Work and the New Wave: On My Capricious Summer with Jiří Menzel
By Emily TamkinSeptember 28, 2023
I am waiting on edits, waiting on invoices, waiting on responses to pitches, waiting on replies to follow-ups. All I want at that moment is to feel like a productive freelance journalist, and my ability to do and be that is out of my hands. In the grand scheme of problems, this does not even register. But on July 5, it feels like it does.
Some friends tell me to scream into a pillow or go for a run or take a nap. I decide to do something along those lines but different: I commit myself to watching every feature film ever made by the late Czech director Jiří Menzel, who was born in Prague in 1938 and died in that same city three years ago this September.
I have only ever seen one of his movies: Larks on a String, which was shot in 1969 but went unreleased for political reasons until 1990, and which I watched in a Slavic cultures class in college and vaguely remember enjoying.
As film fate would have it, I have a one-month subscription to the website Eastern European Movies, and it looks like that site has over half of his movies (not counting short films or those made for television). That means I can probably track down every feature film he directed, I tell myself.
There are, by my count, 19 feature films, including Pearls of the Deep (1966), a Czech New Wave manifesto, which is a series of short films, each bringing to life a short story by writer Bohumil Hrabal, the first of which Menzel directed; and Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (2002), also a collection of short films. That seems like an impressive but manageable number. Any time I feel professionally frustrated or helpless, I tell myself, I will watch one of his movies.
The first Menzel movie I tackle is Closely Watched Trains, which came out in 1966. His fellow Czech film director Ivan Passer called Closely Watched Trains a nearly perfect movie.
Menzel won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Closely Watched Trains. The YouTube clip of this victory is surreal. Danny Kaye reads the winning film. The ceremony announcer wrongly says that Serbian director Aleksandar Petrović is coming to accept the award. Menzel says simply, “I am very happy that Americans like Czech film.” Danny Kaye helps guide him offstage.
Closely Watched Trains is, like several of Menzel’s movies, based on a Hrabal story, and the script is a collaboration between the two men. Hrabal has said that working on the movie with Menzel was “like two mirrors flashing at each other with the reflections of our poetic vision.”
This black-and-white movie is about a train station and its workers in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. More than that, it is about a young man named Miloš (Václav Neckář) who is obsessed with losing his virginity. The whole thing takes place in and around, or at least not far from, the station, giving the viewer the impression that she, too, lives in this little world.
Watching the film, I find it hard to believe Menzel wasn’t even 30 when he made it, and not only because of how well-made it is, how the camera lingers a little too long at just the right times. The movie also has an incredible sympathy for Miloš, the kind that one sometimes finds people are only capable of showing to the young when they themselves are older. This becomes doubly surprising to me after reading, in Josef Skvorecky’s 1971 memoir All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema, that Menzel in real life was like the young protagonist.
The movie is—it must be said—very horny. Everyone in this movie is constantly thinking about, and trying to have, sex. But it’s also very funny and sweet and, in the end, sad. It is also, I think, about how the small things seem big, and how they’re inextricably interwoven with the big things too.
“Life is like that,” I excitedly tell my husband after watching it. Look at me, for example, upset about work, even with everything going on in the country and the world. He nods, pretending to agree that, yes, our lives have something in common with Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains.
But the thing is, as I proceed through the years of Menzel’s movies, there is a moment like that for me while watching every one of them. His tragicomic send-ups are set, for the most part, in rural Czechoslovakia. They are very much rooted in their time and place. One might think that the historical and geographic specificity would make the movies feel more removed from me, from my life, but the opposite happens. There, in the fictionalized Czech countryside of the 1960s, I recognize people I know, or situations I’ve seen, or feelings I’ve had. Maybe this is because cultural specificity can allow for recognition of universality and shared humanity. Or maybe it’s just because I like Menzel’s sense of humor. In any case, the differences between the films’ settings and mine only serve to make me feel the commonalities more acutely.
There is 1968’s richly colored Capricious Summer, based on a novel by Vladislav Vančura, in which a circus performer (played by a tightrope-walking Menzel) and his lovely assistant (Jana Preissová) come to a village, throwing the romantic lives of three friends into competitive chaos. Watching it feels not unlike sitting out by a lake on a hot day, observing the people around you, each of you convinced that you’re the singular protagonist of the story.
The movie starts with one of the characters (Rudolf Hrušínský) bemoaning what an unpleasant summer it is. It ends the same way. So much has happened, but on the surface, nothing has changed. “That is what these summers are like,” I think. There is the absurd injustice and incompetence of the powerful in Crime in the Nightclub (a.k.a. Crime in a Music Hall), from that same year. The authority figures in this movie could have strolled out into the streets of Prague—or, for that matter, Downtown Washington, DC, a bus ride away from my own neighborhood of Petworth—all these years later and fit in quite nicely.
The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. That autumn, Menzel refused to serve on a film festival jury in Locarno, Switzerland, “because Soviet, East German and Hungarian entries were to be considered for the grand prize” mere months after Warsaw Pact troops had invaded his country. The Prague Spring was frozen over and Menzel’s career was “derailed” (his word) until 1974.
“I was the first Czech film-maker prevented from working and was only able to return to film-making in 1974,” his Guardian obituary quotes him as having said. “It was only after some years and several more films that I felt I had returned to a position of prestige.”
“Could you imagine?” I ask my husband while out walking the dog. I am frustrated as a freelance journalist waiting for emails; Menzel was banned from making his chosen type of art and still stayed busy creating, not knowing whether things would ever turn around again. I feel a pang of empathy and shame in my own self-pity just thinking about it.
My husband looks at the sidewalk. “Someone lost their hat!” he exclaims. Indeed, there in front of us, a straw visor was lying on the ground.
The Czech or Czechoslovak New Wave, the 1960s movement notable for its humor, surrealism, and subversiveness, ended with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. “Censorship is like weather,” Menzel once said. “Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s warm. You just have to know how to dress.”
Menzel was able to work again because he made a compromise. He recanted his political beliefs and made Who Looks for Gold? (1974), a socialist-realist movie about workers building a dam. There were some who wrote him off for this. They would never make such a statement or such a film. Menzel saw it differently. “You can’t stop making movies just because the communists want it,” he once said. So you must figure out how to continue to make them.
Even this—the dilemma of whether it was more important to make art, knowing you knew your own truth, or to stand openly in that truth—brings me back to our moment.
In the United States today, journalists are debating what constitutes acceptable professional speech in the face of a rising Far Right. Screenwriters and actors are on strike, forgoing payment in order to demand fair treatment from Hollywood’s CEOs. And what repercussions will face those students and artists who protested the Hungarian government’s takeover of the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest? What choices will they be asked to make down the line? Just this summer, the Financial Times published a report on theater directors in Russia deciding whether to protest against Putin’s war or to continue working.
These situations are not the same, of course. But they are all circumstances in which one is asked to choose between public principle or the chance to more easily, or at least more immediately, make art. This is not a question to which one truly knows the answer until it is asked.
The movies that followed, in the 1970s and ’80s, are less obviously political than Closely Watched Trains or Crime in the Nightclub or Larks on a String. Still, there are similarities across the decades. There are the actors, of course, like Hrušínský and František Řehák. Watching them appear in one movie after another feels not unlike watching Wes Anderson movies today: There’s that actor again! He’s more rakish (or more slovenly) than ever!
But there are also thematic echoes: the obsession with sex, the wry humor, the way characters ultimately choose gentleness toward one another, the need to get around authority. And in these movies, too, I see elements of real, recognizable life there on the screen. Cutting It Short (1980) is one of the best portrayals I’ve ever seen of a loving, tender marriage between two people (Jiří Schmitzer and Magda Vášáryová) who move through the world in different ways. The movie is set, mostly, at a brewery, and Menzel does a wonderful job capturing all the motion and commotion of a busy place, with people always moving in and out. It starts in the Austro-Hungarian empire and ends in an independent country, and the characters all think they know the significance of this transformation, but of course we the audience know that they do not. That’s always how it is, I think. Look at Russia and its war in Ukraine and how it has—and hasn’t—changed Europe. Look at the United States now, after the first Trump administration. We say nothing will ever be the same, and we think we know what that means. But we do not, because we cannot.
Then there is My Sweet Little Village, the 1985 film that was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s about a simple young man named Otík (János Bán) and the man with whom he works, Mr. Pávek (Marián Labuda). The film, a soft, loving portrait of these two men and the people around them, lets the audience in on the secret of how much Mr. Pávek cares for Otík just a beat before Mr. Pávek himself realizes it. The timing throughout the movie is perfect: everything unfolds at exactly the moment that is funniest, or most frustrating, or most cathartic. At the very end, startling myself, I cry.
“People have such depressing lives that in films they should be stroked a little bit,” Menzel told The New York Times in 1987. “One should help them a little bit to hold their heads up high.”
Larks on a String was finally released in 1990. “I didn’t think the whole business would last so long: a few months maybe, not 22 years,” Menzel once told interviewer Judith Vidal-Hall.
On rewatch, I decide it is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, so much funnier and sadder than I had remembered. It is the story of characters made to work in a junkyard for socialist rehabilitation. These people include a saxophonist (Eugen Jegorov), who is there because saxophones are banned as bourgeois, and a lawyer (Leoš Suchařípa), who is there because he insisted a defendant had the right to defend himself. The use of light in the movie is fascinating too. Characters stare out of tiny windows. At one point, one man (Neckář again) uses a mirror to flash a light on his love interest’s face. At the very end, that same character descends into a mine. I watch as he goes down via mineshaft, staring up at the shrinking but still visible sky.
“This era will smelt you down too,” a man from the trade union (Hrušínský yet again) says to them, and you realize, watching the movie, that it could, but it won’t. Their shared sense of humor and dignity will not be crushed by the times. (Though they, too, it should be said, are also obsessed with women.)
I finish the 10 movies available on Eastern European Movies, which takes me two weeks. I don’t only watch when I am feeling angsty or unproductive. I watch one every weekday. I get work out of the way so I can watch my Menzel movie of the day, or I watch a movie to start my day and then see resonances and reflections of it in the hours that follow.
But having gone through those films, I am in for more of a challenge.
The easiest of Menzel’s films to find is I Served the King of England, from 2006. It was his first film in 12 years: The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1994) was, according to film critic Peter Hames, “unjustly ignored at home and abroad.” Making movies after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc proved difficult: if nothing else, the state had funded his movies before. Hames said that Menzel told him at a London screening, “I don’t think I’ll make another film.” I can picture them together. I can hear the resignation.
“There are no limits and therefore no boundaries within which to create. That boundary between us and the West makes us hunger for what is on the other side,” the director told Vidal-Hall in 1995, adding, “I need a reason for what I do. Before it was easy. It’s not enough just to want to be rich and famous.” Menzel added that he thought the constraints of communism had made the New Wave possible. Now that people could say whatever they wanted, they found nothing worth saying.
But over a decade later, he made I Served the King of England, yet again based on a Hrabal story, a dark comedy about a young man (Ivan Barnev) who wants only to be a millionaire and open a hotel. He achieves this goal—but ends up married to a Nazi (Julia Jentsch) and working for fascist Germany in the process, before heading to prison, emerging as an older, subdued man (Oldřich Kaiser). It is perhaps Menzel’s most visually sumptuous movie. I watch as money is carefully arranged on the floor, and then again as it’s used to cover a woman’s naked body. And I think the story of a person who sees a horrific regime as an opportunity to move up and get rich is, unfortunately, a timely one. Mostly, though, I am taken with the final message: a person becomes human not in the moments they choose but in the moments they would rather not have happened.
I purchase Ten Minutes Older: The Cello on DVD. It was one of two collections of short films made to mark the new millennium, Menzel’s short a wordless tribute to Hrušínský. It begins with a shot of Hrušínský in middle age, and then shows us his life in film—and because he worked with Menzel over and over again, the films I’d spent the past weeks watching all make appearances. “This is from The Snowdrop Festival!” I excitedly tell my husband, whom I’d convinced to watch with me. “And that’s Cutting It Short!”
I watch Hrušínský grow young and then, finally, very old. At one point, white text appears on a black screen that reads simply, “Ten minutes. Our life is not much longer.” I think of how wonderful it was to be young, and how amazing it is to grow up.
I put out a call for help on Twitter to find the remaining films. Miraculously, a friend from college who works as a film researcher sees my tweet and tells me he can probably help. And he does.
Unfortunately, aside from some key words like “yes,” “wait,” and “cucumber,” I do not speak Czech, and only two of the movies left on my list are available with English subtitles. That will have to suffice for now. I turn to the task of watching the two that my friend sent me. First, there is Those Wonderful Movie Cranks, from 1978, a charming love letter to filmmaking that I thought had such a 21st-century look that I triple-check the year it came out while watching it. I realize this is because Menzel made short old-timey silent films and put them in at various points. This has the effect of making the main movie, though it came out in the late 1970s and is about the establishment of the first Czech movie theater, seem as fresh as the modern world.
Then, finally, there is Menzel’s last feature film, The Don Juans (2013).
The Don Juans was the zaniest Menzel movie I watched. It is a very full movie: full of characters, full of plot twists, and, perhaps above all, full of music. A small town puts on the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. The director (Jan Hartl) pretends he does not like opera. He does, however, make no secret about how much he likes women, particularly sopranos. The other subplot features an older woman (Libuše Šafránková) who is herself a single mother, the matriarch of a line of women who have all been loved and left by Don Juans. The movie didn’t have the poignancy of my favorite Menzel movies, but it did have the sex, and the dedication to art, and a sense of humor about itself.
“Humor is the most important thing,” Menzel said while promoting The Don Juans. I think, maybe, that I know what he meant.
At the end of the movie, the opera company breaks up, all the soloists going on to sing in different jobs. One works as a singing waiter. One sings in the army. One joins a band. The older woman, meanwhile, directs a children’s choir. “Drink your cup of wine dry,” the children sing, “and take joy from every moment.”
It isn’t that Menzel’s movies are all joyous all the time. It’s that there is a sense of humor in all of them. Life is hard and full of suffering, and violence, physical and otherwise, abounds. But something about these films, even the ones with frustrating, unhappy endings, is always winking at us, the way in life a person might suddenly grasp the humor in a situation and laughingly ask, “You seein’ this?” And I am.
After finishing all of the movies that I could find, there is still one work I need to watch. CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel (2018) is a seven-and-a-half-hour documentary from Indian director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. It is an in-depth exploration of Menzel’s work and of Czech and Slovak New Wave cinema. I borrow my friend’s Criterion Collection login and settle in to watch it over the course of a few days.
“Film is my job,” Menzel says in the first five minutes of the movie. “Sometimes it is fun, sometimes not so much. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But I don’t have any special sacred relationship to it. It is my job. That’s all.”
I watch him say this with annoyance and awe. That’s all? I had spent weeks of my life grappling with my own relationship to work and productivity through these movies. In the process, I purchased two books on the Czech New Wave, two DVDs, and a lifetime subscription to Eastern European Movies. And at the very end of all this, I discover that the person to whose work I was turning didn’t even identify himself as having a relationship to the thing he was making.
But even as I huff, I know that isn’t true. For one thing, I’d opened this whole new world to myself. And now I can seek out other movies too, such as ones Menzel acted in, or films by other Czech New Wave directors. Not only had I seen so much more, but when I let myself feel generous, I admit I know more too.
Beyond that, though, there is this: I think that maybe Menzel meant that, yes, there were the movies, and making them and stopping and starting again. He had, after all, made a difficult decision in the 1970s to continue to make movies. That was work.
But there was also his friendship with Hrabal. There was his creativity, which existed in the films but outside of them too, which no authority or regime could take from him. There was bearing witness to all that he lived through. And there are the things in the movies themselves—like sex, love, a nice meal with beer, perseverance in the face of disappointment, laughter.
There is life, in other words. Full of joy and sadness and frustration and humor. And full of meaning and purpose too, even—or perhaps especially—when it seems like nothing is happening.
Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist based in Washington, DC. She is the author of The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for Open Society (2020) and Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities (2022).
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