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November 24 – December 7, 2018

Jiří Trnka, Puppet Master

Revered as the pioneer of a remarkable new genre of animation that utilized puppets, Jiří Trnka (b. 1912) conveyed the drama and psychology of his characters through his figures’ body language, expressive lighting and camera movement. The director’s approach to puppet film as a serious art form was borne out of the lively Czech puppet theater tradition, which helped preserve the language over centuries of Hapsburg rule, when there were no Czech schools, theater, or books published in the language. Already a prolific artist, author and beloved book illustrator in his country, Trnka made films that had an enormous impact on the development of Czech animation, and he inspired the careers of generations of filmmakers and animators around the globe. Trnka’s body of work as a director—eighteen short and six feature-length animated films in total—was rivaled only by Walt Disney Studios in output and brought him international acclaim, from Cannes to Venice and beyond. With his puppet animation studio, founded in 1946, he helped lay the groundwork for Czech animation predominance alongside stop-motion animation masters Karel Zeman, Hermina Tyrlova, Jan Svankmajer and Jiří Barta.

This essential series will present twenty-two of the artist’s films, including several newly translated works and the US premieres of two new digital restorations: Trnka’s Venice Film Festival prize-winning first feature The Czech Year and Old Czech Legends, a breathtaking collection of Bohemian myths. The lineup also features Trnka’s Shakespeare adaptation A Midsummer Night’s Dream; his subversive, absurdist, anti-authoritarian trilogy The Good Soldier Svejk; and two distinct shorts programs featuring the filmmaker’s unique early work in hand-drawn cartoons (including Cannes Film Festival prize-winning The Animals and the Brigands), his magical family-friendly works, and his later, more formally and politically defiant films (featuring his final masterpiece, The Hand, about the plight of artists toiling under the restrictions of a totalitarian government). – Irena Kovarova, Comeback Company

The touring retrospective THE PUPPET MASTER: THE COMPLETE JIŘÍ TRNKA is produced by Comeback Company and originated at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Curated by Irena Kovarova. The HFA retrospective was partially sponsored by the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, Harvard. Films and images provided by the Czech National Film Archive. Film descriptions courtesy Andy Lauer and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Special thanks: Jonathan Bolton and Veronika Tuckerova, Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.


Saturday November 24 at 7pm

The Czech Year (Spalicek)

Directed by Jiří Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1947, DCP, color, 78 min. Czech with English subtitles

Trnka established his reputation as a world-renowned master of puppet animation with his Venice prize-winning first feature, a kinetic visual symphony bursting with music and dance that celebrates the customs and folklore of the Czech people. Composed of six short episodes—the last of which, Bethlehem, was Trnka’s first-ever attempt at puppet animation—it traces one year in a country village through the town’s traditions, from springtime festivities to feasts to fairs to Christmas-night rituals. Trnka’s extraordinary puppet work is a marvel to behold in this new digital restoration by the Czech National Film Archive, but equally impressive is his mastery of the cinematic language, with rhythmic montage editing and swooping camera movements creating a whirling dervish sense of dynamism. New digital restoration.

Preceded by

The Gift (Darek)

Directed by Jiří Trnka and Jiří Krejcik
Czechoslovakia 1946, DCP, color, 15 min. Czech with English subtitles

Trnka reached new heights of modernist abstraction with this innovative, surrealist mini-masterwork, which critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon praised as the Citizen Kane of animation.

 

 

 

 

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$5 Special Admission
Sunday November 25 at 2pm

Bayaya (Bajaja)

Directed by Jiří Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1950, DCP, color, 75 min. Czech with English subtitles

Based on a pair of Czech fables, this rousing, medieval-set adventure charts the exploits of a young peasant whose dead mother returns in the form of a white horse, whisking him away on a quest to free her soul from purgatory and save three princesses from a host of hydra-headed dragons. Balancing moments of atmospheric lyricism with vigorous action sequences, the third feature-length collaboration between Trnka and composer Vaclav Trojan—who contributes a stirring, cantata-like score set to text by Surrealist writer Vitezslav Nezval—confirms the pair to be a creative partnership as fruitful as Eisenstein and Prokofiev or Hitchcock and Herrmann.

Preceded by

Song of the Prairie (Arie prerie)

Directed by Jiří Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1949, DCP, color, 20 min. No dialogue

One of Trnka’s most delightfully silly efforts is a slapstick spoof of John Ford’s Stagecoach and Hollywood singing-cowboy Westerns based on a popular novel by Jiří Brdecka, who would later pen his own adaptation, the cult favorite Lemonade Joe (1964).

 

 

 

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Sunday November 25 at 4:30pm

Old Czech Legends
(Stare povesti ceske)

Directed by Jiří Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1952, DCP, color, 91 min. Czech with English subtitles

A treasure trove of Bohemian myths are brought to life by Trnka’s magical puppet work in this folkloric hymn to the Czech land, history, and people newly restored by the Czech National Film Archive. Based on a tome by the “Czech Sir Walter Scott” Alois Jirasek and the medieval chronicle of Cosmas, it illustrates seven fabled historical episodes, including the settling of an Edenic ancient Bohemia, the tale of an all-female revolt led by a cast-out princess, and the legend of a weak-willed king whose passion for gold nearly destroys his kingdom. It all culminates in a breathtaking climactic battle sequence—a tour de force of editing, music, and stop-motion (employing more than seventy figurines) that plays like puppet Kurosawa. New digital restoration.

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Introduction by Irena Kovarova
Saturday December 1 at 7pm

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Sen noci svatojanske)

Directed by Jiří Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1959, 35mm, color, 72 min. In English

In this bewitching adaptation of Shakespeare’s romantic fairy tale, the love lives of mortals and forest sprites mingle during one magical moonlit evening. Trnka deploys the full force of his imagination and technical wizardry to evoke the story’s enchanted-woodlands setting, a garlanded, pastel dreamscape awash in starry-night atmosphere, colorful festoons of flowers, and exquisitely wrought fantasy creatures. The graceful puppetry combined with the Vaclav Trojan score and members of the Royal Shakespeare Company yields a masterpiece of surpassing, balletic beauty.

Preceded by

Romance with a Double Bass (Roman s basou)

Directed by Jiří Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1949, DCP, color, 13 min. Czech with English subtitles

This dreamily beautiful puppet work adapts a short story by Chekhov into a magical, moonlit reverie about a musician, a princess, and a chance encounter while night-swimming.

 

 

 

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Saturday December 1 at 9pm

The Good Soldier Svejk, Parts I-III
(Osudy dobreho vojaka Svejka I.-III.)

Directed by Jiří Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1954, DCP, color, 74 min. Czech with English subtitles

Adapted from the scathingly funny, hugely influential antiwar classic by anarchist writer Jaroslav Hasek, this three-part satirical farce charts the exploits of the eponymous World War I infantryman, whose antic misadventures continually frustrate his commanding officers—and reveal the absurdity of the entire conflict. Basing his designs on the novel’s original, celebrated illustrations by Josef Lada, Trnka mixes his trademark puppetry with striking cutout-animation sequences to accompany the droll, rambling tales that Svejk spins. The result is a subversive anti-authoritarian statement that captures the novel’s biting wit and irreverent spirit.

Preceded by

Springman and the SS
(Perak a SS)

Directed by Jiří Brdecka and Jiří Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1946, 35mm, color, 13 min. No dialogue

In his first collaboration with Jiří Brdecka, Trnka combines 2-D and collage animation to striking effect in this zanily offbeat, anti-Nazi lampoon, which crosses Max Fleischer-like absurdism with a biting satirical edge.

 

 

 

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$5 Special Admission
Sunday December 2 at 4:30pm

Grandpa Planted a Beet
(Zasadil dedek repu)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1945, DCP, color, 10 min. No dialogue

A farmer finds himself with an unusually fertile bumper crop on his hands in Trnka’s first film, a charming hand-drawn adaptation of a Czech fairy tale that announced the director as an animation talent to rival Disney. The program also serves as a survey of animation techniques employed by the artist throughout his career.

 

 

The Animals and the Brigands (Zviratka a petrovsti)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1946, DCP, color, 8 min. Czech with English subtitles

A rooster, a cat, and a goat meet a trio of ignoble characters deep in a night-shrouded forest in this hand-illustrated, Cannes prize-winning folktale, which showcases Trnka’s gift for evoking light and shadow.

 

 

 

Merry Circus (Vesely cirkus)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1951, 35mm, color, 12 min. No dialogue

Trnka brings to life a surrealist circus of tightrope-walking fish, musical monkeys, balancing bears, and high-flying acrobatics in this whimsical feat of cutout animation made in collaboration with leading Czech painters of the era.

 

 

 

The Gingerbread House (Pernikova chaloupka)

Directed by Bretislav Pojar
Czechoslovakia 1946, DCP, color, 8 min. Czech with English subtitles

The Czech version of Hansel and Gretel receives a captivating, puppet-animated adaptation, featuring striking—and fittingly macabre—storybook imagery designed by Trnka and direction by his close colleague and animation heir, Bretislav Pojar.

 

 

 

Kutasek and Kutilka (Kutasek a Kutilka jak rano vstavali)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1954, DCP, color, 18 min. Czech with English subtitles

How do you wake up a sleeping puppet? Made by Trnka in collaboration with actor and puppeteer Josef Pehr, this winsome mix of live action and puppet play is enchanting entertainment for the youngest of viewers.

 

 

 


Sunday December 2 at 7pm

The Emperor’s Nightingale (Cisaruv slavik)

Directed by Jiří Trnka and Milos Makovec
Czechoslovakia 1948, 35mm, color, 72 min. No dialogue

Trnka’s adaptation of a classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale is an enchanting animated jewel box. Framed by live-action sequences—about a lonely boy shut away from fun and play—the story unfolds as a child’s dream vision, a tale of illusion versus reality in which a Chinese emperor is ensorcelled first by the song of a nightingale, then by its mechanical replica. Working in a rich red, green, and gold visual palette, Trnka conjures a hallucinatory storybook world of moonlit bamboo forests, softly glowing Chinese lanterns, and bursting fireworks displays all set to a gorgeous, rhapsodic score by his key collaborator, Vaclav Trojan.

Preceded by

The Devil’s Mill (Certuv mlyn)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1949, 35mm, color, 20 min. No dialogue

A barrel organ grinder meets the devil on a mysterious moonlit night in this haunted-house fable, which showcases Trnka’s atmospheric use of sound to conjure a macabre mood.

 

 

 

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Friday December 7 at 7pm

Passion (Vasen)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1962, DCP, color, 9 min. No dialogue

A boy’s need for speed causes problems throughout his life in this triumph of modernist design, which blends puppet, stop-motion, collage, and cutout animation with a gothic humor and Pop Art–like visual design.

 

 

 

 

Cybernetic Grandma (Kyberneticka babicka)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1962, DCP, color, 28 min. Czech with English subtitles

Trnka took a turn into Space Age sci-fi surrealism with this dark, dystopian satire on automatization in which a child traverses a forbidding technological wasteland to meet (surprise!) her uncanny new robotic grandmother.

 

 

 

Archangel Gabriel and Mistress Goose
(Archandel Gabriel a pani Husa)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1964, DCP, color, 29 min. No dialogue

Adapted from a story in Boccaccio's Decameron, this irreverent, medieval-set lampoon of religious hypocrisy mixes Christian iconography with bawdy black humor to tell the tale of a lusty Venetian monk who assumes the guise of the angel Gabriel to seduce a married woman.

 

 

The Hand (Ruka)

Directed by Jiri Trnka
Czechoslovakia 1965, DCP, color, 18 min. No dialogue

Trnka’s final work is a powerful, deeply personal allegory about the plight of the artist toiling under the restrictions of a totalitarian government. The story of a simple sculptor who is menaced by a giant, disembodied hand that forces him to bend to its will, it was banned by the Communist censors for two decades—but has since taken its place as an acknowledged masterpiece of animation.