Who are the best filmmakers in the Czech Republic

Jiri Menzel

Jiří Menzel was one of the most talented comedy directors in cinema. At the age of just 28, the Czech, who was born in 1938, took part «Sharply Observed Trains» the Oscar for the best foreign language film 1967. It became a key work of the Prague Spring. But then his film falls "Larks on a thread" victim to censorship - the phase of liberalization and the Czech Nouvelle Vague is over with the crushing of the Prague Spring. Menzel decides to stay in the country. He works as a director and actor for film and theater. With his successful comedies of the 1970s, he explores the limits of what is politically feasible. On September 5, 2020 is Jiří Menzel died after a long illness in his hometown Prague.

“When I was born, I weighed a pound and a half. Everything that came to that is thanks to me », Jirí Menzel once said of himself, and lists what shaped him: «I got humor from my maternal grandfather, and I owe his culture to my father. I grew up with his books. And to be naughty to other people without them getting mad at me, I practiced on my mother. " Born on February 23, 1938 in Prague, he came into contact with the art of film as a child. His father Josef Menzel, editor of the magazine "AList", publicist and writer, also worked as a dramaturge for animated cartoons. After he was banned from studying theater directing, he was admitted to the FAMU film academy in Prague in 1957.

In the class of Otakar Vávras he met with Vera Chytilová, Evald Schorm, Jan Nemec, Pavel Jurácek and others who later became the core of Czechoslovak "New Wave" formed. To this day, he speaks of his teacher with gratitude and deep respect: “He taught me to understand that a film director is by no means the center of the universe. A bitter but very useful insight. " In 1962/63 Jirí Menzel completed his studies in film and television directing with the film "Our Lord Förster died". The method with which he processed motifs from a story by the Czech author Jindriska Smetanová immediately set the tone. In the 1960s, Jirí Menzel also worked as an actor in many Czech films. During the thaw that began in Czechoslovakian cultural policy in the 1960s, Jirí Menzel and his fellow students at FAMU set out to fundamentally renew Czech filmmaking. The so-called New Wave was born. The short film series "Perlchen amgrund", created in 1965 by the young Czech directors Nemec, Schorm, Chytilová, Jireš and Menzel based on the stories of Bohumil Hrabal, became the movement's manifesto. Menzel's contribution, the short film "The Death of Mr. Baltasar" made him known as a director.

His first full-length commercial film, comedy "Ostre sledované vlaky" (Closely observed trains or love according to the timetable), gave the young director the Oscar for the best non-English language film in 1967. It is still considered a masterpiece today (and can now be seen again or rediscovered in a restored version). Here, too, Menzel relied on Hrabal's prose and turned it into an unpathetic narrative about heroism and love of the homeland, composed of scenes from a life in the midst of occupation and war - unconventional and sometimes grotesquely drawn. Menzel designed a true still life of figures and figurines around the railway apprentice Miloš and the small railway station where he did his job in the last weeks of the war.

The young Milo, sent out into the world from the familiarity of his parents' house, actually has enough to do with the problems of growing up and still has to cope with the social and political reality of his time. In the end he will blow up an ammunition train and become a hero. Menzel's idea of ​​linking the noble subject of the struggle for freedom in the 1940s with a motif that completely contradicted conventions, namely sexuality, was not without criticism. The Hollywood success was followed by other feature films by the late 1960s. Menzel made the film in 1968 based on the novel of the same name by the writer and film director Vladislav Vancura «Rozmarné léto» (A capricious summer). Suddenly the magician and tightrope walker Arnosˇtek and his graceful companion Anna break into the provincial summer idyll around the lifeguard Antonín and tear the entire town out of its slumber. A capricious summer came to cinemas in 1968 when the euphoria of the Prague Spring peaked. The remark of the pool attendant Antonín, "This kind of summer seems a bit strange to me", was to have an additional bitter aftertaste a few months later.

In the autumn of occupation 1968 came "Crimes in the Tingeltangel" in the cinemas - a black crime and music comedy. The film is part of a crime mystery Menzel had already started three years earlier. Jirí Menzel's next film was not allowed to be released in theaters by the communist censors. It gave the director a work ban that was never explicitly pronounced, but in fact lasted for several years. «Skrivánci na nitích» (Larks on a thread) from 1969 takes place in a huge scrap yard in the iron and steel works of Kladno, which in the 1950s served as a re-education camp for «bourgeois elements» and enemies of the system. The literary model for the wondrous figures was again provided by the stories of Bohumil Hrabal. Hidden humor as an artistic medium, but also situational comedy in words and images, carry this cautiously optimistic and, in the manner of Hrabal, realistically absurd film, which was only released in cinemas 20 years later and was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 1990.

AFTER 1968
In the five years that followed, Jirí Menzel could no longer be offered acceptable scripts. He worked internationally as a theater director and nationally as a film actor - subscribed to negative roles as an “ideologically harmful element”. In 1974 Menzel finally approached the canon of socialist realism, at least thematically, with his next production entitled “Who is looking for a golden reason”. Together with Zdenek Sverák, Menzel shot a simple story about a young soldier who returns to civilian life as a construction worker to prove to himself and his middle-class friend that he is not afraid of hard work. Although some people accused him of having sold himself and given up in the face of this material, Jiri Menzel did not regret having made the film.

14 years later he justified this in a newspaper interview: “I got to know very decent people in construction, and anyway, making a film about work is - I think - more useful than making a film about murders. . . " Menzel's long-time cameraman Jaromír Šsofr performs one of his brilliant achievements in Who is looking for on golden ground. Again in collaboration with Sverák, Jirí Menzel shot the comedy "House in the Green Wanted" in 1975. The filmmaker uses the simple story - a Prague family is looking for a weekend house to escape from the big city - for an in-depth analysis of the complex network of relationships between the protagonists. 1978, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Czech cinematography, was created "The wonderful men with the crank", a film about the history of film - against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Prague.

THE FUNNY Eighties
In the 1980s, too, Jiri Menzel loved to work from literary models and translated works by the old masters of Czech literature, Vladislav Vancura and Bohumil Hrabal, into the language of film. 1981 comes «Short cut» in Czech and Slovak cinemas, the comedy was seen by over 2 million viewers until 1985. The colorful surroundings of a small town brewery from the first half of the 20th century form the cinematic framework for life's little dramas. The focus is on the lovingly drawn protagonists with their emotional entanglements and foolish escapades. Somewhat rougher and thus closer to the present came the cinematic implementation of a template by Bohumil Hrabal in 1983 under the title “The wild boar is going”, a silly competition between two hunting clubs from two neighboring villages for a grotesque hunt for a shot boar.

Menzel's next film from 1985 also takes place in the country: “Heimat, sweet home” is a comedy film about the somewhat bizarre life in a small village, somewhere in the middle of the real socialist province of Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. At that time the film was seen by five million people in Czechoslovakia, which would still be a great success for a commercial film today. At the end of 1988, Menzel again took up a template from Vancura and filmed a wild story from the time of the First Republic with "End of the Old Times". Political developments in 1989 quickly swept away the old structures of the socialist bloc, at least on the surface. Gone were the days in which one had to encode statements critical of society with careful humor and fine irony. The art of film had increasingly to face the need for financial profitability, the quota pressure of the market economy and the fight for sponsors.

In early 1991, Jiri Menzel adapted a successful play by Václav Havel, inspired by John Gay, for the film «Zebrácká opera» (Prague Beggar Opera), with Josef Abrhám in the lead role. During the filming there was a chance encounter with the American director Steven Soderbergh, who was shooting his film Kafka with Jeremy Irons in Prague. Film history owes this encounter that Josef Abrhám and Jeremy Irons took on a mini-role in each other's film with a wink. Jiri Menzel's feature film “The Memorable Adventures of Soldier Ivan Chonkin” from 1993 tells the story of a soul mate of the good Bohemian soldier Schweik in Bolshevik Russia. Again, Menzel knew how to counter the sadness of socialist reality with closeness to people and humor, but here he uses more sarcastic means than before and artistically allows himself to be almost carried away to settling down with the previous regime, perhaps comparable to Billy Wilder and his film "One, Two, Three" . Menzel's blackest comedy - deliberately shot in Russian, but unfortunately only released in synchronized form - was financially a flop, which gave rise to the rumor that the disappointed Menzel did not want to make any more films in the future.

The 1990s were a phase in which Jiri Menzel returned to the theater, until 2003 he was director of the Divadlo na Vinohradech theater at the Prague Drama Club. With the exception of a remarkable ten-minute contribution to the joint work Ten Minutes Older by a total of 15 renowned directors on the subject of time, more than a decade passed before his next film hit international cinemas. When asked about his long abstinence, Menzel replied to an interviewer: “Fine! Whenever I have an afternoon off, I make a film. . . " - and with his own irony expressed his dissatisfaction with certain developments in the current film business. Disputes over film rights and intrigues even prompted Jiri Menzel to provoke a scandal at the international film festival in Karlsbad in 1998, which earned him unexpected sympathy. We are talking about Jiri Menzel's sixth film adaptation of a novel by the then late Bohumil Hrabal.

Panned by Czech critics, the film was awarded the Fipresci Prize by the International Association of Critics at the Berlinale. “Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále” (I served the English king) exceeded all expectations and set a historic audience record in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The most expensive Czech film of all time describes Jan Díte's rise and fall from temporary waiter to hotelier to prisoner against the backdrop of the dramatic years during and shortly after World War II. Again, humor and subtle irony shape the cinematic language of Menzel's parable about the dangers of opportunism. Returning from the Academy Awards, 30-year-old Jiri Menzel stated in 1967: “Everything that represents us contains humor. It is not innate to us, it was forced upon us. Because you can't live in Czechoslovakia without a sense of humor. "

© Robert Kolinsky