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The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka

June 3 - July 4

"Jiří Trnka didn't craft his puppet-cartoon shorts and features merely to imitate life. His endlessly original and inventive movies incorporate life, or transcend it... Best of all, he had 'vision' in the primal sense - a new way of seeing." — Michael Sragow, Film Comment

From June 3 through July 4, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents "The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka," the Comeback Company's touring program of the first complete American retrospective of Czech animation master Jiří Trnka (1912-1969). The ten programs in the retrospective contain Trnka's six features and eighteen shorts, including new digital restorations of THE CZECH YEAR and OLD CZECH LEGENDS, newly translated subtitles for eleven films, and archival 35mm prints of the two films widely considered Trnka's finest, THE EMPEROR'S NIGHTINGALE and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.

Jiří Trnka (pronounced Yershey Trinka) began sculpting puppets and staging informal shows when he was a child. After attending the School of Applied Arts in Prague, he carved out a successful career as a book illustrator, specializing in children's stories. In 1945 he co-founded the studio Bratří v triku ("Trick Brothers"), producing 2D hand-drawn animation. He quickly moved on to his true métier: stop-motion animation of handmade puppets. His wooden-puppet characters rarely speak or change expression, yet they can convey nuances of emotion through subtle shifts in lighting, framing, posing, and camera angle.

Trnka has sometimes been called the "Walt Disney of the East" - a designation that is highly misleading. His devotion to artisanal craftsmanship is in fact a rejection of Disney's departmentalized methods. He has said that he turned to puppet animation because he disliked the division of labor ("too many middle-men") in hand-drawn animation. Trnka is the complete auteur of his films, involved in screenwriting, set design, puppet-making, and illustration to shape a unified vision. Special mention should be made of one key collaborator, composer Václav Trojan, whose rich scores are an essential element of Trnka's films.

Beginning in 1945, Trnka's films were subsidized by the Czech government - an arrangement that brought financial backing at the cost of political constraint. Trnka's reliance on folklore, fantasy, and fairy tale can be seen as a strategy for sidestepping government oversight. His later films began to deal more explicitly with satire and social commentary, culminating in his final film THE HAND (included in Trnka Shorts Program IV). After its initial screenings, this anti-authoritarian parable was banned in Czechoslovakia for twenty years. It is sometimes seen as an opening salvo in the ill-fated Prague Spring, and some believe that Trnka's death at the age of 57 was hastened by his despondency over the Soviet crackdown. Since his death, his influence continues to resonate in Eastern Europe and beyond - notably in the work of the Brothers Quay and the animated films of Tim Burton.

Martin Rubin, Associate Director of Programming

The touring retrospective THE PUPPET MASTER: THE COMPLETE JIŘÍ TRNKA is produced by Comeback Company, originated at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Curated by Irena Kovarova. Films provided by the Czech National Film Archive. All photos courtesy of Czech National Film Archive

Buy a ticket at our regular prices for the first Trnka program on any applicable Sunday this month, and get a ticket for the second Trnka program that day at the discounted rate with proof of your original purchase: General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second feature only. Discount available in person at the box office only.)