Closely Watched DVDs

A guide to Czech cinema on DVD

The Hand

Filed under: Animation, DVD Reviews, Trnka, Jiří — Michael at 10:59 pm on Thursday, July 27, 2006


Ruka

1965, colour, 18 mins

  • Director: Jiří Trnka
  • Producer: Puppet Film Collective
  • Screenplay: Jiří Trnka
  • Photography: Jiří Šafář
  • Editor: Hana Walachová
  • Puppeteers: Bohuslav Šrámek, Jan Adam
  • Music: Václav Trojan

The Film

Universally recognised as both the founder and the supreme master of the Czech puppet cinema tradition (an accolade far less trivial within Czech culture than it might seem in the West, where puppetry has long been regarded almost exclusively as a children’s medium), Jiří Trnka (1912-1969) was generally renowned for his exquisite craftsmanship, best demonstrated in the widescreen feature-length adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sen noci svatojánské, 1959). An essentially gentle, sensitive artist, most of his 25-odd films are distinguished by their impeccable taste and almost complete lack of any apparent political message.

The remarkable thing about his last film, The Hand (Ruka, 1965) is that it both maintains the strengths of his earlier work while adding a heartfelt cri-de-coeur. Though it has a clear political purpose in highlighting the plight of the artist under a totalitarian cultural policy, it also comes across as deeply personal, as Trnka himself was all too conscious of the way he had personally benefited from a regime that he secretly despised. As a political parable, it has all the impact of the work of Jan Švankmajer (who had then just begun his film career and the following year would make the first of several films in Trnka’s own studio with technicians who worked on The Hand) but without the younger man’s naked aggression, and this quiet fatalism gives it much of its power.

The central situation in The Hand could hardly be simpler: a humble craftsman devotes his life to making clay flowerpots. Though his existence is basic, living in a one-room flat with minimal furniture and peeling wallpaper, he seems blissfully content with his existence, even to the point of bowing before the flowers growing out of his creations. And then, after being alerted by the sound of feet echoing down a corridor’s bare floor, he hears a knock at the door…

…which portends the first of many visits by a gigantic hand, which suggests (if that isn’t too subtle a word) that the potter divert his skills in the direction of making glorified statues of… well, hands. And this request goes well beyond mere narcissism on the hand’s part, as a virtuoso montage demonstrates the image’s potency as a political tool: hands hold scales of justice, the torch of the Statue of Liberty, Napoleon’s hand tucked into his waistcoat, a mailed fist, a boxing glove, the accusing finger, the clasped handshake, even the silhouetted rabbit trick.

Unmoved, the potter refuses, and reacts increasingly aggressively to further blandishments, even to the extent of disconnecting his phone and attacking the intruder with a sledgehammer to avoid the hand’s wheedling, bribery and “accidental” vandalism of his flowerpots. Eventually, thanks to the cunningly-disguised (and weirdly erotic) spectacle of a heavily dolled-up hand in a fishnet glove, he is lured and locked into an ornate birdcage, strings are tied to his limbs, a hammer and chisel is forced into his hands and he is compelled to comply - and, like Trnka in real life (and death: like the potter, he was given a full state funeral when he died four years later), is handsomely rewarded with medals and laurels for his apparent willingness to compromise.

It’s a bleak, despairing tale, rendered still more heart-rending by the fact that it’s so clearly a Trnka film: the little potter could have come straight out of one of his earlier, airier fantasies. As ever, Trnka’s use of lighting to convey the tiniest emotional nuances on an otherwise static face is little short of miraculous, as is his attention to detail: look at the potter’s boyish glee, conveyed purely through the way that he spins his wheel with his legs, as compared with the heavier, trudging body language as he’s forced to glorify the hand under pressure. Made to take advantage of the post-1964 political thaw, The Hand was banned in the wake of the 1968 Soviet invasion, and no wonder: no amount of spin can dilute the moral force of Trnka’s message - or his sly satire of mass popular culture: is it a coincidence that one of the hand’s vehicles of totalitarian control is a television set?


The DVD

Distribution: Included in the Image Entertainment compilation The Puppet Films of Jiří Trnka (US), NTSC, no region code. The other films on the DVD are the feature-length The Emperor’s Nightingale (Císařův slavík, 1948) and the shorts Story of the Bass Cello (Román s Basou, 1949), The Song of the Prairie (Arie Prerie, 1949), The Merry Circus (Veselý cirkus, 1951) and Břetislav Pojar’s A Drop Too Much (O skleničku víc, 1954).

Picture: Although it clearly hasn’t been restored and appears to be sourced from an analogue tape master, the source print is in reasonable condition, a few spots and scratches notwithstanding. The colours of the original were presumably more vivid, but the slightly faded look is not at all unpleasing, and the slightly soft picture also suits the material. It’s in the original 4:3, and appears to be framed correctly, though the NTSC transfer means that step-by-step examination of Trnka’s animation is hampered by additional blurred frames (though this isn’t apparent during normal viewing).

Sound: This is the original mono, which is fine, but the quality is dreadful, which isn’t. Alongside tape hiss, which may well be characteristic of the original materials, there’s also pronounced flutter on several occasions, which sounds as though it was introduced at some stage in the transfer. Fortunately, The Hand is not overly reliant on its soundtrack (there’s no dialogue, and both music and sound effects are relatively sparse), so this is less of an issue than it would be in most cases, but there’s still ample scope for improvement.

Subtitles: The onscreen title is given in five different languages (Czech, English, German, Spanish, French), and there is no spoken dialogue - hence no subtitles.

Extras: In addition to the five other films mentioned above (which will be reviewed separately in due course), the DVD offers a 12-minute documentary, Jiří Trnka: Puppet Animation Master. Narrated in English, but presumably sourced from a Czech original , it includes much fascinating footage of Trnka at work both at his desk and in his studio, as well as examples of his work outside the cinema, particularly his renowned children’s illustrations. In addition to extracts from the films elsewhere on the DVD, it also includes clips from his early work in 2-D cel animation, his puppet debut The Czech Year (Špalíček, 1947), Prince Bajaja (Bajaja, 1950), Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české, 1952) and The Good Soldier Svejk (Dobrý voják Švejk, 1955), before concluding with a brief account of the origins of The Hand.


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