end. In 1969, man had ventured onto the lunar surface, the Beatles disbanded, and a series of murders occurred in Los Angeles. As the world celebrated the end of a decade of peace, love, and death, one man passed away into virtual obscurity.

On December 30th, a day prior, Jiri Trnka passed away at the age of 57. A man of incredible strength, talent, and charisma, Trnka charmed and moved audiences with a humanist approach to animation that invited intellectual conversation and family discussion. The Walt Disney of Europe received international accolades until his death in his native Czech Republic, but as awards and praise continued, criticism never ceased. Even in his final days, Trnka’s finest achievements were kept under close inspection by a government refusing to acknowledge simple truths – that humanity was born to create without restriction.

His work demanded from the audience a certain decorum, a mutual understanding of humanity – that it was capable of fantastic good as well as great evil; for Trnka knew as well as anyone that wolves hunt in packs and there were wolves from all sides clamoring for his success, acclaim, and prestige – fortunately for the wolves, none were lucky.

Trnka began his career as an illustrator of children’s books, receiving acclaim for his human characters and use of watercolor. After World War II, Trnka began his animation career, first turning to cel animation, but quickly transitioned to puppet animation, a medium long adored in Europe through the likes of Polish animator and filmmaker, Valdislav Starevich, who charmed the courts of aristocratic Europe in the early 20th century before the Russian Revolution. Now, it was Trnka’s turn to make a mark on history.

During decade following World War II, animation studios in Europe, particularly in the Eastern block controlled by the Soviet Union, looked to Disney for models of animation, particularly in terms of technique and style. Perhaps one of the most notable animators from the period to employ the “Disney style”; or, the use of traditional cel animation, charicatures, and “funny animals”, was Fyodor Khitruk (“The Story of a Crime”, “Film, Film, Film”) who received influence from Friz Freleng of Looney Tunes and Pink Panther fame and UPA (“Gerald McBoing Boing” and “Mr. Magoo”). Studios, most famously the Russian studio of Soyuzmultfilm, produced content to rival Disney, using the techniques pioneered by the American filmmakers in Los Angeles – the model was used so frequently that it was sanctioned by the state and, for a period, was the only style permitted to be preformed. Enter the puppet master.

Trnka entered the film stage with “Darek” (The Gift) which premiered at Cannes in 1946. The film influenced UPA, with UPA Co-Founder Stephen Bosustow expressing that Trnka was “the first rebel against Disney’s omnipotence.” When Czechoslovakia fell to the Soviet Union in 1948, Trnka’s rebellious nature was tested, as he wanted to be free to make his own films his own way, but due to his popularity with audiences, the state subsidized his output, thus, becoming a literal puppet of the regime. So, Trnka turned to fairy tales – a form of storytelling that was approved by the state, to get his message of creative freedom across.

“Ruka” (The Hand) (1964), Trnka’s crowning achievement and final work, challenged the very idea of creative freedom by making the issue of state controlled media the main theme. The film centers on a potter, content with his work, as he makes a flower pot for a flower that sits on the windowsill. He is interrupted when a large hand appears and orders him to make an image of the hand, but the potter refuses, ultimately resulting in the potter’s grim demise by the hand.

“Ruka” received the Cristal for Short Film, the highest praise for the Annecy Animation Film Festival, but was banned in the Soviet Union and is still censored in many communist and former Eastern Bloc countries due to its controversial content.

When Trnka died just shy of seeing a new decade, he was ironically given a state funeral and was laid in state. Trnka’s ability to criticize the state while working within the means of restriction resulted in Trnka maintaining a legacy of rebellion and creative insight. In a Europe dominated by Disney and UPA look-alikes, Trnka sought to change the medium, and set into motion the idea of creative freedom and liberty.

So, if you are an artist, be it a filmmaker, a painter, a writer, or whatever, if you ever feel like you’re in a position of creative limitations, remember Trnka. As Jean Cocteau beautifully observed:

“Trnka – the very name conjures up childhood and poetry.”

– Jean Cocteau
Jiri Trnka (1912-1969)