A still from Jiří Trnka's The Czech Year

In 1967, a TV crew from the state-run network of communist Czechoslovakia dropped in on veteran illustrator and animator Jiří Trnka at his Prague workshop. The resulting ten-minute segment, which you can find on YouTube, forsakes dialogue for a classical music score—like so many of Trnka’s films—and shows the 55-year-old artist creating the sort of exotic settings and evocative puppet characters he’d brought to life onscreen for 20 years. Trnka, who would die of heart disease two years later, puffs on a cigarette as he kneads a palm-size ball of white plastic compound and uses the edge of a shallow-straight gouge to carve out not just the face of an old man but a whole personality. With tweezers he attaches tiny flowers and foliage to little sylvan figures and affixes them to a strip of grungy, clear-plastic sheeting; conferring with his production team, he assembles strange sets that evoke Jean Cocteau in their wild imaginings. There isn’t a camera to be seen, yet this is a filmmaker at work, because Trnka generally left the laborious process of frame-by-frame animation to his trusted crew and focused instead on the actual creation of his little worlds.

Chicagoans will get a rare chance to experience this master animator on the big screen in June and early July, when Gene Siskel Film Center presents his six features and 20 shorts as part of the touring series “The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka.” The series tracks Trnka’s growing sophistication as a sculptor and designer, tackling one fantastic story after another and generating high drama from his simple but gracefully realized puppets. It also reveals a filmmaker chafing against the constraints of state censorship, as harmless fantasies (The Emperor’s Nightingale, Bayaya) and patriotic celebrations of Czech culture (The Czech Year, Old Czech Legends) give way to more trenchant visions of war (The Good Soldier Svejk), modern technology (Cybernetic Grandma), and government control (The Hand).

“The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka”

Sun 6/3-Wed 7/4. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2800, siskelfilmcenter.org, $11.

Born in western Bohemia, Trnka began sculpting puppets and staging little shows as a child, and when he was 17, a mentor at his vocational school persuaded his working-class parents to let him enroll at the School of Applied Arts in Prague. The young artist graduated in 1935 and got his professional start illustrating children’s books (some of which he would later adapt to the screen), though he also launched a puppet-theater troupe in Prague that lasted until the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. After the war Trnka launched an animation studio with two partners and began making short 2-D animations. The first shorts program at the Film Center collects these efforts, which are pleasant but undistinguished; Trnka didn’t really come into his own until he reconnected with his childhood passion and, in fall 1946, set out to make his first puppet-animation feature, The Czech Year.

This captivating celebration of peasant legends and customs, which was honored at the 1948 Venice film festival, shows how effectively Trnka humanized the most rudimentary characters, with their bulbous wooden heads, button noses, and painted eyes. Though the faces were immobile, his animators could write poetry with the tilting of a head, and the peasants are costumed in warm colors, with lovingly tended hair and mustaches. Trnka lights the action from multiple angles, throwing meshes of shadow across his sets; the ground is solidly detailed, with actual dirt and foliage, while the backdrops have the two-dimensional look of theatrical flats, often bearing gauzy images of clouds or starry nights. The materials can be ingenious—in one scene a cobra covered in gorgeous green beads slithers by, and during one bucolic stroll, stalks of wheat in soft focus intervene between us and the characters. The puppets’ movement is limited (they seem to rock back and forth more than walk), but the scenes are powerfully kinetic with their zooms, pans, and dynamic editing.

A display from <i>The Emperor's Nightingale</i>
A display from The Emperor’s Nightingale

Trnka and his partners won a subsidy from the communist government for The Emperor’s Nightingale (1949), adapted from a Hans Christian Andersen tale, and the production funds are evident onscreen in the fine fabrics Trnka uses to create an ancient Chinese court. The characters are richly costumed, and in contrast to the cheap flats of The Czech Year, the walls of the court are covered in webbings of pleated white gauze or vertical strands of colored beads. The emperor has every toy a man could want, but when he sees an image of a bird in a book, none of his courtiers can identify the strange creature; in a dazzling sequence, the emperor marches down the length of a wall covered in a giant, white lace doily, the little holes forming blackened circular windows through which his courtiers regretfully shake their heads. The Emperor’s Nightingale became another international success, winning the top prize at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland and a U.S. release with Boris Karloff providing the English-language voice-over narration.

By the time Trnka made Bayaya (1950), adapting two fairy tales by Czech writer Božena Němcová that he had previously illustrated, his strategic use of shadow had become an art in itself, his elaborate medieval sets often cloaked in darkness, with spot lighting on the characters and immediate objects to conjure up a mood of foreboding. In the opening scene, an owl perches atop the darkened triangular peak of a peasant home, and a slow zoom into the front door acquaints us with a widowed farmer grieving for his dead wife; the poignant scene of his son tending to him in the flickering light of a candle reminded me of Carl Dreyer’s Danish spiritual drama Ordet (a connection I rarely make watching puppets). One day the boy encounters a white horse, its mane and tail shining like silk, that identifies itself as his mother’s ghost, and Trnka zooms in slowly on its deep dark eye as the mother addresses her son in voice-over. Led by the horse to an eerie castle, the boy falls in love with a princess there and charges into battle with a multiheaded dragon; every time he chops off one of its goggle-eyed heads, which fall to the ground with jaws still snapping, another head pops up to replace it.

Bayaya represents a stylistic advance for Trnka in that the backgrounds are more concrete: there are real walls with moldings and entranceways, and in one eye-popping scene, textured red-and-green wallpaper provides the backdrop for an inky, crawling silhouette of the hydra-headed dragon. Given the greater three-dimensional detail, you might expect Trnka to throw more light on the backgrounds, yet he seizes on the idea of shadow as a sort of set dressing, showing only the tip of the iceberg and heightening the impact of the most important visual elements. Numerous scenes show characters against a field of black, with only minimal structures to suggest the outlines of a room, and the effect can be haunting: in one shot the boy and the princess traipse up a spectral white spiral staircase, and later the boy, riding his luminous white steed, threads through a roomful of white columns. The story ends in joy and redemption, but the overwhelming gloom of the setting tells a different story.

<i>The Good Soldier Svejk</i>
The Good Soldier Svejk

State censors shot down Trnka’s plan for a puppet animation of Don Quixote, so he returned to the safe formula of his debut feature for Old Czech Legends (1952), another patriotic story collection. But two years later Trnka ventured outside his comfort zone of fantasy and folklore to adapt a more iconoclastic story: Jaroslav Hašek’s satirical antiwar novel The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War. The title character, a hapless foot soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, causes havoc wherever he goes, fouling up the plans of his corrupt superiors (Joseph Heller would turn him into Yossarian, the hero of his classic novel Catch-22). Though The Good Soldier Švejk (1955) may lack the exotic visuals of Trnka’s earlier efforts, the characters are more supple than ever, with busy fingers that add to the movie’s droll comedy. Švejk, separated from his regiment, marches around southern Bohemia until he’s taken prisoner as a Russian spy, and Trnka enjoys himself immensely with the stiff-necked military men of the empire: the gendarme sergeant who interrogates Švejk wears a wax mustache so large and shapely it looks like a bird diving earthward.

For technical skill, nothing in Trnka’s filmography tops his lavish 1959 CinemaScope adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which the filmmaker abandoned wood sculpting and began working with a plastic material that allowed for more delicate facial features (his Puck is so smooth and white he might have been carved out of soap). But some of the most personal and troubling visions of Trnka’s career can be found in the final shorts program, dating from 1962 to ’65. There are no homey peasant bonfires in Cybernetic Grandma (1962), an exercise in cold, white, geometrical vistas that anticipate the chilly 2001: A Space Odyssey. A little girl, summoned to visit her astronaut parents in space, travels with her warm, caring grandmother to a futuristic travel center where she’s transported to the parents’ ship, only to discover that they won’t be home for hours and her babysitter is a ghostly robotic grandmother in the form of a rolling recliner chair with a glass head and a lace shawl over its triangular shoulders.

An example of <i>The Hand</i>'s animation style
An example of The Hand‘s animation style

Trnka considered The Hand (1965) to be his best work, and its story of an artist harassed by a giant, white-gloved hand suggests a darkness of the soul commensurate with the visual darkness of his most effective films. The artist wants only to throw pottery, but the hand, which walks on its fingers and hovers in the air to gesture, keeps shaping his clay into a statue of itself, index finger pointing upward. This feud continues until the hand, returning in a black glove, gets tough with artist, punching him and dropping strings to lasso his head and arms. Turned into a marionette and sealed inside a giant birdcage, the artist completes a massive sculpture of the hand and, as his reward, watches a candle slowly burn down to nothing while the hand decorates him with medals and a garland around his head. The film was widely interpreted as not an index finger but a middle finger to the state censors who had controlled Trnka’s creative life for years, and after he died The Hand disappeared from circulation in Czechoslovakia until after the communists fell. Viewed all these years later, it reflects the rage of a man who feared that he’d been the puppet all along.

CORRECTION: This story has been changed to clarify the funding of Trnka’s early features.