Freeze Frame: Q&A with Irena Kovarova

By: Lightbox Film Center


Why did you put together this retrospective? What is your favorite Trnka film and why?I’ve been programming film for almost two decades now with a special focus on Czech cinema, given my background. Trnka is one of the most obvious choices for a retrospective because of his international success — he and Karel Zeman were the first Czech filmmakers to strike it big at Cannes Film Festival. In 1946 Trnka had his first three (!) films in the very first Cannes Film Festival program and both he and Zeman brought home awards. Czech animation had already made a big splash. And this was just the beginning of Trnka's very illustrious film career. But every programmer has limitations and it took some time before the films were available. Now that the National Film Archive in Prague has digitally restored two of Trnka’s feature films, the time was ripe. We had to produce new English subtitles for 11 films in order to present a complete retrospective and I’m excited that this will make Trnka’s films more available for international audiences, far beyond the North American territories where this tour is taking place. 

I cannot choose just one Trnka film. What’s great about curating a complete retrospective is the fact that you get to see the entire body of work, view each film multiple times, and discover details you may not notice on the first or second viewing. And then you appreciate every film for something unique that the creator brings out with it. Trnka’s films are quite varied, not only thanks to the specific animation techniques he used, but also in their mood. Songs of the Prairie is a delightful comedy, Bayaya and The Emperor's Nightingale are melancholic, The Good Soldier Švejk is a biting satire, and I like them all exactly because they are so different. And I haven’t even talked yet about the most known films like The Czech Year and A Midsummer Night's Dream. There’s lots to discover and in the programs of short films we’re presenting you can see all the variety in one place. 

Trnka's aesthetic is so original—what were his influences?
As he worked in many media — as a very accomplished book illustrator, film animator, puppeteer, puppet master, theater stage designer, painter and sculptor — it would be difficult to pinpoint his influences or one source of inspiration. He studied art at an academy so he must have been exposed to the usual artistic canon and you can definitely see that in his art. But if we speak specifically of puppets, it’s clear his mentor Josef Skupa was a big influence, along with the hundreds-year-old tradition of puppet theater in the Czech lands. He was a great observer of life and was able to recall and reproduce anything from memory. Also his family was influential in the craftsmanship. His father was a metal worker. His mother was a dressmaker who came from a family of toy makers, so working with materials came to him very naturally, he had a great feel for them, and he was skilled with tools and in drawing from a very early age. 

What makes the work so universal?
It comes with the territory. Puppets exist in their own world that’s just an approximation of reality. And Trnka infused his puppet world with an aesthetic that borrows styles from various eras. For instance, the Athens court in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night's Dream is at once an image of ancient Athens along with Renaissance and Baroque architecture. It’s reminiscent of a theater stage, as if he transformed one of his stage designs into the film realm. Also the music of Václav Trojan and the humor make his films timeless and accessible. 

Though his films have been so influential to other filmmakers and animators and seem to have been lauded in their day, Trnka’s work is little known in the US right now. Why is that?
It’s not at all surprising to me that a puppet film animator from a small Central European country whose language is spoken only by 10 million people and who worked in film for 20 years, with his last film made more than 50 years ago, is somewhat forgotten. But I can assure you that his name is still well known among animators or people who have seen his films in theaters back when they were distributed in America. In Europe his fame was kept up by TV, which introduced his artistry even to people of my generation (for instance, in France). But TV in the US has different focus. Art is not broadcast outside of public channels and even there, international artists don’t get much space. Distribution licenses for his films largely expired before the onset of home video and I’m sure the political climate of the era of the Iron Curtain had something to do with the cooling of interest in Trnka’s work here. I strongly believe, though, that his fame will be revived and hope this tour will help it, even if just a little bit. 

How have today's audiences, accustomed to digital animation, responded to Trnka's work? What has surprised you over the course of the tour?
Trnka's humor still works, even for kids. I was excited to see that the films inspired awe and delight in audiences young and old. And I think it’s exactly because the animation is handmade that the films are received so well. I was surprised that even some animation specialists didn’t always realize what techniques he used to make certain effects. And many people came to ‘study’ Trnka’s work — they saw almost all of the films in the retrospective and knowing that brings me joy.

What's next for you and Comeback Company?
We’re working on another retrospective of a Czechoslovak New Wave filmmaker, Juraj Herz. We will have to subtitle a number of films to make a tour possible. And we’re discussing a Swedish program featuring current, up-and-coming filmmakers for 2020. So there’s a lot in store and I can’t wait to present these films to US and Canadian audiences.