Free Owsley Sunday Films: The Puppet Master: The Animated Films of Jiří Trnka

The Puppet Master: The Animated Films of Jiří Trnka

Sundays, September 2–30, 1 pm


This touring program from the production of Comeback Company is the spellbinding new U.S. retrospective of the works of the Czechoslovakian animation master Jiří Trnka (1912-1969). Trnka was rivaled only by Walt Disney Studios in output. 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. A prolific artist, beloved book illustrator, and author before making his first movie, Trnka had enormous impact on the development of animation in his home country, and he inspired the careers of an entire generation of filmmakers around the globe. The film series is complimented with a selection of Trnka’s book illustrations on display in the Speed Cinema lobby. Program descriptions from The Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The touring retrospective The Puppet Master: The Films of Jiří Trnka is produced by Comeback Company, having originated at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Curated by Irena Kovarova. Films provided by the Czech National Film Archive.


Sunday, September 2, 1 pm Shorts Program One: A Star from the Start

Sunday, September 9, 1 pm Shorts Program Two: Tales and Collaborations

Sunday, September 16, 1 pm The Good Soldier Švejk, Parts I-III (Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka I.-III.)

Sunday, September 23, 1 pm The Emperor’s Nightingale (Císařův slavík)

September 30, 1 pm A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sen noci svatojánské)

Shorts Program One:
A Star from the Start
Sunday, September 2, 1 pm


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 include the filmmaker’s earliest experiments in the art form.  The works feature 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. Running time: 94 minutes.  Recommended for all ages.


Grandpa Planted a Beet (Zasadil dědek řepu)
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. 1945, Czechoslovakia, DCP, no dialogue, 10 minutes.


The Animals and the Brigands (Zvířátka a petrovští)
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. 1946, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 8 minutes.


Springman and the SS (Pérák a SS)
Trnka combines 2D 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 Jiří Brdečka. 1946, Czechoslovakia, 35mm, no dialogue, 13 minutes.


The Gift (Dárek)
Trnka reached new heights of modernist abstraction with this innovative, surrealist mini-masterwork, which critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon likened to the Citizen Kane of animation. Co-directed with Jiří Krejčík. 1946, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 15 minutes.


Romance with Double Bass (Román s basou)
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. 1949, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 13 minutes.


The Golden Fish (O zlaté rybce)
Trnka returned to 2D 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.  1951, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 15 minutes.


Song of the Prairie (Arie prerie)
Trnka’s most delightfully silly effort is a slapstick spoof of John Ford’s Stagecoach and Hollywood singing-cowboy Westerns based on a popular novel by Jiří Brdečka, who would later direct his own adaptation, the cult favorite Lemonade Joe. 1949, Czechoslovakia, DCP, no dialogue, 20 minutes.


Shorts Program Two:
Masterly Tales
Sunday, September 9, 1 pm


In the second half of his film career, Trnka’s work goes from silly circuses, and classic fairy tales to a more serious fare. In the 1960s, at the height of his artistic powers, he 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, as well as, in his final crowning achievement, an impassioned protest against state censorship. Running time: 83 minutes.  Recommended for all ages.


Merry Circus (Veselý cirkus)
Trnka brings to life a surrealist circus of tightrope-walking fish, musical monkeys, balancing bears,and high-flying acrobatics in this whimsical feat of cut-out animation made in collaboration with leading Czech painters of the era. 1951, Czechoslovakia, 35mm, no dialogue, 12 minutes.


How the Old Man Traded It All Away (Jak stařeček měnil, až vyměnil)
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. 1953, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 9 minutes.


Circus Hurvínek (Cirkus Hurvínek)
Trnka pays homage to two of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved characters—Spejbl and the mischievous Hurvínek, 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. 1955, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 23 minutes.


Cybernetic Grandma (Kybernetická babička)
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. 1962, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 28 minutes.


The Hand (Ruka)
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. 1965, Czechoslovakia, DCP, no dialogue, 18 minutes.


The Good Soldier Švejk, Parts I-III (Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka I.-III.)
Sunday, September 16, 1 pm


Adapted from the scathingly funny, hugely influential anti-war classic by anarchist writer Jaroslav Hašek, this three-part satirical farce charts the exploits of the eponymous World War I infantryman, whose 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 Švejk spins. The result is a subversive anti-authoritarian statement that captures the novel’s biting wit and irreverent spirit. 1954, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 74 minutes. Recommended for 8+.


Preceded by:
The Two Frosts (Dva mrazíci)
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. 1954, Czechoslovakia, DCP, in Czech with English subtitles, 12 minutes.


The Emperor’s Nightingale (Císařův slavík)
Sunday, September 23, 1 pm
Introduced by Curator Irena Kovarova


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, Václav Trojan. Co-directed with Miloš Makovec. 1948, Czechoslovakia, 35mm, no dialogue, 72 minutes. Recommended for 8+.

Preceded by:
The Devil’s Mill (Čertův mlýn)
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. 1949, Czechoslovakia, 35mm, no dialogue, 20 minutes.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sen noci svatojánské)
September 30, 1 pm


This bewitching adaptation of Shakespeare’s romantic fairy tale depicts the love lives of mortals and forest sprites who mingle during one magical moonlit evening. For his final feature, 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 and score by Václav Trojan yield a masterpiece of balletic beauty. 1959, Czechoslovakia, 35mm, English version, 72 minutes. Recommended for 12+.

Preceded by:
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. 1958, Czechoslovakia, 35mm, in Czech with English subtitles, 10 minutes.