Jiří Trnka’s The Hand: not falling for the other side

If it wasn’t for my Intro to Animation class, I would have never heard of this stop-motion animated masterpiece.

To summarise the plot, it tells the story of a harlequin whose impoverished yet contented life of flower pot-making is disrupted by a literal and seemingly-omnipresent hand who demands him to make hand sculptures instead, compelling him to constantly fight for his freedom. Unfortunately, near the end of the story, he dies when one of his pots accidentally fell on his head (seemingly foreshadowed by the recurring accidental pot-breaking). He is given a lavish funeral by the hand.

One can guess why I love this short film.

It is an allegory of censorship enforced under authoritarianism. It sublimely evokes the terror of living as an artist and entertainer in such condition, amplified by the fantastical elements and the atmospheric percussion-oriented soundtracks. In fact, both Wikipedia and IMDB categorise this film as horror.

Unsurprisingly, I picked The Hand as one of the animated shorts I analysed for the final essay. My writings were even abysmal then. Thankfully, I lost it. But, I remember having a great time analysing every single one of them.

While analysing it, I found two peculiarities.

First thing first, the funeral. Why would the hand hold a state funeral to a rebel? Surely, shouldn’t he be demonised as an enemy of the state in the end?

Well, I found an article (forget which one, cannot find it again) about how the USSR and its satellite states honoured their artists posthumously, regardless of how obedient or disobedient they were; the writer said even Trnka himself was given a state funeral.

As I am too lazy to do more research, I cannot confirm or debunk the article’s factual validity. But, as the hand symbolises an authoritarian government (I cannot think of any other interpretations), what the article is saying makes too much sense for me to dismiss.

This reminds me of the legendary and ideologically-dissenting director Andrei Tarkovsky (can’t stop referencing him). After his death, the Soviet authorities regretted that he died in exile. Yes, linking Trnka, a Czechoslovakian puppeteer and animator with, to Tarkovsky, a live-action Russian director who loved exploring the metaphysical aspect of humanity, is far-fetched. But, I can’t help myself.

Oh, and the hand.

At first, I noticed the hand was a left one. I assumed it represented the far-left government of Czechoslovakia. But, when I took a greater look, the hand was not always left.

Sometimes, it appears as a right one. In fact, the first hand sculpture to appear in the video depicts a right hand.  So, I quickly dumped the interpretation, dismissed it as reading too much into things. But then, I remembered the funeral scene, where the hand can be seen making a salute eerily similar to the Nazi one; I could hear my classmates’ shock.

I was more baffled than shocked, as Czechoslovakia was a communist country, not a fascist one. Due to my slowness, it took me days to realise the film criticises authoritarianism in general, not just the communist Czechoslovakian government.

The film also subtly warns us to not fall for any forms of extremism. Your suffering under a far-left government cannot morally justify your support of a far-right government… and vice versa. One form of  zealotry does not justify the other.

I write as if I grasped the thematic depth immediately. I didn’t. Back then, my mind only thought about the Far-Left vs Far-Right.  It took me years to realise how the message is also applicable to any kinds of extreme dichotomies.

Yes, I know I seem to be reading too much into things again. The nazi salute may not be one after all and I don’t know enough about different types of salutes. I also cannot prove that extreme dichotomies in general were what Trnka had in mind.

But, you have to admit: the film does not target a specific ideology. My interpretation fits really well into the narrative.