“His work had a sincerity, a subtlety”: Great Czech director Jiří Menzel dies at 82

Jiří Menzel, foto: Jan Bartoněk, archiv ČRo

Jiří Menzel, one of the greatest Czech film directors, died at the weekend at the age of 82. Menzel won an Academy Award with his very first feature, Closely Observed Trains, and also helmed a number of other movies that are held in very deep affection by many Czechs.

Jiří Menzel’s bittersweet feature debut Closely Observed Trains was one of the highlights of the Czechoslovak New Wave, the golden age of cinema in this part of the world.

Set during the Nazi occupation, the movie was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal – and earned Menzel an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967, when he was only 29.

'Closely Observed Trains', photo: Czech Television

Menzel had this to say on his return from the US clutching the prize for Closely Observed Trains, only the second Oscar bestowed on a Czechoslovak film.

“It’s a film shot for Czechs, for Czech viewers. But I’m glad they liked the film. And I’d be very happy if it brought them closer to Mr. Hrabal. He deserves to be a world-renowned author.”

The pair’s collaboration was extremely fruitful, with Menzel adapting a number of works by Hrabal, including 1969’s Larks on a String, which was never shown under communism, Cutting it Short and – decades later – I Served the King of England.

Menzel was also a successful theatre director and took on many acting roles. But he said his heart had always been set on movie making.

'Larks on a String', photo: Filmové studio Barrandov / Josef Janoušek

“I wasn’t brave enough to think I could appear on stage. But I did want to direct. Directing is a really great job. The actors do it for you and you get the fame. Your colleagues make a film for you and then you travel around the festivals.”

Prague-based journalist Will Tizard wrote an obituary of Menzel for Variety.

“If you look at his work in the context of the other great directors of the Czech New Wave, it stands apart because there was a sincerity, there was a subtlety.

“The fact that he never left then Czechoslovakia was interesting, because he had the opportunity to but he stayed behind.

“He had such loyalty to Hrabal and he had such humility – he gave all the credit for Closely Watched Trains to Hrabal.

'My Sweet Little Village', photo: Czech Television

“When I asked him about the things that he brought to it as a director he gave all the credit to his DP, Jaroslav Šofr.

“He had great disinterest in pretense.

“I loved what he said to a Guardian journalist: ‘Comedy should be about serious things, because when you speak seriously about serious things you sound ridiculous.’”

Menzel found some refuge in theatre during normalisation. However, even after Larks on a String was placed in the Communists’ vault, he did continue making movies, including such hugely popular titles as Seclusion Near a Forest and My Sweet Little Village.

Will Tizard discussed that period of his career with the director.

“He had some interesting perspectives on that. He would describe it as a situation where you never really knew.

“There was officially no censorship; your film would just never come out, it would be shelved, they would find some reason to re-write it or not distribute it.

“He was allowed to continue making films. He was never officially banned – the film just never appeared.

“So I guess his later films were less offensive to the authorities and they did much better. Until, of course, Larks on a String finally came out in 1990 and won the Golden Bear in Berlin.”