Political dissent in Czech animation, from Jiří Trnka’s ‘Cybernetic Grandma’ to Jan Švankmajer’s ‘Greedy Guts’ and beyond

Puppets from ‘Cybernetic Grandma’ (left) and ‘The Hand’, photo: Jan Langer, ČT24

Adam Whybray, a lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Suffolk, has just published a comprehensive English-language account of the history of Czech animation, from the 1920s to the present. As the book’s title would suggest – The Art of Czech Animation: A History of Political Dissent and Allegory – he takes a keen interest not just in the craft but in the oft hidden, ambiguous or subversive messages therein.

Adam Whybray, photo: Archive of the University of Suffolk

Although covering everything from 2D animation forms to CGI, there is a particular focus upon the stop-motion films of Czech masters such as Jiří Trnka, Jan Švankmajer and Jiří Barta. Whybray analyses them, in part, by building upon theories and methods of prominent academics – in the fields of philosophy, sociology and literary, visual and material cultures.

Instead of imposing top-down Film Theory with a capital ‘T’ onto its case studies, Whybray’s analysis is built up from close readings of the films, with particular attention given to their non-human objects. Here, the author reads a passage from his book, touching on the importance of objects in the animation of Jiří Trnka:

'Simple objects with simple functions are accorded great respect in Trnka’s work. Normal household springs allow the Springman to defeat the SS, the potter-harlequin’s flowerpots are synonymous with art, nature and authenticity in the face of state oppression in The Hand and the child’s ball offers us a centre-point of stability in a bewildering technological future in The Cybernetic Grandma. [...] These are everyday objects depicted within their local environments. Such objects seem to resist ideological imperatives from above by virtue of their everydayness. Partly this is because ideology is a function of power expressed ‘top-down’ from the state and its apparatus and thus seems incommensurate with the smallness, the humbleness and groundedness of the private domestic realm. Secondly, the everyday world of work and play is always already charged with emotional meaningfulness which connects people to the objects they use and the places they use them within and so refuses to provide the vacuum of meaning expediently filled by ideology. Tautologically, such objects resist being co-opted by ideology because as humble objects they carry such little ideological baggage. These are humble objects, important to children and simple living and, as such, are fundamentally antithetical to political grandstanding or the dogma of Soviet (Socialist) Realism. Artistic works stubbornly focused around such everyday objects are politically provocative by virtue of their seeming refusal to engage with politics.' (The Art of Czech Animation, pp. 78-79)

Before wading – gingerly, lightly and briefly – into heavy topics such as how and why Whybray mainly applied Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” to consider the works of Jiří Trnka, Bruno Latour’s “Actor-Network-Theory” to those of Jan Švankmajer, or Henri Lefebvre's “Rhythmanalysis” to the films of Jiří Barta, I began by asking him what had initially sparked his interest in Czech animation.

Little Otik / Otesánek (2000) - Eating Hair Scene

“I came across Švankmajer’s film Otesánek (Little Otik, or Greedy Guts, 2000), an adaptation of a Czech fairy tale [by Karel Jaromír Erben] about a tree stump, a piece of wood that looks like a baby and comes to life and gobbles everything up. It’s got Švankmajer’s distinctive stop-motion animation in it, and is this dark and satirical fairy tale film, a bit like Tim Burton but much more sophisticated and intelligent – and I was really blown away by it. I’d never seen anything like Little Otik before.”

“And from there, I got my hands on other Švankmajer films – this was in the last days of video, just when DVDs were coming in, so they were very cheap – so I got Alice (1988), his version of Alice in Wonderland, and Faust (1994)- his version of the Faust myth. Watching those Švankmajer films opened me up to Czech animation and from there I discovered others, such as Jiří Barta and Jiří Trnka.”

Whybray wrote his master’s thesis on Jan Švankmajer, the self-labelled surrealist and perhaps best known living Czech animator, often cited as a major influence on artists as far afield as Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame and the Brothers Quay. In a chapter of his book, which grew out of his PhD thesis on Czech animation, Whybray interprets Švankmajer’s work through Latour’s actor-network-theory, which, in short, advocates taking a sociological approach to studying things without imposing some kind of a priori frame.

‘Little Otik’

“A good example of this is the concept of ‘nature’, for instance. Often the way we understand the world, say through environmentalism, is constructing this thing called nature, which we understand as outside of us – you know, it’s out there, certain things are in nature and certain things that are not. So, other paradigms that you may impose a priori are say the differences between the human world and the animal world.

“And it’s by using these kinds of frames – saying, we’re ‘humans’, we’re not ‘animals’; or we’re humans, we’re not part of nature – can cause a lot of damage because it gives this false impression that as humans we’re able to label and manage the world in a rational, scientific way. And I think this is at the root of a lot of our problems in terms of the environmental catastrophe we’re facing – we don’t appreciate that we are part of nature. Instead, we see the world as a set of resources for us to use in terms of their use value.

‘Little Otik’

“So, Jan Švankmajer is really opposed to seeing the world through use value, seeing the world in utilitarian terms. As a surrealist, he believes in the power of the imagination and the power of dreaming to reshape reality, according to desire. And I think what’s really important in Švankmajer’s films is how radically other and alien the world is; that we can’t, say, put animals into these little boxes to understand and explain them; that there’s always something unknowable and unexplainable about the world. There’s this sense of weirdness and mystery that can’t really be captured.

“And so, Actor-Network-Theory is respecting that the world is innumerably complex and made up of all these different actors and things, some of which are human, some non-human, some living, some non-living. And just because you’re, say, a blade of grass, that doesn’t mean you’re not playing a big part in things. So, if you think about a battle in a war, for instance, a tiny pebble might be the thing that causes a solider to trip, which then swings the direction of the battle. And in an historical account, you’d be talking about all the ‘great’ men, you wouldn’t be writing about that one pebble, and yet it could be that one pebble that had a really big impact.

“So what I think Actor-Network-Theory is doing, in a similar way to Thing Theory, is saying, okay, let’s not ignore things just because they seem little or inconsequential or outside of the human world. Because they might actually have a bigger impact in the world.”

Švankmajer and ‘Death to Anthropocentrism’

Jan Švankmajer, photo: che, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Czech animated films made during the era of state socialism, Whybray finds, often used allegory to give a voice to non-human aspects of the natural world, offering a refutation of anthropocentrism – a human-centred view of the world – in a way contrary to communist orthodoxy (and, in recent decades, also late-stage consumer-capitalism). As such, he argues, they also stand as models of political dissent.

So, was Švankmajer’s surrealism, in a sense, anathema is state socialism trying to create a ‘new man’, or perfectly managed society?

“Yes, absolutely, because there’s something in Švankmajer’s vision that says, no, you can’t control everything. I think what’s really fascinating about his films is that they were often supressed or censored – he was prevented from working [in film] through quite a bit of the 1970s; he worked more on his tactile experiments and his sculptures, which is interesting because none of his films can be said to have an explicitly anti-Stalinist message, and yet they were still censored. Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu, 1982) was used an example of exactly the kind of film that filmmakers, under socialist realism, shouldn’t be making, and yet it doesn’t have any explicit message. I think it is because these films feel somehow perverse, they seem deviant.”

Dimensions of Dialogue (Jan Svankmajer)

Jiří Trnka, photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Thing Theory, originally applied to studying literature, argued that when we think about objects, often we immediately read them symbolically, see them as standing in for something rather than thinking about the objects themselves; what they may mean to us. It is through that perspective that Whybray considers the work of Jiří Trnka, co-founder of the poetic animation school Bratři v triku, in particular.

“Thing theory started out in literary theory, and so was really a way of looking at books, and was devised by Bill Brown of the University of Chicago. His basic argument is that when we think about things and objects – tables, chairs, cups, pots, pans, etc.– often we immediately read them symbolically, see them as standing in for something rather than thinking about the objects themselves in their objectness; so, the textures of the object; the way they inhabit a space; what they mean to us as objects.

Puppets from ‘The Czech Year’, photo: Jan Langer, ČT24

“So, looking at these filmmakers, especially an animator like Jiří Trnka, his films are filled with these beautiful objects that are very finely made. In The Czech Year (Špalíček, 1947), for instance, he’s taking things like Christmas bread or certain folk dress and making them very true to life, in an accurate way. So, Thing Theory is saying, Hang on, let’s slow down and look at these objects, not just dismiss them. I think often when we think about a film, we get too caught up in allegory and even in just talking about plot and narrative, rather than the objects that are in these films.”

Ruka (The Hand) - Jiri Trnka

‘The Animals and the Brigands’

Czech animation experienced a boom after World War II, in part due to the nationalisation of the film industry but also thanks to the work of Trnka, whose film The Animals and the Brigands (Zvířátka a petrovští, 1946) won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His films from the 1950s, such as Old Czech Legends earned him the nickname “the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” – although his puppet animation was nothing like the 2d cel animation coming from America.

Adapting classical stories provided Czech animators a sort of safety net, for as the Czech scholar Antonín J. Liehm has noted, ‘it was much harder for the watchdogs to penetrate the land of fairy tales, folk stories and poetic visions’.

“Over here [in the United Kingdom] the best-known Trnka film is Ruka, which is often used on animation courses as an allegory. I’m sure a lot of listeners have seen it – it’s about this harlequin potter who makes these pots and then a big white gloved hand forces itself into his apartment and forces him to make images of itself, sculpting these hands. Now, this is clearly an allegory for the censorship and imposition of the State, right, with say the Communist government controlling artists and making them make propaganda, basically.

‘The Hand’

“And that’s a metaphor that’s quite easy to understand. But I think if you just describe it, it doesn’t have nearly the same kind of power as when you watch the film. And I think the reason the film has the power that is has – and has more power than if it were written as a little parable, as a story by Kafka might have it, is the physicality of the hand itself; the fact that it’s this real, very present hand. So, while we understand that the hand represents manipulation and power, the hand literally starts to grab and throttle. And I think it’s that physicality that gets across the metaphor.”

Jiri Trnka. Cybernetic Grandma, 1962 (Subtítulos en español)

‘The Hand’

On the surface, Trnka only produced one political film during his career – The Hand, (Ruka, 1965). But his earlier bucolic films, Whybray argues, were political because these sought to be non-ideological. As such, Trnka’s protagonist puppets may be considered practitioners of ‘small-scale work’ against the system championed by Václav Havel in his seminal 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless.”

“Another example is in Trnka’s The Cybernetic Grandma (Kybernetická babička,1962). This is a film about a little girl and her grandmother, and the little girl is sent away to a facility to be looked after by this scary, robotic grandma. And a gift the grandma gives the little girls is this red ball, which represents the relationship between the girl and her real grandma, and the simple life at home for her.

“But it’s also the fact that this simple red ball helps represent those things, because it’s a very complex and sometimes quite cluttered film – it has all these strange, abstract spaces, typography, and graphical elements in the cybernetic facility, and it’s quite bewildering to watch. This simple red ball helps us, helps guide the viewer on the journey with the little girl.

Studio of Jiří Trnka, photo: Václav Chochola / © Archiv B&M Chochola

“So, in a way, the red ball is serving the same purpose for the viewer as for her. It’s this site of anchorage. I think Trnka is often celebrating these simple, domestic everyday objects because his films are about slowing down and being in the world; about not imposing lots of ideology on top of things but actually experiencing, being in the world that’s rooted in the local and local customs and just small everyday objects, really.”

Whybray writes that Trnka also tended to celebrate individuality, even daydreaming, which wasn’t exactly the central message of state Socialism. But ambiguity, whether in a simple fairy-tale or not, and allegory, allowed them to get by the censors.

So, what was the case with Švankmajer, how did he strike that balance?

Jan Švankmajer, photo: Jindřich Nosek, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

“I think that Švankmajer is foremost a surrealist, which means he was not coming to his films trying to get a message across; instead, he’s thinking, working and living as a surrealist – and that’s a collaborative way of being in the world, but also where you don’t make those clear distinctions between dreams and waking life, or between art and play. Things are far more mixed up, and messy and sticky, under surrealism.

“And I think under a system like communism, and also under capitalism – I don’t think Švankmajer was just an anti-communist director. I think some of his films made more recently work very effectively as attacks on consumer capitalism. I think he is anti-top down state ideology. I think that’s because both systems, communism and capitalism, are very focussed on productivity; so, on producing things and purposefulness.

“What’s challenging about Švankmajer’s works is precisely that when faced with his works, sometimes they look very ugly; sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what the purpose is. My students, the first thing they tend to say is, That’s really weird. And I say, okay, but why is it weird? What do you mean by weird? Because when we say something’s weird, that’s just our way of closing down debate, our way of saying, I don’t understand this, this doesn’t operate according to my understanding to the world, to my principles.

“And I think that’s where things get interesting. Not telling you what to think and putting you in an uncomfortable spaces and experiences. So, using those heightened sounds; using all the textures, these objects, in unfamiliar ways. And that wakes you up; it stimulates the senses. And I think it makes you more receptive to different ways of seeing the world – and being in the world.”

Krysař-Jiří Barta

Jiří Barta and Rhythmanalysis

Jiří Barta, photo: Archive of Jiří Barta

Rhythmanalysis is a mode of poetic-scientific investigation developed by the post-Marxist sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebrve. For him, an ideological analysis must go beyond considering the political meaning of things and objects in space and time, and time itself can be ideologically encoded.

Whybray looks at how several Czech filmmakers encoded/encode object and things in space and time (and sometimes those times and spaces themselves) with political meaning. He applies Rhythmanalysis to the work of Jiří Barta, a pioneering figure less familiar to audiences today, though he worked through the period of communist rule known as ‘Normalization’, the decades of Soviet occupation that came to an end after the Velvet Revolution.

“I think Jiří Barta is one of the most original and important animators of the 20th and 21st centuries – it’s quite shocking, really, that’s he’s so underappreciated. I think this might be because in each of his films he tries a different technique. So, none of his films are really alike. In one film, he might be using stop-motion, or pixilation, which is the animation of real people.

Photo: Archive of Jiří Barta

“It’s not like with Švankmajer – when you see a Švankmajer film, you immediately recognise it as such. With Barta, it’s much harder to make a definitive statement about his body of work because he takes a different approach with each project to suit the material. I think Barta’s work is – while I wouldn’t put it in the context of MTV, but he will use, say, electronic music and will use these more modern aspects.

“What makes Barta interesting in comparison to say Trnka – who is often referred to as a ‘peasant poet’; his films are very traditional, in some ways, and they are often focusing on rural rituals and ways of living – is that Barta clearly cares about these things, but with Barta there is always this sense of loss; that we can’t go back to the past, where the forests haven’t been cut down, or before industrialisation. So, his films always have the sense of the new, but in a troubling way. There’s always the sense of the modern with Barta. But he doesn’t like it – and he wants us to question that.”

Jirí Barta - Club of the Discarded - 1989

Henri Lefebvre, photo: Bert Verhoeff / Anefo, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

“In terms of Rhythmanalysis, it’s a really interesting theory developed by Henri Lefebvre towards the end of his life. The basic idea is that under a Marxist dialectical model of the world, you always have the kind of violent contrast or violent dialectic between the thesis and the anti-thesis, antithesis. And so progress is made according to this Hegelian dialectics. Whereas Lefebvre is saying that things work in this sort of tripartite, this way in which we have the elements of harmony, rhythm and melody interacting.

“So, when Lefebvre looks out on the world – and there’s a chapter in his book on Rhythmanalysis in which he looks out of a window from his apartment in Paris, he looks out onto the street and he says, there are all these different things, they all have their own rhythms, and so all keep their own times. So, he looks at rectilinear rhythms, at the cars in the streets, how they all stop and start in the streets according to the lights and move in a staggered way, and yet they are also moving in accord to a bigger circular rhythm, right? We have the work schedule, the setting and rising of the sun, and so he’s saying there are these big cosmic, cyclical rhythms and then these linear rhythms inside that.

Source: Bloomsbury Publishing

“And we try to measure time according to the work schedule, according to rotors, and this really is a way of spatializing time. It’s a way of making time understandable to us so we can manage time, and we can control time – and this tends to be in the service of productivity, in the service of capital. And he says this is a really artificial way of looking at time, because if you look at say a forest, say, yes, trees have rings – the have almost their own internal clock – but the leaves and the root systems, these sort of grow and whither away and network according to their own rhythms, they don’t stick in accordance to our simple clock time.”

“And I think with Barta, his films are really interested in the idea that the rhythms of the clock diminish us, the rhythms of the clock make us live boring, simplified, rational lives that can sometimes be quite violent, in terms of exploitation. I think he is suggesting that we need to be open to a multiplicity of rhythms, and the rhythms of the natural world. And, actually, if we open ourselves up to different ways of thinking about time, that aren’t just about productivity, about converting resources into value, basically, that we can have a healthier society.”

Speaking of not sticking to timetables, schedules and linear thought, if I were to ask you to sum up the book in what Americans would call an “elevator pitch” – summing up the central argument in a minute, would that be too tall an order?

Barta's ‘Pied Piper’, photo: Archive of Jiří Barta

“Well, I think Barta might object to that method! But, in terms of respecting the clock time… I guess the central argument is animation film was a unique ability to get across their messages in interesting and ambiguous ways. And to use objects and things, particularly in stop-motion animation, to get across ideas that are quite hard to communicate in straightforward language, and that can model different ways of experiencing the world and being in the world.

Source: Bloomsbury Academic

“On top of that, a lot of these filmmakers are proposing a return to more rural ways of living, but also a way that’s more in sync with the natural rhythms of the world. And this is really important when we’re facing an escalating ecological and climate emergency; that we really need to step back and stop micromanaging everything, and turning it into something that’s faster and faster, and more and more efficient, and instead find different ways not based in these models.”

“Švankmajer wrote this brilliant essay called Death to Anthropocentrism, which is basically about the desperate need of doing things as humans at the top of the pyramid, as humans’ understanding of time, humans’ understanding of the world, what’s important and what’s not important. This is what’s pushing us towards escalating catastrophe, basically, because we constantly see the world in terms of usefulness and resources.”