Jiří Menzel and Václav Neckář on the set of Closely Watched Trains (1966)


A. S. Hamrah, Jonathan Owen, and Irena Kovarova

A conversation on and around Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String (1969).

Larks on a String plays from January 27 as part of Jiří Menzel x2.

IRENA KOVAROVA: Good evening. We made this program to pay tribute to the loose group of filmmakers from the Czechoslovak New Wave who have unfortunately passed away. And the recent passin­g of Jiří Menzel in September 2020 marks the true end [for the Czechs]. I would like to start our conversation by talking about Menzel, and of course Larks on a String. The Czech title is Skřivánci na niti. It was shot in 1969. The film was banned even before its release, and it was not released until the Berlin Film Festival in 1990, the year after Czechoslovakia freed itself of the Communist regime.

This film very clearly addresses the regime, and one of the reasons it was banned was because it really dared to depict one of the hardest periods of Czechoslovak history; the Stalinist era, a time of political repressions, political trials, political murders, and with many people being sent to prison. But of course—and this is very Menzel—it is depicted with a lot of humor.

A.S. HAMRAH: This is a really excellent movie. The first thing you notice is that it takes place in an industrial landscape that is really a scrapyard. The opening image is like the cover of the Pink Floyd album Animals without the pig in it. It looks very similar to that. The film came out before the record but you think of it right away. It was made in 1969, and it is sit in–is it 1948, 1949? They don’t really say.

IK: I would guess it is the early ’50s.

ASH: Okay. Although it takes place in the early ’50s it does seem like a film from the late ’60s; it is very much engaged with the politics of that period. It was interesting to me how Menzel makes this junkyard where steel is broken down and smelted quite beautiful. Even though everything is rust-colored, black and brown, it is not ugly like it would be in an apocalyptic movie. It is made beautiful by the film, and by what happens.

As product of its time, though, it seems in some ways to be a reaction to what happened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, when the festival was shut down by Jean-Luc Godard and other filmmakers during the uprisings in France in ’68. Because one of the first things that happens in Larks on a String is that a film crew comes to the junkyard—which is essentially a forced labor camp—to make a documentary about it. It doesn’t seem like a documentary that would be made in the early ’50s, it seems more like one of Godard’s post-Weekend (1967) films. And almost like that is being mocked by Menzel. It is set up to have these very bright colors, red and yellow, and shallow depth of field. The actors are told what to say by the filmmaker, even though they are supposed to represent the workers. They’re not free workers under socialism, but, for the most part, people in a labor camp against their will.

That opening was interesting to me—especially as Menzel had a film that was meant to be shown in 1968 at Cannes, Capricious Summer, but then the festival was closed. Menzel’s view of socialism, from living behind the Iron Curtain, is so different than the view in France at the time. This film is a parody of it, that transcends any kind of agitprop. That was the first thing that struck me, at the beginning. Then the film crew are chased off by the character played by Rudolf Hrušínský.

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Larks on a String (1969)

It’s a very funny, beautiful movie, it’s fantastic, but it is not unrealistic. In other words, the optimism does not overwhelm, it is not a pollyannaish film about communism.

IK: It’s interesting that you see that as a reaction to the filmmakers of the French New Wave. I would add that the bright colors are also supposed to symbolize the bright future of communism, which is going to be lively and where we will all be happy; Menzel definitely inserts that as one of the tropes of the time.

ASH: But presumably the documentary film crew is shooting in black and white. And only we see the colors.

IK: [Laughs] That is definitely true.

JONATHAN OWEN: To connect it to Godard—I had not thought of that but that completely makes sense. There was an interesting relationship between the French New Wave, and particularly Godard, and the Czechoslovak New Wave. On one hand, Godard was an influence on people like Juraj Jakubisko, for instance; to some extent on Věra Chytilová, too. As Godard got more into Maoist politics, this hostility developed on both sides. Godard made Pravda (1970) just after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and used that to attack the more humanist formulation of socialism under the [First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party] Dubček program. Conversely, there was hostility from the Czech and Slovak filmmakers because they thought Godard was idealizing something that they were living through, and that he was talking from a very shallow perspective. There’s an interview with Ivan Passer where he says Godard was just talking in advertising slogans. It’s interesting, then, that in this film you get that phrase “Hands off Korea!” which was the kind of political phrase you would still have heard at the time.

ASH: And slogans are actually mocked in the film. One of the things the state functionary keeps saying is to love your neighbor, that that’s the policy of the state. And that really comes back at the end of the film.

IK: I think we should point out to people who haven’t yet seen the film to try look at what is happening behind the actors, behind the action. There is a lot going on, whether that’s the slogans or the imagery that is plastered all over the scrapyard. If you see the film more than once you have the chance to really pay attention to these sorts of details—for example, that whatever the people are handling in the junkyard is also the detritus, the discarded stuff the regime is throwing out. So the beds with the angels on them are taken from some kind of monastery hospital that was run by nuns, which were abolished; and the other pieces of junk the men are handling are typewriters! It’s a commentary that is not addressed explicitly in the film, but they’re important details in the story.

I should mention the reason Menzel was able to make a film about such a harsh period of communism was because from the early ’60s all the way through to the mid-’60s it was a time of a lightening of the clamp of the communist regime, when more daring books were being published, and newspapers were becoming more free. Then with the Dubček era [January 1968 to April 1969], he was able to open up the country and there was a refreshed cultural scene. Then at the tail end of the Czechoslovak New Wave movement, which was sort of forcefully ended with the invasion of Soviet troops and the Warsaw Pact armies in August ’68, there was a period where whatever was in production was allowed to be produced—the clampdown was only gradual. Menzel still had this film in production, which was his third collaboration with Bohumil Hrabal, a very important Czech writer, whose books authentically describe the life of ordinary people through the postwar period, and who was sort of the go-to author for the Czechoslovak New Wave. The collection of stories that inspired Larks, which is called An Advertisement for the House I Don’t Want to Live in Anymore, was actually ready for publication in 1958—which is surprising because ’58, that is right around the corner from when these horrors were happening—but then the publishers scrapped it, and the book didn’t come out until ’63.

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Larks on a String (1969)

JO: I think that context is so important in understanding the sensibility of this film. One of the things Menzel has been criticized for was for not being harsh enough in his own criticism of this period, for offering a sanitized, sweetened view of the labor camps. For me, in a weird way, though, the film is a product of that optimism of the Prague Spring. The tone of the film is conciliatory considering the kind of things it is describing. There is a certain softness, a certain delicacy, to the way his criticism is phrased. He was conceiving the film while the Prague Spring was going on—and these terrible crimes were seen as firmly in the past. I think the phrase he used was that these were like “the mistakes of childhood.” But they were 20 years ago, now they could look back on that period with a gentle, kind of mocking perspective. Of course, then the Soviet invasion happens. Though even as that was unfolding, Menzel said he didn’t think it would bring about the restoration of such hardline policies, and he was still quite optimistic even in its aftermath. He could have made a much more hard-hitting film. But Menzel is not the filmmaker to go to if you want a harsh exposé of brutal realities. There is awareness but there is always a romantic cast to everything.

ASH: Nonetheless, it has a very harsh ending that is shocking, especially having seen his other films. Larks presents state interference into people’s lives in a very ironic way. I think it should be said for people who haven’t seen the film that it takes place in two different camps that are next to each other. One is where bourgeois men are being re-educated by working in scrap metal; the other is for women who are defectors, who wanted to leave the country. In the film we see two marriages taking place that are very different. One is the guard of the women’s camp. In his personal life, his marriage is going poorly even though it is sanctioned by the state fully. He is marrying a Roma woman, who is presented as somewhat uncivilized by the film. And the marriage between people who meet in the camps is just totally screwed, even though they pretend they’re trying to help them. So although the film is very loving, by the end things haven’t really worked out in the way that Menzel sets them up to.

It’s also worth pointing out that Closely Watched Trains, a film that he made in 1966, was shown in the US and won an Academy Award. I can see how that kind of success could be a problem for people in Czechoslovakia. Or even for Maoists like Godard. Menzel was very successful in a way that is forgotten now.

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Larks on a String (1969)

IK: And he was successful at a very young age, he was only 26 when he got the Oscar, which I think is also hugely formative. Even though his films are very unique—they are biting and interesting, especially the early ones—he tended to make mainstream films.

Larks on a String is really important in his body of work because it marks this big break. After Larks was banned, he was unable to work for years. And that had a huge influence on him because he was a young man, he didn’t want to defect like some of his colleagues, like Miloš Forman or Ivan Passer—Menzel was not a rebel. He was firmly grounded in the country and he wanted to stay and make movies. So he had to compromise himself with the regime. He made a film that was a total agitprop political pamphlet called Who Looks for Gold? (1974). [Laughs] There couldn’t be a better title for such a film! It's about this group of workers who were building a dam, it’s almost a joke, replaying a film from the ’50s, bringing back the style of the so-called socialist realism. This allowed him to make movies again. Then after that, he made films that were more like nostalgic comedies. They were forgiving and complacent, even if they still felt fresh. But that made him incredibly popular—not only at home but also abroad; he was nominated for an Oscar again in the ’80s for My Sweet Little Village (1985).

Menzel tends to look at the world from a brighter side. But as a hero of mine, Peter Hames, wrote in his book The Czechoslovak New Wave, both Closely Watched Trains and Larks, even though they are comedies, both films are about facing the un-faceable. They make comedy out of people’s personal lives while very harsh historical events are happening in the background. He says they are ironic in the original Greek sense of the word, meaning clever underdog, that they are showing these people who are prevailing. He says that “ideology is something to be endured, heroism is accidental, and ordinary people will survive.” I think that sums up both films, and Menzel pretty well.

ASH: I don’t find the film to be optimistic at all, because of the ending, which I don’t want to give away, and the way the marriages are portrayed. I think Menzel’s films are deeply humanistic but also, as Hames says, deeply ironic. This view that Czechoslovak film historians have [of Menzel] seems dated to me now. They are very dark films. There’s a certain resignation in them, but I don’t see them as any more or less optimistic than other films from the Czechoslovak New Wave. They no longer stand out in that way. That seems to me like a generational interpretation that is starting to fade… But they are very humanist films in a traditional sense. Larks is a Jean Renoir film, in a way. It’s very nice to the characters, it’s very loving and forgiving of them—up until the end, when things kind of change.

IK: There’s a lot of romance in, say, the longing for human touch. All that depiction is absolutely gorgeous.

ASH: Yes, there’s a long, long scene about that in the junkyard, in which the women’s hands are coated in rust, and yet they seek this touch with the men. But again, the ending is just so bleak! It’s a very funny, beautiful movie, it’s fantastic, but it is not unrealistic. In other words, the optimism does not overwhelm, it is not a pollyannaish film about communism.

If you were looking for a representative of New Wave filmmaking, Menzel is as good as anybody.

JO: I think that’s part of the brilliance, too, of Menzel—that there is that sort of offhandedness that nevertheless resonates with you. For example, there are various appearances by the secret police, it’s almost easy to miss that on a first viewing, it’s just woven into the image, in a longer shot—but nonetheless he’s able to register those moments, those abuses. It makes me think, too, that for a lot of the viewing time you are not really seeing any villains, but when you look at the character played by Hrušínský, what the film reveals about him, what you find out about him, is really unpleasant.

IK: [Laughs] Hrušínský had a very special talent for those kinds of characters.

ASH: There is a matter of fact quality about the filmmaking that is so different to how things are done now, or how it would be done in a Hollywood melodrama or a European art film, that the film might seem like it is trying to make things appear less bad than they were. When the secret police show up at one point in the film, there is no foreboding sense of them like there would be in a film noir. There’s no shadowy figures. These people simply show up in a car in the middle of the day and they do something secret police do. It’s much more like how it would feel like in real life.

IK: One thing that, in my view, really binds the filmmakers from the Czechoslovak New Wave—however varied the genres that they’re working in, how different the films are from each other—is this attempt to be authentic to the life that is lived in the country. That is something that is made explicit, and in interviews with the filmmakers, too, that they set out to put their lives on screen, or the language, or the way the stories are, as Scott said, as if this were something happening in real life. That’s an attribute even Menzel had, who is a very lyrical filmmaker. Putting the life on the screen is a strong theme in all of those films.

JO: Before we wrap up, I just also wanted to plug this amazing documentary that’s just come out now on Blu-Ray called CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel (2018)—it’s a seven-hour documentary about Menzel which is also a comprehensive and very rich portrait of the Czechoslovak New Wave. The filmmaker interviews basically everyone who was involved. And if we were thinking about how Menzel represents the New Wave, he does really typify the movement in that he combines the two different strands, for me, that are important: on the one hand, that interest in everyday life, in simple pleasures—this is something you see in Forman, and that very verité side of the New Wave—and on the other, this interest in fantasy, the surreal and poetic. I think Menzel reconciles both of those qualities. If you were looking for a representative of New Wave filmmaking, Menzel is as good as anybody, really.

This conversation was organized by the Czech Center New York in November 2020, and has been republished with their kind permission. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Writer and film critic A. S. Hamrah is the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018 (n+1 Books).

Jonathan Owen is a film scholar and writer specializing in Czech and other European cinemas. He has contributed to numerous books, journals, and home video releases.

Irena Kovarova is an independent film programmer, film exhibitions producer and occasional writer. The focus of her work is European and independent cinema.

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Larks on a String (1969)