Jiří Menzel was the powerhouse film-maker of the Czech new wave, a director, screenwriter and actor who along with Věra Chytilová, Ján Kadár and Miloš Forman found a way of speaking to the Czech soul – the European soul, too – and mobilised cinema in the cause of humanity and freedom. Menzel’s movies, in their wit and subversive romance, were born of the grisly era that ran from Munich ’38 to the Prague Spring; the Czechs knew tyranny from both sides: the violence and war delirium of the Nazis and then the dead hand of Soviet rule with its chilling paranoia and humourless, clodhopping bureaucracy.
Against all this, Menzel’s films were defiant gestures of liberation: he 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. But the state bit back. Many of Menzel’s contemporaries fled after the Prague Spring, ending up in Paris or Hollywood, but Menzel chose to stay, negotiating cleverly with censorship and officialdom, often using comedy to outsmart the government functionaries.
Menzel’s great breakthrough was his coming-of-age adventure, the 1966 best foreign film Oscar winner, enigmatically titled Ostře sledované vlaky‚ or Closely Observed Trains, set in the era of Nazi occupation (and therefore a subject acceptable to communist government). It’s a phrase that riffs on the pedantry of bureaucratic inspection but also surveillance and state intrusion. A naive and sexually inexperienced young man, Milos, has a job as a junior railway station official; his passion for a beautiful young woman who works as a conductor unfolds in tandem with his involvement in a resistance plot to blow up the station – which is of course a deadly serious project. Menzel’s skill – indeed, his inspiration – is to fuse the comic sexual anxiety with the grand passions of politics and history.
Milos, like a lot of young men, suffers from premature ejaculation, and so has to be schooled in the art of thinking of an unsexy topic to delay the moment. It is almost like something from The Likely Lads by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. But his ascent to manhood, however farcical, means a maturity in the world of politics and history. The other important thing about Closely Observed Trains is that it was based on a novel by the Czech author Bohumil Hrabal whose sympathetic worldview made him a creative soulmate for Menzel. His work and career were a virtual dual project with Menzel’s throughout their lives.
Hrabal wrote the short stories on which Menzel based a later film: Larks on a String (1969). Set in the 50s, it is about members of the disgraced Czech bourgeoisie who are forced to work in a junkyard to atone for their counter-revolutionary sins, and indeed to contemplate the junkyard of their outdated ideological assumptions. They are a saxophonist whose instrument is western and decadent, a lawyer who thinks that defendants should be allowed to plead their cases, and a professor who refuses to renounce western literature. There is little to do in this junkyard and the prisoners while away the time with cards and gossip and leching over the female prisoners who are nearby – who, in the style of movies of this kind, turn out to be very attractive.
The point would appear to be absurdity, which now looks innocuous enough. But the Czech government did not care to be satirised in this direct way and the whole subject was tactlessly close to the Maoist cultural revolution. The movie was banned in Czechoslovakia and did not see the light of day until 1990, when it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival.
Menzel continued to work, in movies and theatre, with varied critical results, but his creativity and output were formidable. In the 80s, he once again found success with another of his sprightly and yet pointed ensemble comedies, this time based on an original script by the actor and screenwriter Zdeněk Svěrák. In My Sweet Little Village, a young man from a remote village with learning difficulties is employed as a truck driver but finds himself being transferred to work in Prague so that a scheming government apparatchik can gets his hands on the large country house that this young man has inherited. This got Menzel his second Oscar nomination for best foreign film.
Menzel’s life and work are in some ways those of an internal exile: he took the tough decision to stay in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring and battle it out with the authorities, always manoeuvring the grey zone of what he would be allowed to do, how directly he could satirise the government, alienated from the freedoms that his contemporaries were beginning to take for granted in the west, and yet, perhaps, spared the agonies of Hollywood backstabbing and the star system.
But Menzel played a vital part in challenging the orthodoxy from the inside. He kept artistic freedom alive, always showing officialdom how pompous and ridiculous it was. Without voices like his, the oppression would not have crumbled when it did.