US-based screenwriter and teacher Milena Jelinek dies at 84

Milena Jelinek, photo: Ian Willoughby

The Czech-born screenwriter Milena Jelinek, who spent most of her life in the United States, has died at the age of 84. Jelinek is perhaps best-known for the acclaimed 1990s film Forgotten Light and taught at Columbia University in New York for many years.

The drama Zapomenuté světlo (Forgotten Light), released in 1996, is regarded as one of the greatest Czech movies of the last three decades.

The film’s screenplay was written by Milena Jelinek, who was born in 1935 and moved to the US in the early 1960s.

She died on Thursday, following complications related to Covid-19, in New York, where she taught at Columbia University for several decades.

It was at her office there that she told me in 2008 about her studies at FAMU film school in Prague, where she was part of a true golden generation.

“For instance, Ivan Passer was in my year. In the year ahead of me was Miloš Forman, in the year below me was [Jiří] Menzel. [Jan] Němec was in the same year. I was in the screenwriting section and that was very small – there were only four people and some of them didn’t continue as writers.

"I was friends with Věra Chytilová, she was behind me although she was older. I was with them at that time – it was ’55, ’56, ’57.”

Among Jelinek’s teachers at FAMU were future world famous novelist Milan Kundera and František “Frank” Daniel; the latter also emigrated to America and helped her build a career there.

But it was the man who became Czechoslovakia’s most successful director who introduced the screenwriter to her husband, Frederick Jelinek.

“My husband was born in Czechoslovakia and emigrated with his mother in ’49. His father died in a concentration camp during the war and they moved to the US.

“In ’57 he planned a kind of unexpected visit to Prague – he was in Vienna and decided to ask for a visa because he wanted to see his friends, he emigrated at the age of 17 and he really missed his friends.

“So he came to Prague and one of his acquaintances was Miloš Forman, who he knew through the boy scouts. Miloš Forman didn’t know what to do with this American so he introduced me to him and I talked to him because he was a Czech – to me he was not an American but a Czech. So yes, we met through Miloš Forman.”

Milena Jelinek, photo: Ian Willoughby
When we spoke at Columbia 12 years ago, Milena Jelinek said becoming a lecturer in the United States had not been an easy matter.

“It was very hard. I didn’t know what I would do in this country and I didn’t imagine that I would continue with film. I thought I could always write, but it was not that easy, because to write in Czech I would have had to have a connection to life in Czechoslovakia.

“And I was not yet a finished writer, a mature writer like some of the people who some of the people who left, like Kundera later, or Arnošt Lustig, who brought the language and the culture with them.

“I was also too addicted to movies by that time. So it was kind of hard for me to reconnect. Instead of that I went back to linguistics – I studied linguistics and I was teaching Russian and doing all sorts of things, bringing up children. Then finally I decided I just have to make movies.”

Milena Jelinek also taught writing at several other film schools in the US and Europe, including FAMU. Her play Adina was performed at the Prague theatre Divadlo na Vinohradech in 2006.