Jirí Menzel was an important part of the Czechoslovak New Wave – a film movement during the 1960’s when a handful of its directors made remarkable observations on society and culture through compelling cinema, and with an openness rarely noticed in the Eastern Bloc. Often drawn from literature, the films were funded by the government and therefore need to have a formal narrative and message, but they were also liberal in the use of satire and wit, influenced to some degree by Italian neorealism. Their artistic freedom and finesse made them popular fare in international film festivals and were often also nominated for Academy Awards, with Menzel bagging the prize himself for best foreign feature through his 1966 “Closely Watched Trains”.
I’ll start his filmography with a film that he made in 1968 and finished the following year, “Skrivánci na niti” [Eng. Title: Larks on a String], because it was also the year of the Prague Spring, when Czechoslovakia briefly experimented in socialism “with a human face” before being invaded and brutally crushed by Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Larks on a String touches a raw nerve in its depiction of an incompetent and morally corrupt political system that hampered prosperity and well-being. Promptly banned upon completion, Menzel was also prevented from making films for five years, and his passport was confiscated so that he couldn’t even make films abroad. The film was not released until the fall of communism twenty years later.
Based on a collection of short stories by Bohumil Hrabal – a frequent Menzel collaborator, the film makes a spirited critique of a system using a labour camp set in a scrapyard as metaphor, by highlighting the futility of trying to refashion a new people out of the bourgeois – that they will never become better than what they already were, and that it will only end up creating another new albeit embarrassingly incompetent bunch of bourgeois from the working classes.
Set in the early fifties, we see a ‘cultural revolution’ in action, where a group of disparate but ‘bourgeois’ dissidents are serving time in a labour camp before they could be re-integrated into society – they range from a philosopher, public prosecutor, saxophonist, and a cook, to even a barber. On the other side of the camp are the female inmates – bourgeois too, separated by a wooden fence. Vivacious and flirty, the women make the men’s lives bearable through exchange of glances from a distance, and the occasional brushing of hands during errands, while the guards aren’t watching. The cook Pavel (Václav Neckár) and Jitka (Jitka Zelenohorská) strike up a beautiful romance in the process, and even get officially married upon Pavel’s release, albeit through a surrogate bride – because Jitka has a few more months to serve. But due to turn of events, they’ll have to wait for a while before their marriage is consummated…
What the film represents is not only the exuberant nature of the Czech people and their desire for individual freedoms, but also a system that hampers them from serving the state productively, and its hypocrisy in creating new elites while eliminating the earlier ones. The film’s whimsical tone prevents us from dismissing the system and the guards altogether, who are shown as merely doing what they’re expected to do while silently reflecting on the farcical nature of their duties. There may be nothing insidious in the film’s tone, but the message is nevertheless incendiary, striking at the very heart of the system. Despite that, the film is a humanist, affectionate, and life-affirming ode to its people, and more importantly – a snapshot of the expectations and aspirations of the Prague Spring, which makes it Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Jitka Zelenohorská and others
The excuse for me writing about this film is a brief scene where male inmates gather for their ‘cinema’ of the evening – peeping through the fence as women change into their night robes. Jitka knows that they’re being watched, and waves towards them after the ‘show’ finishes. There is also a hilarious scene involving a functionary and a policeman volunteering to improve local hygiene – they seem to be more keen in helping wash pretty young girls than the elderly they’re supposed to be taking care of.