Acclaimed Czech film director Jiří Menzel turns 80

Jiří Menzel, photo: Martin Špelda

Fans of Czechoslovak cinema, in particular the Czech New Wave, will most likely be familiar with many of the films of director Jiří Menzel. From the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains to Larks on a String and Capricious Summer, Menzel changed Czech film forever. This Friday, he celebrates his 80th birthday.

Jiří Menzel,  photo: Martin Špelda
Jiří Menzel is arguably one of the most important filmmakers to have emerged from the 1960s Czech New Wave, alongside directors such as Miloš Forman or the late Věra Chytilová.

In 1968, his adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains won the Best Foreign Language Oscar and other collaborations with Hrabal proved to be one of the major hallmarks of his career. Larks on a String, considered by some to be his masterwork was banned by the Communists because of its critical stance and became a trezorový film, meaning it was kept under lock and key and only released after the fall of communism in 1989.

It was screened in 1990 at the Montreal Film Festival, as were other banned masterpieces Funeral Ceremonies by Zdeněk Sirový and Karel Kachyňa’s The Ear. Thematically, Menzel’s earlier films were a mix of reality and innocence, such as Closely Watched Trains set in the Nazi Protectorate during WWII, but he became legendary for his lyrical signature and repeated collaboration with the great author Hrabal. Some however criticised him as only capturing some aspects of Hrabal’s work, seeing his approach as “too idealistic”.

'Closely Watched Trains'
In a past interview, the director discussed such charges with Czech Radio reporter Barbora Tacheci. He made clear, above all, that the writer gave him a free hand in most areas.

“Mr Hrabal, above all, was no fool. From the very start he said ‘the book is mine but the film is yours’. Of course, I didn’t use ideas which he disliked or disagreed with. But he didn’t get in my way. If I focussed on the lyrical aspect of his writing that is a reflection of my personality.”

In the same interview the director disagreed that his later work was less critical or “only” comedic and idyllic, saying nothing had happened which changed his approach.

“[There wasn’t a major change between my earlier films and later ones]. There was a ban of a few years, which I didn’t mind that much because I was lazy. But you can’t play an instrument using just one string.

'Capricious Summer',  photo: Jiří Janoušek / archive of Barrandov Studios
“Some people have a kind of bitterness and have a need, like Evald Schorm, to show that the world is not rosy. But there are great works, in literature for example, which do not… and I think that these last longer than works which want to rise up.”

In the 1980s, Mr Menzel made the nostalgic My Sweet Little Village and continued to make films into the new millennium. Most recently, the director was unable to pick up an award at the Berlinale, as he has been in hospital after contracting meningitis which required emergency surgery to save his life. He is currently still recovering.