Jiří Menzel’s Witty Subversions

Jiří Menzel

In November 2017, filmmaker and actor Jiří Menzel, one of the key figures of the Czechoslovak New Wave, was raced to a hospital in Prague where he underwent an emergency brain operation that lasted six hours. He recovered, albeit never fully, and on Sunday, his wife, Olga Menzelová, announced that he had died in the company of his family at the age of eighty-two. “It was our utmost honor and privilege that we could be with you on your last pilgrimage to eternity,” she wrote, thanking him for these past three years, “as hard as they were. You kept always helping me with your courage, with your appetite and your will to live, and with your humor.”

Menzel’s sprightly wit enlivened nearly all of the eighty or so film and television productions he appeared in over the course of more than five decades. He was the youngest of the band of filmmakers associated with the Czechoslovak New Wave, a group that included Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Jan Němec, Jaromil Jireš, Evald Schorm, and Juraj Herz. Most of these directors met while attending the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) in the early 1960s, but like František Vláčil, Karel Kachyňa, and Vojtěch Jasný, Menzel also honed his practical skills shooting and performing in short instructional films produced by the communist country’s Army Film unit.

The films Menzel went on to direct in his late twenties were “defiant gestures of liberation,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Menzel “countered the morose and insidious puritanism of state ideology with joy and fun, and tapped into the new currents of the ’60s: the gorgeous thrill of pop music, youth culture, and the sexual revolution. And the paradox was that his movies could avail themselves of higher budgets than the French New Wave, because they had state support. Menzel made an art form of biting the hand that fed him.”

Menzel’s first film independent of FAMU and the Army, Mr. Baltazar’s Death, is the opening segment in the omnibus film Pearls of the Deep (1966), a collection of five adaptations of short stories by Bohumil Hrabal, “lightly surrealist but grittily observed tales of contemporary Czechoslovakian life in all its mundane absurdity,” as Michael Koresky describes them in the essay that accompanies our release. Not only did the celebrated writer approve of the project, he also briefly appears in each of the five short tales.

Hrabal and Menzel hit it off, and the director would base five more of his films on the author’s work, including his debut feature, Closely Watched Trains (1966). Set at a tiny railway station during the Second World War, this story of a dispatcher’s apprentice desperately trying to lose his virginity while partisans and Nazi collaborators battle for control of the rails won the Oscar for best foreign film. “In my opinion,” Menzel told Derek Malcolm in the Guardian in 1999, “the true poetry of this movie, if it has any, lies not in the absurd situations themselves, but in their juxtaposition with obscenity and tragedy.”

Two features followed in 1968, Capricious Summer and Crime in a Music Hall, both leaning more heavily into the comedic side of that juxtaposition. Selected to compete in Cannes before that year’s tumultuous edition was called  off, Capricious Summer is “a lilting tone poem, an almost screwball sex comedy with undercurrents of aching nostalgia imbued with lifetimes of regret,” writes Jordan Cronk for Slant. “The three aging men at the center of the narrative feel a rush of youth and unencumbered freedoms of sexual awakening when a traveling circus comes through town with a beautiful young girl in tow, setting off an array of humorous situations in a kind of Midnight Smiles of a Summer Night Sex Comedy.” The circus’s acrobat and magician is, as Koresky points out, “played by the amazingly dexterous Menzel himself, who shows off his tightrope-walking and handstanding skills.”

Menzel shot Larks on a String (1969), another adaptation of a Hrabal novel, during the Prague Spring, a brief flourishing of artistic freedom and political liberalization squelched in August 1968 by the invasion of Soviet tanks. The setting is a junkyard that serves as a labor camp for men, on the one side, whose actions have been deemed “counter-revolutionary,” and women, on the other side, who have attempted to defect to the west. Larks was banned and didn’t reappear until the Berlinale hosted the world premiere in 1990, just months after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.

Though he carried on making films in the 1970s and early ’80s, Menzel was fading from the international scene until the ultralight comedy My Sweet Little Village (1985) scored him another Oscar nomination. In the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio suggested that viewers may get the impression that the film “might have been directed by a teddy bear. But the movie’s lazy pace and old-fashioned gags slowly grow on you, too.”

In 1994, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, a comedy set in a small Ukrainian village at the outset of WWII, was invited to compete in Venice and was nominated for seven Czech Lions—but won none. It really wasn’t until 2006 that Menzel triumphed with critics and audiences again. I Served the King of England, the sixth and final adaptation of a Hrabal novel, won the FIPRESCI Prize in Berlin and four Czech Lions, including best film and director. Tracing the trajectory of a hotdog vendor who becomes a millionaire and, when the communists take over, a prisoner sentenced to fifteen years, one for each of his millions, I Served the King of England is “a rare contemporary example of how fanciful, wide-eyed filmmaking can be employed not simply for the sake of ironic condescension or set design window-dressing but for genuine emotional and political exploration,” wrote Michael Joshua Rowin for Reverse Shot in 2008.

A few years later, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, a film preservationist and archivist who had been fascinated with Closely Watched Trains since he saw it as a young film student, spent a year convincing Menzel to meet him at a café in Prague. Menzel took a liking to Dungarpur and agreed to be interviewed on camera. For the next eight years, during which time he made two other documentaries, Celluloid Man and The Immortals, Dungarpur conducted further interviews and research. The resulting seven-hour documentary, CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel, traveled the festival circuit in 2018 and was released on Blu-ray this summer by the UK’s Second Run. “I am left with the memories of the hours I spent with him in Prague and in India,” Dungarpur wrote on Facebook on Sunday, “his mischievous sense of humor, his quicksilver moods and astonishing intelligence, and of course the film, which bears testimony to a great body of work and a remarkable man.”

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