Lucie Česálková (ed.): Staré pověsti české

Praha, Národní filmový archiv, 2015, ISBN 978-80-7004-167-3, 271 p.

Jana Rogoff

Keywords: Jiří Trnka; 1950s cultural policy; Czechoslovak visual culture; animated film; film restoration; production history.

Staré pověsti české is a collection of scholarly articles, interviews and primary documents focusing on Jiří Trnka’s epic (and eponymous) stop-motion puppet animation Staré pověsti české/Old Czech Legends (Czechoslovakia, 1953). The film is based on Alois Jirásek’s 1894 literary account of the earliest Bohemian mythology as well as on the writings of the 11th century chronicler Cosmas. It is considered to be one of Trnka’s supreme feature-length films, even though it was shot at the peak of hardline Stalinism in Czechoslovakia, a period which had a strong and, in most cases, detrimental impact on pretty much all spheres of cultural production.

This collection of articles attempts to cast light on this paradox. It was published on the occasion of the film’s digital restoration, initiated by the Czech National Film Archive as part of the project Pilsen – European Capital of Culture 2015, which chose Trnka as one of the city’s honorary natives.

Jiří Trnka. Caption courtesy of the Czech National Film Archive.

Lucie Česálková, a film historian and the editor of the collection, approaches the subject of Trnka’s Staré pověsti české with an inspiring display of widely varying research perspectives on the film. The six studies included in the first part each embrace a very different aspect: film restoration, production history, 1950s cultural policy, musical score, narrative structure, the specificity of Trnka’s puppet characters and the broader context of his feature-length film production. The second part of the book consists of oral history interviews, selected period press and archival documents on the film’s production and distribution, which allow the reader a direct access to key primary sources.

Tereza Frodlová, a film preservationist, opens the book with a detailed insight into the process of the film’s restoration. She explains the kind of choices that had to be made in order to recreate, for a contemporary spectator, the experience of the film’s first viewers back in 1953: how much noise needs to be reduced and how much preserved so as to reflect the technological norms of the early 1950s; how much color added to compensate for the fading of the low-quality east-German Agfacolor; which splices and tears to retain and which to retouch, in order to achieve an authentic but at the same time spectator-friendly historicity of the medium. Frodlová illustrates her technically informed and fluent report with interesting visual material, stills before and after restoration as well as images of digital retouching devices.

The film’s production history is reconstructed in an analysis by Martin Čuřík. Through his in-depth research of the film’s script approval procedure, Čuřík convincingly proves that by 1948 animated film in Czechoslovakia was no longer outside of the sphere of political interests. From today’s perspective, we may falsely assume that Trnka, a world-renowned artist and a showcase example of the achievements of nationalized cinematography abroad, may have enjoyed a privileged position of creative freedom. However, Čuřík’s analysis reveals the extent of control over the subject of the film as well as its individual scenes that the state-owned film production authorities exercised.

Čuřík’s argument is supported by Alena Šlingerová’s study of Trnka’s re-interpretation of ancient Czech myths in the specific discourse of the official 1950s cultural policy and historiography. Apart from Jirásek, Trnka drew inspiration for his film from the 11th century chronicler Cosmas. As Šlingerová explains, the use of Jirásek’s book as a core literary reference was part of a much larger “Jirásek Action” launched by the communist party already in 1948. “Jirásek Action” was accompanied by a massive campaign in the media in an effort to instrumentalize the 19th century classic in the service of socialist construction. His literary works were programmatically re-published in multiple editions, and countless theatre and film adaptations emerged. Trnka’s film was created at a time of the strictest ideological supervision over the choice of subjects. Despite his initial resistance, he was pressured into the subject during the meetings of the dramaturgical units of the Czechoslovak State Film. Čuřík and Šlingerová’s articles help understand the kind of schisms that were possible between this official dictate of artistic subjects and the limited yet, in Trnka’s case, fully used potential of an individual artistic approach. The fact that the final product ended up being a ground-breaking work of high artistic value and not a didactic piece succumbing to the political cliches of the time shows just how much artistic integrity and camouflage/negotiation skills Trnka had to possess.

Jiří Trnka and his colleagues working on Old Czech Legends. Caption courtesy of the Czech National Film Archive.

A completely different and one of the most striking aspects of the film discussed here is the musical score composed by Václav Trojan, who wrote music for all Trnka’s feature films and many of his shorts. The soundtrack stuns with chants oscillating between simple folk tunes and operatic grandeur, with sound ranging from minimalist imitation of primitive musical instruments and animal sounds to orchestral score, a brilliant match for Trnka’s aesthetic spun between children’s and high art. On the example of Trojan’s music, Miloš Zapletal examines where socialist realism meets classical Hollywood style. He outlines the early debates on socialist realism in music, with folklorism and simplicity as the key criteria, and, at the same time, he sets Trojan’s work in the context of late 1940s and early 1950s norms of musical dramaturgy in Czech historical film. These norms mostly followed the classical Hollywood style preference for late romantic symphonism in a way that simply augmented the dramatic effect of the plot and enhanced the emotional impact of individual scenes. However, in his analysis, Zapletal points out Trojan’s familiarity with the interwar avantgarde methods and his brilliant musical construction of archaism, which foreshadowed the changing role of film music in the 1960s cinematography.

Martin Kos contributed a close examination of the narrative structure, the varying roles of the narrator and use of camera and lighting. Kos emphasizes Trnka’s innovative work on multiple levels and explores the narrative dynamic between scenes propelling the plot and decorative sequences that highlight the director’s signature film style.

Cheryl Stephenson, a specialist in the history of Czechoslovak puppet theatre and animation, complements the variety of scholarly perspectives with her focus on Trnka’s characteristic approach to puppets. Stephenson traces Trnka’s work from his beginnings as a student of the Czech puppet theatre master Josef Skupa, the author of the legendary Špejbl and Hurvínek. According to Stephenson, it was Skupa who taught Trnka to emphasize the individuality of a puppet character, which went against the traditions of stock characters typical for puppet theatre. Stephenson argues that the medium of film was much better suited for Trnka’s style of work, as only film enabled him to bring forth the puppets’ detailed shapes and thus express their individuality and physicality.

Jiří Trnka. Caption courtesy of the Czech National Film Archive.

The final article comes from Gianalberto Bendazzi, a prominent theorist and historian of animated film, who reflects on Trnka’s Staré pověsti české in the context of his other five feature films. As Bendazzi points out, the amount of feature-length films Trnka made was enormous, considering that only Walt Disney was capable of periodic feature production at the time. Bendazzi labels Trnka as a “catalyst” who played a key role in transforming the perception of the medium of animation as an art discipline.

Some of the aspects that do not receive much attention among this broad coverage and would be interesting areas for further research are e.g. Trnka’s employment of dance sequences and choreography in general, his use of color, and editing and cinematography (frequent superimposition, dynamic camera inspired by live action films) in the context of the animation production of the early 1950s.

The second part of the book starts with two interviews conducted by Pavel Horáček, with Trnka’s son Jan and with Jiří Látal, the son of Trnka’s close colleague Stanislav Látal. They demonstrate the significance of oral history as a research method in the field of animation where the tradition of systematic archiving is virtually non-existent. The informative value of the two interviews is so high one only wishes this section of the book was more extensive.

The interviews are followed by a detailed chronology of the film’s production and distribution strategies. The chronology contains key figures and records, such as the budget, audience data, and the critical response and awards at film festivals. Another section of primary documents, the digest from the contemporary critical press, confirms that the international acclaim given to Czechoslovak film production was closely watched back at home and proudly presented in local cultural periodicals. The appendix with a selection of archival materials amounts to a fitting counterpoint to the lofty theme of ancient national mythology. Transcripts of multiple official letters testify to production practicalities and pedestrian incidents such as five lost film shots and temporary absence of the film studio employees summoned to a beetroot harvesting brigade.

The original graphic design of the book extends also to the presentation of visual material from the Czech National Film Archive as well as Trnka’s family archive: photos of Trnka during the process of animation, excerpts from the storyboard, images of Trnka’s puppets and multiple film stills are interspersed throughout the book illustrating many of the aspects discussed here.

As an outcome of collective research, the publication reveals that Trnka managed to break through multiple cinematic, literary and political conventions. It pays an overdue scholarly respect to a canonical work of Czech cinematography and a milestone in the history of animation, which may have been delayed in the Czech post-communist cultural context because of its association with the communist-popularized writer Jirásek. Česálková rightly invites the readers in her touching conclusion: “Go ahead and watch Old Czech Legends again and your perception of the folk tune ‘Siskin, o little Siskin’ will never be the same” (ibid.: p.22).

Jana Rogoff

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


Jana Rogoff is a Slavic Studies scholar. She studied English-American Studies and Russian Studies at the Charles University in Prague and the New York University, NYC. She received her PhD from the Humboldt University in Berlin. Her dissertation Audiovisual (A)synchrony in Early Soviet Sound Film is a media-historical study of the emergence of sound in Soviet cinematography. Rogoff’s research interests include Eastern European film and literature, history of animated film, and film sound theory. She has taught seminars on Eastern European film and literature at universities in the U.S., Germany and Czech Republic, and has been awarded multiple research fellowships e.g. by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the DAAD and the DFG. She is currently working on her postdoctoral project Eastern European Animation Between Art and Politics, 1945-1990 at the Humboldt University in Berlin.


Trnka, Jiří. 1953. Staré pověsti české / Old Czech Legends. Československý státní film.

Suggested Citation

Rogoff, Jana. 2018. Review: “Lucie Česálková (ed.). Staré pověsti české.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 7. DOI:


Copyright: The text of this article has been published under This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.