Director Jiri Trnka; Screenplay Jiri Trnka; Music Vaclav Trojan; Cinematography Jiri Safar; Editing Hana Walachova; Animators Jan Adam, Bohuslav Sramek
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
Jiri Trnka, the grandfather of Czech stop-motion puppetry, wasn’t known for making films with a political slant until he made his final film – The Hand. Trnka took advantage of a reforming, relatively relaxed, period in the Communist Czechoslovakia of the mid-1960s (President Novotny rolled back censorship and encouraged the creative arts) to make a cri-de-coeur against authoritarianism.
The Hand is about an artistic, sharp-nosed and sensitive looking man living in a one-room flat. He spends his time making pots in which to arrange his plants. His life is soon disrupted, however, by a giant hand. The hand pokes through his window and walks through his door. It towers down from his ceiling and smashes his pots.
The hand encourages him to mould the clay into the shape of a hand. It encourages him to think only of the hand. The television beams images of hands that are powerful, strong and righteous. We see the Statue of Liberty’s hand holding the torch aloft and we see the hand that holds the scales of justice. Tellingly a pair of hands form the silhouette of a rabbit, well known to all children. The hand, therefore, is capable of illusion. It can appear to be something that it is not.
Such a campaign of bullying leaves the mute man bewildered. The man fights back using a hammer only for the hand to become a fist. The hand is trying to mould the man’s mind into its glove.
The peculiarities of this form of puppetry and its use of mime and wry farce emphasise the tragedy. The man is in an impossible situation.
His life is not his own and so too the animated faces the tyranny of the animator. Bit by bit he loses hope. He grows submissive and unresponsive. Finally he dies. One of the great evils of dictatorships is that they turn us into our own oppressors – censoring ourselves, walling ourselves in. All this after the hand ties wires to the man’s hands, forcing him to carve a sculpture of the five-fingered despot. The magic curtain is thus rudely pulled back : he was only ever a puppet.
The hand honours and glorifies the corpse, surrounding the coffin with candles. How The Hand loves his subjects!
Censorship meant allegorical works that probed politics in Eastern Europe were oblique, subtle and ambiguous. The Hand is not particularly subtle. Is it in fact too obvious, not in terms of upsetting the powers-that-be, but in terms of storytelling? I don’t think so. There was nothing subtle about the regimes it responds to. They were brash and largely unapologetic governments who opened themselves up to (hidden) ridicule.
Whatever the horrors of the regime, they worked as a catalyst – restriction is the mother of invention – for the creation of a new wave of Czech film-making in the 1960s. Although it was a wave led by live-action Directors (Jan Nemec, Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova, Milos Forman) it included fine animators like Lubomir Benes and Bratislav Pojar (especially Nightangel).
Trnka was a woodcutter, a sculptor, a painter an illustrator. With these talents he nurtured other great talent like Jan Svankmayer (whose Darkness/Light/Darkness is another striking metaphor for the strictures and oppression of the regime and all regimes). He was part of a movement that showed how the power talent gives you can be used for good, to be uplifting, scathing and, in retrospect, an important document of a period in History. The Hand brilliantly uses puppets and all that they may signify to tell a story of dehumanisation that, tragically, was not a story at all.
In 1968 Russian forces re-established their grip over the future of Czechoslovakia under President Dubcek. In 1969 Trnka died and was given a State Funeral. Four years later the film was banned.