The Wit and Grace of Jiri Menzel

If asked to name one Czech film, an American film buff will mostly likely mention Jiri Menzel’s Oscar winning “Closely Watched Trains” (1966). But Menzel has directed 15 feature films, several of which are just as wonderful, if not better. The Menzel film retrospective, which began in New York City last October, is continuing its tour across the country and represents a rare and fantastic opportunity to see some of his other work, including: “Capricious Summer” (Rozmarneleto, 1967); “Larks on a String” (Skrivanci na niti, 1969); “Cutting it Short”(Postriziny, 1980); “Festival of Snowdrops” (Slavnosti snezenek, 1983); “My Sweet Little Village” (Vesnicko ma strediskova, 1985); and “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin” (Zivot a neobycejna dobrodruzstvi vojaka Ivana Conkina, 1993). Menzel was part of the Czech New Wave, a group of directors including Milos Forman, Jan Nemec (both in the West), Vera Chytilova and Jaromil Jires, who succeeded in producing experimental and original films despite the official pro-Soviet, anti-West bias of the national studios that funded them. Menzel’s style is ironic and sublime, much like the writing of Bohumil Hrabal–ironic in “Larks on a String” when Socialist slogans (Work Brings Honor) are juxtaposed with dozing workers; sublime in “Cutting it Short” when the brewery master’s wife (played by Magda Vasaryova) slips into her bath, or when she sits atop the brewery chimney enjoying the view of the town below.

Menzel and Hrabal collaborated on four screenplays: “Larks on a String,””Festival of Snowdrops,” “Cutting it Short,” and “Closely Watched Trains.” These films unfold at a leisurely pace, pausing to note details without losing plot momentum. Moments of pastoral tranquility are interrupted by antic outbursts, as the wild boar in “Festival of Snowdrops” careens through the village, and, through a rather improbable twist of luck, runs into an elementary classroom. A model of poise, the pretty young schoolteacher (Jitka Zelenohorska) uses the opportunity to lecture on the anatomy of the pig. Watching a number of Menzel’s films in succession allows us to appreciate the same actors as they appear in a variety of roles. Rudolf Hrusinsky is a stuffy Communist bureaucrat in “Larks on a String,” and the owner of a swimming hole in “Capricious Summer;” Nada Urbankova is “Victoria Freie” in “Closely Watched Trains” and a prisoner in “Larks on a String;” Vaclav Neckar is the shy hero of “Closely Watched Trains” and the (somewhat bolder) young man in “Larks on a String” who weds the female prisoner–Jitka Zelenohorska. The recycling of actors creates the impression that we are continually bumping into old friends by accident.

Menzel himself also appears in a few films: look for the magician in “Capricious Summer,” or the understanding doctor in “Closely Watched Trains.” Hrusinsky, who is one of Menzel’s most expressive and talented actors, is especially poignant in “Capricious Summer,” in the role of an older, enamored husband who is tempted to adultery but cannot quite bring himself to commit the act. He spends hours in the changing room outside his pond with an enchantingly beautiful young woman, stroking her foot without daring anything further. Still, “Closely Watched Trains” remains one of Menzel’s best films. The most famous scene, in which the train dispatcher (Josef Somr) chases the young female clerk (Jitka Zelenohorska) around the office until finally capturing his willing victim and branding her backside with railroad stamps, is worth the price of admission alone. Part of Menzel’s talent is his ability to conjure erotic power out of the simplest, most mundane elements. In fact, “branding” is not an adequate word to describe how the conductor, with mischievousness deliberation, blows gently on the stamps with his mouth to warm them before pressing them on her downy white thigh. The frustrated authorities are unable to invent a suitable charge for this offense, and rather weakly decide upon “Defamation of the German language,” in a pathetic attempt to reestablish order and propriety over the wayward Czechs. When Menzel came to one of the screenings, the audience asked him if the scene was based upon a real event. Apparently yes, although when the film was released railroad workers published impassioned denials in the newspaper, Rude Pravo. Menzel’s films do not explicitly venture into politics pre-89 with the exception of “Larks on a String,” which could not be released until 1990 due to its overt satire of Communist Czechoslovakia. A motley bunch, ranging from a philosophy professor who was dismissed from the university for teaching “bourgeois decadent western literature” to a saxophone player punished for playing a “bourgeois instrument,” form a work brigade with distinctly contemplative, metaphysical tendencies. As the film opens, the director of a Communist propaganda film is hastily posing them in front of a flimsy set in the middle of a junkyard decorated with banners bearing Socialist slogans. It isn’t hard to see why the film was immediately banned.

“The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” Menzel’s latest film, is his most satirical work. Based on a novel by Vladimir Voinovich, the film is about an idiotic but likable soldier (Gennadi Nazarov), much like Hasek’s Good Soldier Shvejk, who is assigned to guard an airplane that had to make an emergency landing. In a stroke of convenient good fortune, the defective plane lands in the yard of a lovely, blond Russian woman Njura (Zoya Buryak) who looks as though she stepped out of a Socialist Realist poster in praise of agriculture. Chonkin soon strays into her bed and takes up domestic chores while she delivers the town mail. A satire of Soviet culture (set at the outbreak of WWII), the film has several hilarious scenes that use a combination of slapstick and word play. When the authorities who have been sent to get Chonkin disappear, officials back at headquarters assume he has taken them hostage. A high-ranking army official asks the regional office if Chonkin has a well-equipped “gang” (in Russian: “banda”). Pausing to trace the outlines of Njura’s curvaceous form, the town official has misheard this as “gal” (“baba”) and replies affirmatively. In another memorable scene, a proud inventor-farmer explains his revolutionary theory–“the dialectics of shit.” Farmers use manure to fertilize plants, which are in turn eaten by animals, and in turn eaten by humans, who produce more shit, which is in turn used to fertilize plants…why not skip the intermediary steps and eat shit instead? Understandably, he has few converts. But you will be converted by the wit and grace of Menzel’s films, which I highly recommend.