Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Ruka (1965)

... aka: Hand, The

Directed by:
Jirí Trnka

The protagonist in The Hand is content. Very content. He's so content that he even has a smile on his face while he's sleeping. Instead of being like many of us, moaning and groaning every morning as soon as the alarm goes off, this guy is so excited about facing the day that he does literal cartwheels as soon as he gets out of bed. And it's easy to see why: He's able to do exactly what he wants to do all day, every day with minimal distractions. In this case that's make pottery for his beloved plant, which he hopes will bloom into a beautiful flower one day. Hey, we all have that one hobby or interest or love or goal that keeps us going, right? It doesn't really matter if nobody else understands that one thing we have. We know how it makes us feel and that's enough. However, there's always the possibility of whatever that is being taken away...

One morning while he's making a pot, a knock sounds at the door. When he tries to answer it, no one's there. And then a white gloved hand suddenly comes barging through the window, knocking his beloved plant off the window seal and shattering the pot. He tries to be polite and greet the hand, but it goes right over to his potter's wheel and destroys his current pot; molding the clay into a pointing hand instead. In other words, it's not the least bit interested in his wants, but only in its own. The man shoos the hand back through the window, closes and locks it... but it's not going away so easily.

The hand next forces its way back through the door and pushes a cardboard box in. An annoying ringing noise prompts the man to dig through it. He finds a phone and the hand is on the other line, still insisting on its hand sculpture and even offering to pay. The man throws the phone out of the window but it isn't long until the hand returns, this time with a TV set that plays nothing but hand propaganda, showing the scales of justice, the Statue of Liberty's torch and, more ominously, a boxing glove, a skeletal hand and a hand holding a pistol. The hand even threateningly points a finger at him just like a gun. There will be consequences if he doesn't do what he's ordered to do.

The potter finally puts up an effort to physically fight back but he's no match for such a powerful figure. The hand turns black and, using puppet strings, forces him into a cage where it directs his every movement in sculpting a towering white hand. He's fitted with a laurel wreath and given medals for his cooperation but decides to destroy his creation and make a run for it, which leads to tragic consequences.

While I've seen multiple interpretations of this piece, when you read more about the director's life in then-Communist Czechoslovakia, and how his work was frequently banned there, the original intent is pretty obvious. The potter is an artist unwilling to compromise his artistic drive / vision despite insistence, harassment, coercion, bribery, threats of violence and even the possibility of death, while the hand is representative of a restrictive, totalitarian government out to either control or stop the artist's message. No matter what you personally get out of this, it's a brilliant mix of stop motion and puppetry and is clever, sometimes funny, often bleak and disturbing and, ultimately, actually quite sad.

Trnka was mostly prolific as a children's book illustrator, but made over a dozen animated shorts. This was his last and many consider it his finest work. It won numerous awards, including the Grand Prix at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Later, Annecy also gave it a special award as the best short shown there up until 1990. Trnka passed away in 1969 at the age of 57, just after winning the Hans Christian Andersen Award for his illustration work.



Stjepan said...

Great review of the film by an underrated artist.

However, it is not exactly true that Mr. Trnka was in bad relationship with the government. Only two segments from his films had to be left out on religious basis ( https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Jiri_Trnka#Symbiosis_with_Communist_Censorship ) and he mostly had the liberties to make any film he wanted, at least as much as any director working for the major studio in any country had. It should be noted that the film reviewed here was not banned at its initial release, it was considered problematic by the new government that took power after Soviet intervention.

He was even awarded the title of National Artist, the highest possible state award an artist in Czechoslovakia could be given (only about 300 people were awarded the reward, during the four decades the award existed, and Mr. Trnka was among the first 75 - https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seznam_%C4%8Deskoslovensk%C3%BDch_n%C3%A1rodn%C3%ADch_um%C4%9Blc%C5%AF ).

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Appreciate the additional information! I've read of two banned (or at least portions of them) and I'm pretty sure The Hand wasn't really shown in Czechoslovakia for about 20 years after its initial screening during that period you mentioned.

I find it interesting that the potter in The Hand is also given awards. I'd assume that meant he too became a National Artist for finally caving and making the statue, though his hand was forced. And then, at what cost? Going by this short alone (I've not seen any of his others but will soon change that!) it seems like Trnka felt severely compromised his entire career, as if he had always had to alter or censor what he really wanted to do / say the entire time...

Stjepan said...

Generally, I agree with you that communism was terrible for most people living in those countries.

However, as somebody who was born (and still live) in ex-communist country, I really don't think life was very hard for artists, especially film-workers, as the leaders understood the impact cinema has on people, starting with Lenin's writing on cinema in late 10s and early 20s (even today, in so-called "free world", it serves as the main propaganda tool).

For example, in Yugoslavia (country that was for almost four decades ruled by genocidal dictator Tito, responsible for about million deaths) artists enjoyed huge privileges, unparalleled in any other profession, except politics. It was not uncommon for actors and directors to be awarded houses and apartments in elite locations and similar things.

And films were generally given much larger budgets in that era and I am not talking only about co-productions. It was not uncommon to see epic films produced in Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland etc., yet those countries struggle to produce simple period dramas (outside of Holocaust stories made specially for festival awards and not general public) or mid-scale war films nowadays. Just imagine that Romania produced films such as Dacii, Columna, Burebista, Mihai Viteazul or Vlad Tepes in 60s or 70s.(The last truly epic Romanian pre-20th century historical film was 1989 Mircea: https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/List%C4%83_de_filme_istorice_rom%C3%A2ne%C8%99ti)

Considering the west perception of socialist cinema, there is an interesting case with Polish film "Matka Joanna od Aniołów"/"Mother Joan of the Angels". It is often cited as being an allegory about communism, despite the fact that its director, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, was himself a hardcore communist and, because of that, appointed as the head of their main film studio - KADR. Polish critics almost unanonimously dismiss any anti-communist stance in that film. Same stands for Vítězslav Nezval, a Czech stalinist writer and the author of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

Mind you, I don't want to counter anything you have written, I just find the idea of "suffering artist" in communism a little bit overblown. It was mostly ordinary people that were suffering and artists were enjoying quite a good life at that time.

Best regards and keep up the good work :)

P.S. On a side note, I see the "Nordic horror" banner on the side. Is it coming soon? I enjoy those state-by-state researches even more than film reviews and hope more is coming after that :)

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I agree with what you're saying. In the grand scheme of things, a heralded National Artist, even one who feels artistically restricted in some ways, would certainly have it much easier than the vast majority of the population. They are still being put on a pedestal at the end of the day and, going by this short, the director was still able to convey what he wanted to and no one stopped him, destroyed his work, etc.

I'm willing to bet most Americans are not familiar with, or are even aware of the existence of, most older genre films from Central / Eastern European. Most were never released on home video here so they had no chance to build up any kind of reputation over the years. Seeing how we got so many movies from Italy, Spain, France and other European countries but barely anything from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, etc. is something I've always found a bit strange. I've really liked the vast majority of the ones I've watched thus far and they deserve a wider audience.

So I have about 20 country indexes partially or mostly done right now. I'll get at least part of the Nordic block (Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway) up this weekend. I'm going to give every country that made at least one movie their own page but only the more prolific countries (50+ horror movies made between 1950-1990) will get their own button on the sidebar, otherwise it would go on into infinity!

I still haven't completely worked all of this out yet, but here's what I'm thinking right now...

Own Button: Germany, Spain, Italy, UK, France
May get own button: Czechoslovakia (it's ALMOST 50 by my count; IMDb shows 49 though I don't really trust their classifications)
Nordic: Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway

For the rest I will do either "Eastern / Central" and then "Europe: Other" (which will include Russia) or just do "Europe: Other" and put everything else there. This one is a bit tricky to work out.

Own Button: Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, India, Indonesia
The rest: Asia: Other (will include Pakistan, Vietnam, Mainland China, etc.)

North America:
Own Button: Canada, U.S. (this will be a BITCH to do so it may be the last one I ever work on), Mexico.
Others: I'll be putting them in the Central / South category.

Central / South American:
Brazil will get its own button since I found over 50 horror films from there but everything else will get grouped together.

All grouped together, though South Africa is really the only player here. I'm aware of ONE movie from Nigeria.

Middle East:
Not done much research here but I know genre movies that were made in Turkey, Iran and Egypt during the 1950-1990 time frame.

Own Button: Australia
As for New Zealand, I don't know... "Other: Oceania" ? I may just end up combining Australia and New Zealand on one page.

And that's where I'm at right now.

Stjepan said...

Thank you very much for your detailed response, that seems like quite a work to do, with about two dozens of separate "buttons". I enjoyed reading about the three Nordic countries that you have described so far and find it really sad that there are not more Finnish films in style of "Valkoinen peura", as that is one of my favorite horror films ever.

I find it sad that Eastern European films don't get more exposure. Surely, horror films were not as numerous as Italian or Spanish, but there were many great fantasy/SF films and, especially, war films, comedies and historical dramas. Mind you, it is not only that those films are unknown in the USA. Even in my country, only very few younger people have passable knowledge of our older films and general public doesn't know a thing about Eastern European cinema. Surely, younger film snobs usually claim to like Czech New Wave, Romanian New Wave, Soviet Montage or 60s/70s Soviet art cinema, but even they usually don't really know more than a couple of films from each of these "movements" and you can bet they don't know names like Trnka, Vavra, Popescu-Gopo etc. Older people would probably vaguely remember some Czehoslovakian comedies or Russian fantasies from their youth, but that's pretty much it.

I might sound stupid, but have you tried searching for "horror" films on https://www.csfd.cz/podrobne-vyhledavani/ (Czechoslovakian Film Database). There might be few titles unlisted on the IMDb, which would make the number of films reach 50. As for the rest of Europe, I would probably group western and central Europe (plus Greece and Cyprus) in one group and communist bloc countries in the other, but don't listen to me, I am sure you would sort it in the best way possible :) I also agree with the grouping of Egypt in "Middle East" and not "Africa", despite being on that continent. It is also quite possible that Egpt would qualify for separate button, despite IMDb having listed only 25 films and one mini-series in 1950-1990 period. In this topic (https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/monsterkidclassichorrorforum/the-surprise-filled-world-of-vintage-egyptian-and--t38774.html), there is talk about "numerous giallo-styled thrillers produced in Egypt during the 1970s and 1980s" and a number of (completely missing from IMDb) films aimed at video-only release.

I have listed some films on https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/monsterkidclassichorrorforum/horror-from-beyond-the-iron-curtain-t4050-s20.html (although I think I have send you the list long time ago). On that site, there is a university professor who is sort of an expert on Egyptian/Arabic cinema, and he would certainly be of great help here.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I didn't think I'd be able to finish up the Nordic lists this weekend but, low and behold, I did. It helped that there were far less movies than I was expecting from most of those countries! Found some "new" films I wasn't aware of that aren't in my main indexes plus a lot of "possible" horror films classified in other genres. I made a separate list for those I'm keeping so I don't forget to look around for them and also added a few to the notes part of the lists. Unfortunately lots of these were never released to video (many were made for TV) and are nowhere to be found online but these things often just turn up out of the blue.

I've not explored that website at all but I'll make sure to browse through there when I get around to making the Czech list. I'm pretty sure some stuff that doesn't have the horror genre tag on IMDb will turn up. I was browsing through your pictures on MKCHF and that Egyptian / Arabic stuff looks absolutely amazing. I've only seen two of their older genres films thus far but I liked both of them, especially Fangs. I have a copy of The Talisman w/ English subs around here somewhere that will probably be my next viewing.

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