“Trnka—the name is the sum of childhood and poetry.” —Jean Cocteau

The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Comeback Company announce The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiri Trnka, the first complete U.S. retrospective of the works of Czech animation master Jiri Trnka (1912-1969), April 20-25.

Revered as the pioneer of a remarkable new genre of animation that utilized puppets, Trnka 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 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 director18 short and six feature-length animated films in totalwas 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 Jiri Barta.

This essential series will present all 24 of the artist’s films, including 11 newly translated works and the U.S. 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, narrated by Richard Burton; his subversive, absurdist, anti-authoritarian trilogy The Good Soldier Svejk; and three 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). Also included is a two-program sidebar dedicated to Jiri Brdecka, a screenwriter and animation director whose close friendship with Trnka occasioned a number of short- and feature-film collaborations.

After originating at the Film Society in April, the series will continue on in variations to tour North America. Trnka’s films will screen at the American Cinematheque (Los Angeles, CA), George Eastman Museum (Rochester, NY), Cleveland Cinematheque/CIA (Cleveland, OH), Harvard Film Archive (Cambridge, MA), Lightbox Film Center (Philadelphia, PA), Gene Siskel Film Center (Chicago, IL), The Cinematheque (Vancouver, BC, Canada), Cornell Cinema (Ithaca, NY), the Speed Art Museum (Louisville, KY), and more to be announced.

The touring retrospective is produced by Comeback Company. Organized by Irena Kovarova with Florence Almozini and Tyler Wilson. Films provided by the Czech National Film Archive.

Tickets go on sale April 6 and are $15; $12 for students, seniors (62+); $8 for kids under 12; and $10 for Film Society members. See more and save with the 3+ film discount package or All-Access Pass.

Acknowledgments:
Alex Zucker; Martina Raclavska; Marketa Santrochova, Czech Film Center; Michal Bregant, Katerina Fojtova, Tomas Zurek, Michaela Mertova, Czech National Film Archive.

Special thanks to the Czech Center New York.

FILMS AND DESCRIPTIONS
All screenings take place in the Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th) unless otherwise noted.

*Please note, while some films may be appropriate for children, most of Trnka’s films are for adult audiences.*

The Czech Year / Spalicek
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1947, 78m
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. U.S. Premiere of the new digital restoration.
Friday, April 20, 6:30pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)
Sunday, April 22, 8:30pm

The Emperor’s Nightingale / Cisaruv slavik
Jiri Trnka & Milos Makovec, Czechoslovakia, 1948, 35mm, 72m
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
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1949, 20m
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.
Saturday, April 21, 2:30pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)
Wednesday, April 25, 4:30pm

Bayaya / Bajaja
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1950, 75m
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
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1949, 20m
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 Jiri Brdecka, who would later direct his own adaptation, the cult favorite Lemonade Joe (screening in the Brdecka sidebar).
Sunday, April 22, 2:30pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)
Tuesday, April 24, 4:30pm

The Hand. Courtesy of Czech National Film Archive.

 

Old Czech Legends / Stare povesti ceske
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1952, 91m
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 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 70 figurines) that plays like puppet Kurosawa. U.S. Premiere of the new digital restoration.
Friday, April 20, 4:00pm
Saturday, April 21, 9:30pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)

The Good Soldier Svejk, Parts I-III / Osudy dobreho vojaka Svejka I.-III.
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1954, 74m
Czech with English subtitles
Adapted from the scathingly funny, hugely influential anti-war 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:
The Two Frosts/ Dva mrazici
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1954, 12m
Czech with English subtitles
Two mischievous frost spirits—voiced by famed comedian Vlasta Burian and author, popular actor, and satirist Jan Werich—make things chilly for a pair of travelers in this wintry comic folktale.
Friday, April 20, 2:00pm
Sunday, April 22, 4:30pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Sen noci svatojanske
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1959, 35mm, 72m
English version
Richard Burton narrates this bewitching adaptation of Shakespeare’s romantic fairy tale, in which the love lives of mortals and forest sprites mingle during one magical moonlit evening. In his final feature—also the first CinemaScope film made in Czechoslovakia—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 voiceover work by Burton and members of the Royal Shakespeare Company yields a masterpiece of surpassing, balletic beauty.

Preceded by:
Why UNESCO? / Proc UNESCO?
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1958, 10m
Czech with English subtitles
Commissioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (which considered Disney for the assignment before settling on Trnka), this cartoon short employs strikingly simple animation to make the case that all of humanity is enriched when we tear down the walls that separate us.
Saturday, April 21, 7:30pm (Q&A with Tereza Brdeckova, film writer and daughter of Jiri Brdecka) *Pre-screening reception open to all ticket holders, with beer courtesy of the Czech Center New York.
Wednesday, April 25, 6:30pm

Shorts Program 1: A Star from the Start
TRT: 74m
Trnka proved himself to be a master animator from the very beginning, as evidenced by the formally inventive, wittily offbeat works in this program, which includes the filmmaker’s earliest experiments in the art form: hand-drawn cartoons that play like a distinctly Czech anti-Disney, a modernist tour de force of surrealist invention, and a rapturously beautiful puppet adaptation of Chekhov.

Grandpa Planted a Beet / Zasadil dedek repu
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1945, 10m
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
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1946, 8m
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.

Springman and the SS / Perak a SS
Jiri Brdecka & Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1946, 35mm, 13m
No dialogue
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. His first collaboration with Jiri Brdecka.

The Gift / Darek
Jiri Trnka & Jiri Krejcik, Czechoslovakia, 1946, 15m
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.

Romance with Double Bass / Roman s basou
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1949, 13m
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.

The Golden Fish / O zlate rybce
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1951, 15m
Czech with English subtitles
Trnka returned to 2-D animation for this wryly humorous fairy tale—written and narrated by legendary Czech actor Jan Werich—about a man whose problems only multiply when he catches a wish-granting fish.
Friday, April 20, 8:15pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)
Tuesday, April 24, 8:30pm

The Emperor’s Nightingale. Courtesy of Czech National Film Archive.

 

Shorts Program 2: Tales and Collaborations
TRT: 93m
Silly circuses, classic fairy tales, and toy trains come to life through magical stop-motion, puppet, and hand-drawn animation in these charming, family-friendly shorts that showcase Trnka’s fruitful collaborations with fellow artists, animators, and puppeteers.

Merry Circus / Vesely cirkus
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1951, 35mm, 12m
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
Bretislav Pojar, Czechoslovakia, 1951, 35mm, 18m
No dialogue
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.

How the Old Man Traded It All Away / Jak starecek menil, az vymenil
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1953, 9m
Czech with English subtitles
Folk art–like hand-drawn stills illustrate this sweetly simple pastoral fable, in which a peasant comes into possession of a small fortune—but realizes there are treasures greater than gold.

Kutasek and Kutilka / Kutasek a Kutilka jak rano vstavali
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1954, 18m
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.

The Midnight Adventure / Pulnocni prihoda
Bretislav Pojar, Czechoslovakia, 1960, 13m
No dialogue
An old woodblock train meets its shiny new electric replacement one Christmas Eve in this glowingly nostalgic stop-motion toy story, directed by Bretislav Pojar and featuring gorgeous design by Trnka.

Circus Hurvinek / Cirkus Hurvinek
Jiri Trnka & Stanislav Latal, Czechoslovakia, 1955, 23m
Czech with English subtitles
Trnka pays homage to two of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved characters—Spejbl and the mischievous Hurvinek, a father and son duo created by Trnka’s puppeteer mentor, Josef Skupa—in this imaginative tale of a young boy who dreams of being part of the circus.
Saturday, April 21, 12:30pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)
Sunday, April 22, 12:30pm

Shorts Program 3: Mature Mastery
TRT: 84m
In the 1960s, at the height of his artistic powers, Trnka turned to increasingly dark, surreal, satirical, and politically defiant subject matter. The result was a string of visually innovative, modernist masterpieces that encompass dystopian science fiction, religious parody, and, in his final crowning achievement, an impassioned protest against state censorship.

Passion / Vasen
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1962, 9m
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
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1962, 28m
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
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1964, 29m
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
Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1965, 35mm, 18m
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.
Sunday, April 22, 6:30pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)
Wednesday, April 25, 8:30pm

The Two Frosts. Courtesy of Czech National Film Archive.

 

Tribute to Jiri Brdecka

Along with Trnka, Jiri Brdecka (1917-1982) was one of the founders of Czech animation, who explored its potential as a serious art form as early as the 1940s. Even though he’s best-remembered and revered abroad for his short animated works as a director, Brdecka wrote many screenplays for others’ films, both animated and live action, including the remarkable and immensely popular Western parody Lemonade Joe (1964), based on his eponymous novel. He penned original ideas, scripts, and dialogues for renowned directors such as Martin Fric (The Emperor’s Baker – The Baker’s Emperor), Oldrich Lipsky, Jiri Weiss, Karel Zeman (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen), Vojtech Jasny (Cassandra Cat), and Vera Chytilova (The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun, based on his book of the same name). But his longest-lasting collaboration was with Jiri Trnka, having co-written four of Trnka’s animated shorts and three of his feature-length puppet animated films. This program is a companion to the complete Trnka retrospective, held in homage to their creative partnership and close friendship.

Program organized by Limonadovy Joe s.r.o. in partnership with Czech Centres. Films courtesy of the Czech National Film Archive, Kratky Film Praha a.s., and Rembrandt Films. Thanks to Irena Kovarova/Comeback Company.

Lemonade Joe / Limonadovy Joe aneb Konska opera
Oldrich Lipsky, Czechoslovakia, 1964, 99m
Czech with English subtitles
This relentless and hilarious musical send-up of the American Western written by Brdecka is one of the most popular works in Czech film history. Lemonade Joe follows a soft drink–swigging gunfighter as he tries to steer the sinful residents of Arizona’s Stetson City away from alcohol and toward the health benefits offered in Kolaloka (a parody of Coca-Cola). The satire was adapted from versions of the character created by Brdecka across various media, including print, radio, and the theater. The visual gags are reminiscent both of the 1920s American silent slapstick and the colorful era of the swinging ’60s, including its inspired music and songs (the full title in Czech calls it a Horse Opera). Based on the same source, Jiri Trnka made the short puppet film Song of the Prairie (1949), showing in his retrospective with the feature Bayaya.
Tuesday, April 24, 6:30pm (Introduction by Irena Kovarova)

Shorts Program: Jiri Brdecka’s Animated Shorts
This program of nine animated shorts by Brdecka spans his entire directing career and showcases his wealth of collaborations with important Czech artists and animators, such as Jiri Trnka and Eva Svankmajerova. From comedy to musical, tragedy, and even horror, the short films here, each designed by a different artist, have it all, even receiving acclaim in the West: Brdecka won the Grand Prix at Annecy International Animation Festival for his film Gallina Vogelbirdae (1963). TRT: 100m

Springman and the SS / Perak a SS
Jiri Brdecka & Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1946, 14m
No dialogue

Reason and Emotion / Rozum a cit
Jiri Brdecka, Czechoslovakia, 1962, 15m
No dialogue

The Frozen Logger / Zmrzly drevar
Jiri Brdecka, Czechoslovakia, 1962, 5m
In English

Gallina Vogelbirdae / Spatne namalovana slepice
Jiri Brdecka, Czechoslovakia, 1963, 14m
No dialogue

The Letter M / Slovce M
Jiri Brdecka, Czechoslovakia, 1964, 9m
Czech with English subtitles

Forester’s Song / Do lesicka na cekanou
Jiri Brdecka, Czechoslovakia, 1966, 10m
Czech with English subtitles

Metamorpheus / Metamorfeus
Jiri Brdecka, Czechoslovakia, 1969, 13m
Latin and Czech with English subtitles

There Was a Miller on a River / Jsouc na rece mlynar jeden
Jiri Brdecka, Czechoslovakia, 1971, 11m
Czech with English subtitles

Prince Copperslick / Trinacta komnata prince Medence
Jiri Brdecka, Czechoslovakia, 1980, 9m
Czech with English subtitles
Saturday, April 21, 4:30pm (Introduction by Tereza Brdeckova, film writer and daughter of Jiri Brdecka) *Post-screening reception open to all ticket holders, with beer courtesy of the Czech Center New York.