In this bewitching adaptation of Shakespeare’s romantic fairy tale, the love lives of mortals and forest sprites mingle during one magical moonlit evening. Trnka deploys the full force of his imagination and technical wizardry to evoke the story’s enchanted-woodlands setting, a garlanded, pastel dreamscape awash in starry-night atmosphere, colorful festoons of flowers, and exquisitely wrought fantasy creatures. The graceful puppetry combined with the Vaclav Trojan score and members of the Royal Shakespeare Company yields a masterpiece of surpassing, balletic beauty.
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Screening of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Sen noci svatojanske) with introduction by Haden Guest and lecture by series curator Irena Kovarova. Saturday December 1, 2018.
Haden Guest 0:00
…figures of Czech Cinema, of animated cinema. And this retrospective is quite landmark This is one of the largest programs of Trnka's films to be shown on these shores in many, many years, if not ever. And I want to give very special thanks to the person who made this possible. And this is our special guest and speaker tonight, Irena Kovarova, who is a curator, independent curator, and she also runs a company called Comeback Company, that's been responsible for a number of important re-releases. Now there's a lot of work that went into this program that involved deep research, creating new English subtitles and working very closely with the Film Archives of the Czech Republic to guarantee we have the best elements for these screenings. Tonight, we're going to be seeing a rare 35 millimeter print of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that's going to be preceded by a DCP of Romance with a Double Bass, a short work. Before Irena joins us to speak, I'd like to ask everybody to please turn off any cell phones, electronic devices that you have. Please refrain from using them. And this will be a talk around 15 to 20 minutes long. So now, with no further ado, please join me in welcoming Irena Kovarova.
Irena Kovarova 1:35
Thank you, Haden. It's a pleasure to be here. It's not the first program that I organized that's shown on this wonderful screen but it's my first time to be here, and I'm really honored to be invited. I had a talk yesterday at the Slavic Department at the Harvard Film Archive, I mean at the Harvard University, and so it's a double pleasure. And thanks to the Slavic Department for supporting my trip here. This weekend, you have a chance to see, or sort of survey Trnka’s work, from his first feature film, or first true feature film, which is called The Emperor’s Nightingale, also shown from a 35 millimeter archival print from the National Film Archive in Prague. And tonight you'll see his last feature film, sort of a Gesamtkunstwerk, if you want. It's a film also shown from a 35 millimeter and as most of Trnka’s work, you have no chance to see them from, on home video. Only one film has been released on a DVD, the digital restoration of Old Czech Legends that was restored by the National Film Archive. And so, I hope that you will recommend, but I'm really happy to see such a wonderful number of you already here.
The films of Jiri Trnka have quite a special place in the history of Czech animation. And I strongly believe that in the world of animation as such, he is one of several important film animation artists. He was sort of at the beginning of the biggest fame of Czech animation, that started in the 40s. It was him and Karel Zeman, of whom you may have heard of, who sort of entered the scene at the inaugural Cannes Film Festival in 1946, with short films. Trnka had three films there, his first three films that he ever directed and produced. And Zeman had one, called Inspiration, a short, and both left with awards. And that created wonderful opportunities for them in Czechoslovakia, which then was more than happy to fund their future works. You should understand that Czechoslovak cinema was nationalized right after the war in 1945. It was still by the democratic state, the industry decided that only a nationalized cinema can provide an environment for growth of this important art form. And so, the way, the fact that Zeman and Trnka were successful right at the opening of their careers, was the confluence of these two events, was a very happy moment for them. In 1948, when Czechoslovakia became a communist country, the communist regime then sort of absorbed the fame of these people and allowed them to produce more, and feature films, which for animators anywhere in the world, was quite exceptional. Trnka, sometimes, is called the Czech Walt Disney, which I probably wouldn't agree. But definitely, with the output, he was able to create at least a counterweight to that style of animation that came from the Walt Disney Studios.
Trnka started making films at the age of 33. At that time—he was born in 1912—he was already a very accomplished artist. He was a world-renowned illustrator. He over the length of his career, he illustrated over 130 books. And he, however, was a puppeteer from a very young age. He came from the town called Plzen. You may have heard of Pilsner Urquell, so that's the town of beer, nothing more Czech than that. And he came from a family of craftsmen. His father was a metal maker, his mother was a dressmaker. And on his mother's side, the family produced toys. And so, crafts were very much present in his upbringing, and he was very quickly absorbing all the, you know, feel for material and working with hands. And he was able to draw with both hands. He was actually a lefty, but, you know, when there was a crunch time, apparently he was able to draw with both. And he was very keen on working with puppets, and he made his own puppets already as a young boy. He created his own puppet theater, a play theater for his friends. And so, it was a very happy moment when he found himself in the middle of this first professional puppet theater which was based in Plzen. It was run by Josef Skupa, who created this theater and these two important puppets for many generations of Czechs, which are Spejbl and Hurvínek. It’s a father and son duo. And he employed Trnka already as a boy. Trnka,created some of the backgrounds for the theater, he worked on puppets, and eventually also created some of new characters for the theater. So, puppets as an art form was very important to Trnka. And he even had his own puppet theater in the ’30s, in Prague. But it was just not commercially successful. So after two years he let it go and only concentrated on his art. He was a very important illustrator also for magazines and newspapers, and together with Skupa, who was commissioning him to work for the theater, and his friends commissioning him for drawings for magazines and newspaper, he was able to actually attend art school. He studied in Prague and supported himself mostly through his art. And that's when he started his very demanding work lifestyle. He was an independent artist throughout his entire life, and 16-hour workdays were a norm. He was also very active in theater. And in combination between the illustrations for books and the work for theater, he often worked on many things, several times in different medium. Even before he made films, or even after he made films, then he went back and illustrated. So you could see him revisiting themes, and works of art, or works of literature, throughout his career. And so, actually, the film that is based on Shakespeare, this is not the first time he's worked on the theme. He worked for theater and made stage designs for the National Theatre or other small stages.
He was approached in 1945 by the small animation studio in Prague, by the animators who were working them, who felt like they missing a leader. They needed an art director. And so they approached Trnka and asked him if he were interested to lead their studio. The studio later became known as Bratři v Triku, or Brothers in T-Shirts, or Brothers in Trick, depends how you translate the Czech. For it, he actually created the logo [UNKNOWN]. And he was very intrigued. He wanted to work in film, and so, he took them on their invitation and he started making films in drawings, drawing animation, the same, or similar, style the industry already was producing in during the war, before the war. And those are the films from 1945 and early ’46 that were shown in Cannes. You will have a chance to see one of them tonight. It's called Springman and the SS. It's sort of a satire. But as his colleagues said, he was not very happy with the way his drawing was changing throughout the animation process. And in any case, he was very much interested in employing puppets in the film medium. And so there was another studio in Prague that started experimenting with puppets, and he sent one of his young colleagues, an animator—who eventually became an important director of animated films himself, Břetislav Pojar—to go to the studio and sort of take his puppets from the theater and try to, you know, experiment with whatever they had. And eventually, they all relocated to that studio and started making puppet films.
He from the very beginning, relied on works of literature which were close to him. But because of just experimenting, he chose a theme of the Czech traditions, and that's how the film The Czech Year was created. It actually started as episodes, that were only eventually built together as a one feature film. And that's why I'm calling The Emperor's Nightingale his first feature film, because that's the first film that was actually conceived of as a feature film, unlike The Czech Year. Trnka had made many sort of important decisions, right at the beginning, when he started making puppet films. One of the decisions, and things that really didn't change throughout his career, is that he doesn't animate their faces. The heads of the puppets are sort of working as masks, and the expressions of the puppets are achieved through movement of their body, or through lighting, or through the camera movement. And there are only rarely moments where there are two heads for one puppet, where you know, it's a puppet with open or closed eyes. He used that a lot for women, when they were shy, or sleeping, or looking away. But otherwise, this style where the puppet doesn't really change expression in the face, really remained throughout his career. There are other aspects that were changing, but very slowly, throughout his career.
He only slowly was using dialogue, or narration throughout his career. If it were up to him, his films would be wordless. And he really just wanted to express everything through the movement of the puppet, and have the music take over as the storytelling element for the films. But he experimented with that, and you actually have a really nice chance to see it tonight. The first film you're going to see is Romance with Double Bass, based on Chekhov. And that's actually the first time he used narration in the film. There is not much, but it's there. The first time that a puppet spoke, that was in the film Bayaya, that was screened last weekend, but that was actually a horse. And then, the most dialogue, or narration he used, was when he adapted the novel by Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk. There were three episodes that he made, based on this book, on three chapters, or excerpts from three chapters of the book. And that novel, the text is so important, that would make no sense if there really was not any narration or any dialogue. But I would like to point out that, if you really pay attention, and you're staying tonight for the second screening at nine o'clock, you will be able to see that, how, over time, from the first episode to the third episode, his work with the text changes. In the first episode, there is a lot of narration, and only a few times, there is a dialogue. It's one actor, Jan Werich, maybe you've heard of him, a very famous Czech comedic actor and author, and theater director, and screenwriter. He narrates the story, but he also does the voices for the characters.
In the third episode, there's really very little narration, and most of it is actually a dialogue. And Werich ends up voicing eight characters and quite remarkably. In his approach to Shakespeare, which was his last feature film, and the more you go, he goes to the end, he drops again, he goes back to the basics, and he just wants to use only music. But when he proposed that for the work of Shakespeare, there was a big push from the powers that be, that you're just going to do Shakespeare without words? Even though Prokofiev was a good case for him. He said, “Well, Prokofiev had done it, for Romeo and Juliet, why can't I do it for basically a ballet in cinema?” But they really forced him to do it. So [LAUGHS], there is a narration. It's only to help an audience that is not really familiar with the play to orient themselves in the story. But it's using sort of contemporary language, it’s not really Shakespeare language. And even though in Czech, there was a poet, Kainar, who wrote the narration. The English-language narration, I actually don't know who wrote that text. It's probably a good moment to point out that you may have heard that there is Richard Burton narration on A Midsummer Night's Dream. But that's not this version, even though it's in English. It was kind of a surprise to us. When we showed it in New York, we advertised that the film will be with Richard Burton's narration, but then a female voice appeared. And so...
[LAUGHS] It was a little surprising. The fact is that Trnka made the film in two versions. A Midsummer Night's Dream was actually the first Czechoslovak film that was shot on CinemaScope, in CinemaScope. But it was also because of cinemas. I think that they were playing it safe. And so they made two versions, one in classic format, and one in CinemaScope. But it's not a typical pan-and-scan. The CinemaScope, actually, is a different version than the classic format. In the CinemaScope version—that hopefully in future, you will be able to see—he really made use of that wide format, and he split the screen; sometimes it's two images or three images within the screen, and he used it really wisely. He took puppets from exterior to interior, and again to exterior. Sometimes, of course, he used it really well for the landscapes, in Titania’s magic forest. He said that the scope is really replicating the human eye’s perception. So he actually thought it's a great use of that feature of human eye. But the format, the classic format is not only that, you know, whatever he had in, three images in one scope, that, of course, those are images that go one after another in the classic version. There are also different stagings, and different positions of puppets. Somebody could write a thesis on that. Anybody interested? [LAUGHS] I have all versions.
The, you should know, very important part, as I said, for all Trnka’s films, is music. And as with many other members of his team, which I will tell you in a bit, he worked with a composer from his very first film, his name is Vaclav Trojan. And they, throughout their long collaboration, they created quite a close relationship. And, as Trojan said, for this film, for A Midsummer Night's Dream, he didn't even see a screenplay. They only met with Trnka over the play, or decided which scenes will be, or which parts of the play, how long they will be. And then Trojan would just compose music, and Trnka animated to the music. But then if something didn't fit, then Trojan went back and rewrote music. It was very close relationship. And as Trojan said, Trnka was very generous as a collaborator.
Another very important person with whom Trnka worked throughout his career is Jiri Brdecka. He was his screenwriting partner. He didn't always write the dialogues, or texts, but he was sort of his sparring partner. As Brdecka said, even though he was a screenwriter, he was employed by different productions. He wrote screenplays for some quite famous films of that period, and he also directed animated films himself, by his own screenplays. When he worked with Trnka, he said that he had to dissolve, as sugar in tea. He basically had to serve Trnka, not because he was forced to, but he knew that that's the kind of collaboration they had. They directed together, and wrote together, Springman and the SS. That was their first film, and over time, Brdecka worked on almost all of his feature films.
A very interesting part of his collaborations is working with the animators. Trnka employed a core group of about eight animators that work with him on all his films, or most of his films. And he had quite an interesting approach to them as well. He sort of knew them. Obviously, they spent a lot of time together, so he knew them for their personality, and he also knew what kind of characters they work better with. So there was this one who was more comical in his expression, and another one who was better with animals, etc., etc. And what's really nice to see—and I'm not a hundred percent sure you can see it with other animators, I'm not an animation specialist—but you could read in the credits that actually, they really are named of certain characters. So it's really like a cast, there's a name of character, and there's an animator listed with the character in the credits. Which, however, you won't see on this print, because the credits are missing. So that's why I cannot even tell you where the print appeared, who is the actress, and who produced the film, I mean, this English version. The Richard Burton version, just a side note, that was the U.S. release version. From the reviews of the film in American newspapers, you can read that. It was in CinemaScope, and it was narrated by Richard Burton.
The film that we're gonna show before the feature, the Romance with Double Bass, which is based on the Chekhov story, was also distributed in the United States in the ’60s. But I would dissuade you to actually get that version, because, as it happened oftentimes, the distributors took liberties with the films, and they basically cut out all the scenes where there is narration under it in the original. Which [removes] a lot of wit. You will see what I have in mind when, when you will actually see it on a screen. There is really a lot to say about the reception of the film, and about the further Trnka career. The film was not received very positively, meaning A Midsummer Night's Dream. He was disappointed with the reaction. And as it was told by his creative partners, he was very self-critical, which was serving him well, when he was making films. He, if something didn't work, he would throw out, you know, 20 minutes of a film. If it didn't work, it didn't work. Really didn't matter how much time they had spent on the animation. But with the reaction to the film, he was quite disappointed. He knew that there are some things that he wanted to achieve that he didn't, but I think that the time, sort of, is serving the film very well. I think that you will enjoy it.
The film was finished in 1959. After that, Trnka didn’t make any more feature films. He made several shorter films, which are about 20 minutes each. You will be able to see them, I think on Monday, most of them together, including the short, his final film, called The Hand. It's sort of a parable about the fate of the artist, and how unfortunate position they have within a totalitarian regime, even though, I would argue, it's not only reserved to the totalitarian regime. The fact that there is a hand that is animating the artist. Trnka died in, at age of, he was only 57 years old. He died of heart failure. He was quite exhausted, and he noted, after he finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that he really didn't feel he had the energy, even though he was quite confident in his art and craftsmanship.
That's, I think, it, for me. I hope you will enjoy it. And you can recommend the series to your friends in Berkeley, where the series is already playing now, and will continue through mid-December. And another complete version of the retrospective—which, actually, you're seeing the almost complete retrospective, don’t be sad—but your friends in D.C. will have a chance to see it at the National Gallery of Art. We've subtitled 11 films newly. My partner on that project was Alex Zucker, the foremost translator from the Czech to English. And you can visit the comebackcompany.com to see more about the tour, and read more about the films. And I hope you will enjoy it. Thank you.
©Harvard Film Archive
This dreamily beautiful puppet work adapts a short story by Chekhov into a magical, moonlit reverie about a musician, a princess, and a chance encounter while night-swimming.