Jirí Trnka’s The Hand (1965)
When it was first released in 1965, Jiří Trnka’s final animated film Ruka (or The Hand) was of no consequence to the Soviet-controlled government of his native Czechoslovakia. It was considered to be just another stop-motion puppet play from a man who had established himself as the USSR’s most prominent animator. But after Trnka’s death in 1969, the government policy changed and the 18-minute animated short was summarily banned from public display. Prints of The Hand were confiscated and the film would remain outlawed in Czechoslovakia until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1993.
The fact that Czechoslovakia’s thought police had posthumously censored the ‘Walt Disney of Eastern Europe’ carried an added degree of irony for those who had been able to see Trnka’s final film. The major conflict dramatized in The Hand is that between an artist and a faceless authority represented by an imposing gloved hand. Like in many of Trnka’s short films, The Hand is without dialogue so only the physicality of the puppets and hand movements conveys a character’s personality. In the film, the bossy gloved hand commands the puppet-artist to make sculptures of only hands, but the puppet resists and wishes to make ceramic pots for flowers. When the puppet finally sculpts the commissioned monument, he is rewarded with metals and laurels but soon grows despondent. This sequence contains some brilliant satirical imagery, such as a marionette in a birdcage, controlled from without by strings, chiseling a statue in the likeness of the puppeteer’s hand.
On the surface, it could be argued that Trnka’s short is a simple Pinocchio fantasy about puppet who wishes to break free of his puppet master. The deeper political implications of The Hand become more flagrant farther into the film and in some ways it’s a wonder it took the censors so long to catch on. In the end, The Hand is an unhappy kind of fable because it reflects the absurdly restrictive environment in which Trnka and other artists were censored and stifled as a matter of routine.