Jiri Trnka as John knew him

An article written by John Halas in 1980 on the legendary Czech animator Jiri Trnka (1912-1969). Jiri Trnka

It was April 1947. I arrived through a devastated Germany in Prague with my young Hungarian nephew who by chance had been found in an orphanage in Buckinghamshire among refugees from Central Europe. After putting him on a train at Prague Central Station for Budapest, I proceeded to my appointment in the studios of Kratki Brothers, the new Czechoslovakian animation unit in the centre of the city.

I was greeted by Eduard Hofman, the head of the studio and another character introduced to me as Jiri Trnka. The former was tall resembling Stan Laurel; the other rather like Hardy but looking a bit more morose and distant. He excused himself politely and left, leaving a film behind for me to see. I viewed two films then. Hofman's was ANGEL COAT (1948) and Trnka’s was THE DEVIL ON SPRINGS (1949) (aka THE DEVIL'S MILL), a satirical film on Nazism. The first, Hofman's struck me as a highly imaginative story but Trnka's film as a powerful masterpiece; a satire about tyranny which demolished Hitler's pompous stupidity. The film was designed in an advanced graphic style in black and white.

Since that meeting, contact has been established between us both on a general and personal level. In a subsequent meeting in Prague I found Trnka deliberately isolating himself from others, not only because he was an unfriendly character but mainly due to his lock of languages. He spoke no English or French and only hold a slight spoken knowledge of German which he could just manage to a limited extent. He certainly disliked film festivals, parties, receptions and sent his colleagues, Stanislav Latal his key animator, Bretislav Pojar his assistant and Jiri Brdecka his script writer instead.

It was during my own festival organised by the Czechoslovak Film Industry for a week in Prague in July 1964, that I had the privilege of penetrating the solid shell behind which he was hiding his rich personality. He invited me for dinner in his newly built house in a fashionable square, decorated with classical sculptures. To my astonishment I found the house full of expensive artefacts; his own paintings and lavishly furnished. How could he pay for all this and own the house privately? He explained that he was allowed to keep a part of the royalties he received from his book illustrations and films which were converted from dollars and which amounted to a formidable sum. The major part of this was kept by the State and made an outstanding contribution to the National economy. The remainder was enough for him to buy the house that he owned. His main concern, however, was not financial but about the local obstinate bureaucracy. A towering behorsed king, with a drawn sword, obliterated the view from his bedroom to the beautiful hills and river and this annoyed him. The monstrosity had to be removed, he insisted. After his numerous applications and several calls to the Ministry of Works, he got nowhere. He gave his final ultimatum. Unless it was removed by the end of the month he would emigrate to the United States and he meant it. During the last day of the month, the removal van arrived and dismantled the king from his horse and carted it all away promptly. The State could easily lose an artist but could not afford to lose Trnka and all his hard currency from revenues.
The Hand The rest of his conversation was confined to reference to his astonishing new film at the time THE HAND (1965). My question was how he succeeded in obtaining approval for a script containing such passionate criticism of totalitarianism and brutality towards the destruction of creativity? After all his main character in the film represents creativity which is destroyed by a brutal hand, the fascist oppression and the proposition could have been taken as a comment and criticism of the present establishment. He never considered this but maintained that it was quite possible that his script had not been looked at or the individuals in authority lacked the intelligence to understand what the film was about . Next day a parcel waited for me at my hotel. It was a complimentary copy of THE HAND from Trnka.

Our last meeting was in London during the Czechoslovakian Season at the National Film Theatre in 1968, shortly before his premature death. Many of his astonishing features were included in the programme including MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (1959). He was a devoted admirer of The Bard and his ambition was to bring THE TEMPEST alive in his style and technique. I am sure it would have made a masterpiece like so many of his other films.

During the Annecy Animation Festival last year, the local museum was devoted to an exhibition of his art work. It revealed how his talent had expanded to a wide range of activities. His children's book illustrations and humorous sculptures showed the multiplicity of his activities, apart from his films.

After his death the studio in which he worked acquired his own name and today the Jiri Trnka Puppet Studio continues the tradition which he introduced and established. The head of this studio is Kamil Pixa and the disciples, especially Stanislav Latal, Jiri Brdecka and Bratislav Pojar are still as active as ever.

But Jiri Trnka's contribution to the post-war creativity scene will possibly never be repeated and as for as I am concerned I will always value his modesty, obstinacy and individuality.


H&B at 75

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