Five Questions with Irena Kovarova, programmer of “The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka”

Jiří Trnka with one of his puppets

Sometimes referred to as “the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe,” Jiří Trnka (1912–1969) is among the Czech Republic’s most prolific filmmakers and animators. Trnka revolutionized the animation medium with his hand-drawn styles as well as his use of puppets as actors in his short films and features.

The Comeback Company’s Irena Kovarova (photo by Jan Němec)

Irena Kovarova of Comeback Company has curated Trnka’s wide breadth of work into a collection titled “The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka,” screening at the Film Center through July 4. Kovarova founded Comeback Company to produce, curate, and expand film projects, many related to Czech filmmakers, and recently answered our five questions about the series and Trnka himself.

Still from OLD CZECH LEGENDS

Zoë Holmes (GSFC Outreach Intern): For people who aren’t yet familiar with Trnka’s animation, how would you describe his style and themes?

Irena Kovarova: First and foremost, Trnka should be remembered for his devotion to puppets and puppet film. Puppetry was an art that he employed throughout his life — starting in theater creating puppets and sets at a very early age.

He saw film animation as a possibility to further that art, and indeed he was one of the innovators in this type of film animation. We of course are speaking of stop-motion animation. He considered it a means to convey any kind of story, and he steered towards big topics, like national legends (exemplified by the film OLD CZECH LEGENDS and THE CZECH YEAR) and dramatizing literary works or theater plays, like his take on Chekov and Hasek and Shakespeare. We can say that most of his works were intended for adults, though of course he also made fairytales for which puppetry is an especially fitting means of expression.

ZH: Czechoslovakia boasts a rich — almost outsize — history of innovative animators, including Jan Švankmajer and Karel Zeman, in addition to Trnka. Why do you think so many animators sprang from this country, and what would you say sets Trnka apart from his countrymen as an animator?

Still from THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN, created by Trnka’s Czech contemporary Karel Zeman.

IK: I think one of the reasons is a very rich history of puppetry art in the Czech lands, dating back all the way to the Baroque era. German was the official language during 300 years of the Hapsburg era since 1620, and the folk arts and oral traditions were effectively the only means to preserve the Czech language. So it was natural for artists to employ it in film animation on various topics.

Karel Zeman and Jiri Trnka were contemporaries vying for the spotlight, and frankly I believe both of them succeeded because they were so unique and different . Where Zeman combined live action with animation, Trnka relied solely on puppets. And not only that: his figurines rarely changed facial expressions and he achieved drama through very cinematic means — framing, dramatic lighting, camera movement and animation of the puppet bodies. He was extremely capable and talented. But each of the Czech animators have a unique style.

I think the other reason was the production background where the nationalized cinema provided support for this demanding film art — and the more successful the pioneers like Zeman and Trnka were, the more money the state provided, because it helped it gain international acclaim.

Still from Trnka short “The Hand”

ZH: Can you speak about Trnka’s influences on contemporary stop motion? I see his influence in American programs such as Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Laika’s CORALINE and PARANORMAN, as well as the Swiss-French production of MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI. How would you describe his influence worldwide?

IK: Between Trnka and Tim Burton are several generations of animators, and it’s hard to trace what is definitely coming from one artist to another. That’s not to discount what you said you see in the styles of course. Certainly Trnka’s innovations had a great impact. And there are animators who explicitly recognize Trnka as their inspiration, such as Jan Pinkava, the Oscar-winning director of GERI’S GAME. He went on to produce films with Pixar and Laika including the world famous RATATOUILLE, so we can say his films are definitely influenced by Trnka.

Still from THE GOOD SOLDIER ŠVEJK

ZH: Trnka’s shifted into social commentary animation with THE GOOD SOLDIER ŠVEJK, THE HAND and others. What caused this shift from family-friendly to cultural commentary, and how did this shift affect his career?

IK: I don’t believe that Trnka’s early works were necessarily that family friendly. THE CZECH YEAR as well as OLD CZECH LEGENDS and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM are films intended for adults — sometimes as much for children as for adults, but children’s fare wasn’t Trnka’s primary focus. So I don’t see his later films as much as a shift, but rather a natural development of his themes. It’s definitely true though, that THE HAND is a new kind of work where you feel the gloves came off and Trnka set himself free to comment on the struggles of an artist. It can be read as his commentary on the totalitarian regime, too. But to be frank, I can also see parallels of it in other situations that are intrinsically related to artists’ experience in any society.

THE HAND is a new kind of work where you feel the gloves came off and Trnka set himself free to comment on the struggles of an artist. It can be read as his commentary on the totalitarian regime, too.
Still from A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM

ZH: In working with a team of animators and a crew of collaborators, how was Trnka able to achieve such a specific, unique vision in his films?

IK: He was an exceptionally gifted director who surrounded himself with a talented and dedicated team. One of his abilities was to know exactly the strengths of each of the animators or a crew member, and he had a great memory of recalling what they were good at and consequently used their abilities to the fullest by assigning the right roles to the best people to handle them.

What I find especially interesting is the fact that he cast his animators as if he’d cast actors in a live action film: he knew which animators had a gift to animate comical characters or animals, who was more lyrical in their expression through puppets, etc., and then he put it in the film credits where each character is credited with the name of a specific animator. I’m not sure this is true for any other animated films.

Each character is credited with the name of a specific animator. I’m not sure this is true for any other animated films.

(Bonus Question!)

ZH: What do you hope viewers take away from this series?

IK: I hope the audience would be able to recognize the perfection Trnka and his crew were able to achieve through the very laborious stop-motion animation. The lifelike movement and expression one can get from puppets that don’t even change any expression in their faces is simply amazing. Just a little tilt of the head or the hand is very telling. We can definitely relate to that in real life. And that’s exactly what I think Trnka was able to convey — the essence of real life through the presence and movement of his puppets. He created a completely new world, but we can recognize ours in it.

“The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka” screens through July 4, 2018 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Click here for showtimes and tickets.