Remembering Jiri Menzel

Jiri Menzel (cc Paul Katzenberger)

Jiri Menzel passed away just last month, at the age of 82. Menzel was one of the better known filmmakers of the 1960s Czech New Wave, together with Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová and Jan Němec. Not in the last place because his debut feature, Closely Watched Trains (1966), won him the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Although many of his films seem to be defined by a gentle comedic tone, there was often a biting satire lurking just beneath that gentleness. We take a closer look at his long career in cinema by highlighting a number of his works from four different decades:

Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Closely Watched Trains

Closely Watched Trains transports the viewer to a small train station in Nazi-occupied Bohemia during World War II. Ken Loach pronounced it one of his favourite films of all time, and I can see why. There are several parallels between the work of the two directors, the latter plainly influenced by Menzel: a straightforward and purposeful storyline, an eye and an ear for surprising comedic timing (even the music), and good actors seeming simple at first, but whose development reveals hidden strengths.

Young Miloš was born to be a train conductor, his father had been in the business of trains too. Though his grandfather was a hypnotist, who finally met his maker while trying to hypnotise the German tanks into stopping their invasion of Prague. “…Thinking he could stop the tanks by the power of suggestion. Arms outstretched, eyes ablaze, he sprayed the Germans with thoughts like bullets.” It’s from this startling recollection that Miloš sets off on his first day at work, a day on which he’ll meet all sorts of artful characters. His mother is immensely proud of him for becoming a train conductor, but he is more interested in getting laid, or “proving he’s a man”.

A perfect antidote to modern worries, it’s one of those films that takes you out of yourself, rather than further in.

Colette de Castro

Those Wonderful Movie Cranks (1979)

Those Wonderful Movie Cranks

In 1979, Jiri Menzel made a comedy film about a magician, Pasparte, who owns a circus caravan and travels from town to town to entertain the local inhabitants. Back in Prague, he takes care of Aloisie, the daughter of his dying colleague, who is sent away later to become the housewife of photographer Jakub (played by Jiri Menzel himself). Meanwhile, Pasparte wants to establish a permanent cinema in Prague, which should be the first movie theatre of Czechoslovakia, where only original Czech films would be projected.

On the one hand, Those Wonderful Movie Cranks gives a beautiful insight into the life of a magician in the Early Cinema period, including the worries about a decent income, the exhausting journeys and the sexual intimidation of female assistants. On the other hand, Menzel seems to criticise the fact that the importance of national film productions is underestimated and that only imported films can be seen in Czech cinemas. What’s wrong with films made by Czech filmmakers?

The sepia colours used in Those Wonderful Movie Cranks create a nostalgic atmosphere, which is reinforced by the antique decor and shots of the city of Prague in the late 1970s. Moreover, Menzel included some clips of the short films that are part of Pasparte’s circus program, such as Tragedy in the Bois de Boulogne, American Ladies of the Ring and Assault on Montmartre. Those Wonderful Movie Cranks was selected as the Czech entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 52nd edition of the Academy Awards, but was not chosen as a nominee.

Lisa van der Waal

Cutting It Short (1981)

Cutting It Short

Cutting It Short pokes its fun in a thoughtful manner. Its lessons on joy brought by challenging characters.

It’s serious business in a small Czech village in the 1920s. Or so the bloated board of the local brewery thinks. The ambitious Francin, who dreams of getting on top, certainly agrees when he goes on errands to complain to vendors that the beer should be colder. One day his brother Pepin arrives, who incessantly shouts out tall stories for the whole village to hear. Pepin’s frivolity goes noticed with disdain except by Francin’s alluring wife, Maryska, who finds in him a companion.

The film exposes the peculiarities of its characters by keeping distance. In ample spaces Cutting It Short pensively observes in a slapstick manner reminiscent of Jacques Tati (Playtime). Labour rules the village with an iron fist where the busy workers are unaware of their gaffes the relief of pork meat and beer takes on a grotesque form. Francin equates snugness with this tightly regulated world and hopes to fit Maryska in.

In comes Jaromír Hanzlík as Pepin unrelenting in his wide-eyed clamour to Francin’s despair. The supposed lessons on joy are challenged by Pepin’s alienating quirks. He makes for a grating force of liberation for Maryska who can finally indulge in play instead of labouring as the rest.

Up on the chimney the two relish the views while pretend playing soldiers, on the not literally meant suggestion of Francin. The fireman who comes to urge them down descends with a different route, his falling heard in the distance before he returns to the square covered in ash. It goes to show how joy never leaves the self-contained village of Cutting It Short, it only takes some imposing buffoons to see.

Sjoerd van Wijk

I Served the King of England (2006)

I Served the King of England

I remember Jiri Menzel’s penultimate film being quite the event upon its release 15 years ago. Or at least that impression was created by the critics calling it a comeback, and winning four Czech Lion Awards (for Best Film, Director, Actor & Cinematography), out of ten nominations. It was Menzel’s return to the silver screen after an absence of thirteen years, after a previous flop having been his only film since the fall of communism in Europe. It’s his sixth adaptation of the literary works of Bohumil Hrabal (the aforementioned Closely Watched Trains and Cutting It Short are also Hrabal novels), which is at least in part why it feels like a cap to Menzel’s career. There’s some silent comedy, some mild satire and a man completely ignoring his historical and political circumstances in favour of love and lust.

Jan looks back on his life, after being released from prison in the 1960s, while rebuilding an old German bar near the Czech-German border. He moved his way up in the world of service, trying to get rich and sleep with lots of women. He marries a Nazi for love, just after Germany invades, and finally becomes a millionaire through the war, only to lose everything after the war, getting sent to prison for being a millionaire in the newly communist Czechoslovakia.  One can’t escape one’s surroundings and situation after all, whether that’s poverty or politics. Nor can one ignore the state with just a state of mind.

Kaj van Zoelen

This List article was published in October 2020