Big Screen Berkeley: The films of Jiří Trnka

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Chances are that unless you purchased or rented a copy of Image’s now collectible DVD ‘The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka’, you probably aren’t familiar with the eponymous Czech animator’s work. Largely unknown outside the Iron Curtain, Trnka’s only exposure to Western audiences came when his 1949 feature, The Emperor’s Nightingale, was dubbed into English with narration by none other than Boris Karloff — the aforementioned DVD’s primary selling point.

Beginning on Saturday, Dec.1, Pacific Film Archive’s series ‘The Puppet Master: The Films of Jiří Trnka’ brings together a generous (if not quite complete) collection of the master animator’s work — and, while The Emperor’s Nightingale is included, it won’t be the Karloff cut, but the original dialogue-free version.

While Trnka is remembered primarily for his puppet animation, his early films use bold and highly stylized line animation, sometimes integrated within live-action sequences or using still photo backgrounds. One of his most enjoyable films — 1946’s wry comedy The Gift, screening on Dec. 19 —  comes from this period, and stars Frantisek Filipovský as an aspiring screenwriter convinced his latest screenplay is going to make him rich and famous.

The Gift transforms from live action to animation when Filipovsky’s character leaves home to pitch his story to a movie producer. As the producer makes suggestions for ‘improvements,’ the screenplay swiftly metamorphoses and The Gift becomes an innovative and very funny commentary on art and the creative process — as well as a reminder that things haven’t changed much in studio boardrooms since the 1940s! It’s accompanied by other early Trnkas, including his audacious anti-Nazi cartoon, Springman and the SS (1946), in which a canary is arrested for whistling Yankee Doodle.


The Good Soldier Svejk

Many years ago, I stumbled across a paperback copy of Jaroslav Hašek’s absurdist World War I-era novel The Good Soldier Švejk and — despite having no idea what exactly I was getting into — enjoyed it tremendously. Little did I know that Trnka had adapted some of Hašek’s stories in 1955; two of these very amusing episodes kickoff the series at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1.

Either idiot savant or genius, the gormless, slightly stout, and eternally smiling Švejk (Trnka’s depiction is based on the novel’s Josef Lada illustrations) perpetually tries (but fails) to rejoin his regiment at the front. Anyone who’s read the book will delight in these short subjects, but never fear — if you’re unfamiliar with Švejk you will quickly fall in love with him. Also on the Dec.1 bill will be The Two Frosts (1954), Trnka’s cheeky depiction of the wintry challenges faced by a pair of central European peasants.

Trnka’s charming feature-length adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959) screens on Sunday Dec. 9, along with another outstanding short, The Devil’s Mill (1949), in which an organ-grinders’ abysmal playing disturbs creatures both natural and supernatural, while the animator’s groundbreaking sixties films – including 1962’s Cybernetic Grandma (which I prefer to think of as ‘Babuschka from the Future’) and the utterly delightful Passion – will be spotlighted on Wednesday, Dec. 5.

Admirers of George Pal’s Puppetoons, the BBC’s Camberwick Green, or the holiday classics of Rankin-Bass will want to acquaint themselves with these films. Whether you attend one screening or all five in the series, you’re in for a real treat.