1990 winner (from 1969) Larks on a String returns to Berlin

'Larks on a String'

Jiří Menzel’s classic film Larks on a String, about victims of communism forced to work in a huge scrapyard, was completed in 1969. However it was then put on a blacklist by the regime, where it remained until 1990 – when it won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This week the movie is going back to Berlin, in a newly restored version. I discussed it with Michal Bregant, head of the National Film Archive.

“The film basically represents the transition of the Czechoslovak film industry from 1968, from the Prague Spring, to the period of normalisation.

“It was decided to be shot in 1968, and then it took some time.

Photo: National Film Archive

“The film itself was finished in the fall of 1969, which means after the new neo-Stalinist government, which was established in April of ’69.

“So basically Larks on a String suffered from all of the turbulence and the changes on the political situation in Czechoslovakia at that time.

“And the main reason for putting the film on the blacklist, apparently, was that it shows the individual stories of the victims of the 1950s regime in Czechoslovakia.

“Those were political prisoners who were basically completely innocent people who were taken to the court for their need for freedom.

“Because those people were jailed though they didn’t commit any crime.

“They just wanted to have free lives, and that was bad enough to take them to the political courts.”

It was one of several films by Jiří Menzel that was based on Bohumil Hrabal’s stories. Could we possibly compare it to the other films? How does it compare?

'Larks on a String' | Photo: National Film Archive

“That’s very individual, but at least in my eyes I think that Larks on a String is very, very close to the ethos of Hrabal’s writing.

“I think that not only the stories of the individual characters but the film as such – with its ironic distancing and special sense for very dark humour – is very close to Hrabal.

“I think Menzel in this case really managed to transform Hrabal’s style into a cinematic style.”

The freshly restored version of Larks on a String is being screened at the Berlinale. Of course there’s a close connection between this film and that festival. For people who don’t know it, could you tell us what that link is?

“The link is very typical of what we were experiencing in 1989 and 1990.

“There was a whole legend about how the film had been damaged and destroyed by the authorities during the ‘70s and the ‘80s.

'Larks on a String' | Photo: National Film Archive

“But that was not true, fortunately, so it was relatively easy to repair the film and basically do the last post-production – and also to return a deleted scene from the film – and apply for the competition in Berlin in 1990.

“At the beginning of February in 1990 the film was premiered in Berlin, despite already being 21 years old.

“So that was also some sort of political gesture, that the Berlinale invited such a film – and also awarded such a film – in the main competition.”

There must have been a lot of films that were, as they say, in the vaults in early 1990. Do you know why this one was selected for this opportunity?

“That was one of the films that were not fully released in 1969, so the film was fresh, in that sense.

“And apparently it was relatively easy to finalise the film and prepare it in a timely manner for the Berlinale.”

Alongside the restored Larks on a String, a number of other Czech productions will also be taking part in the 72nd edition of the Berlin International Film Festival, which gets underway on Thursday.

Somewhere Over the Chemtrails by Adam Koloman Rybanský will be screened in the Panorama section, while Lucie Sunková’s animated Suzie in the Garden will feature in the Kplus competition.

The four-part TV miniseries Suspicion, directed by Michal Blaško from a script by Štěpán Hulík, will get its first screening in the Berlinale Series section.

The Berlinale Co-Production Market will include Agnieszka Holland’s forthcoming Czech-based project Kafka, as well as The Spring, a Slovak-Czech venture by Ivan Ostrochovský.

The Attachment Theory, set to be helmed by Olmo Omerzu, is the first Czech TV series to be selected for the Berlinale Co-Pro Series programme.