An excerpt from the booklet essay by Peter Hames
Jiří Menzel began his career as a director in 1965 with The Death of Mr. Balthazar (Smrt pana Baltazara), a contribution to the episode film Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně), adapted from stories by Bohumil Hrabal. In all, seven episodes were made and the film became the manifesto of a new generation of filmmakers, the Czechoslovak New Wave. The other episodes included: House of Joy (Dům radosti) by Evald Schorm, At the World Cafeteria (Automat svět) by Věra Chytilová, Imposters (Podvodníci) by Jan Němec, and Jaromil Jireš’ Romance. As the film was already long, two episodes were released separately: Ivan Passer’s A Boring Afternoon (Fádní odpoledne) and Juraj Herz’s contribution The Junk Yard (Sběrné surovosti). The project was initiated by Jireš, but it was Menzel who was to develop a lifelong association with Hrabal’s work. In 1966, when the studios decided to film Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky), Menzel directed it, achieving a US Academy Award with his first feature film.
According to Hrabal, the project was originally offered to Schorm, and subsequently Chytilová, both of whom were unable to see how to approach it. Menzel accepted without thinking about it. However, in Martin Šulík’s 2010 film about the New Wave, 25 from the Sixties or the Czechoslovak New Wave (25 ze šedesátých aneb Československá nová vlna), Menzel suggests that he was inspired by reading an erotic episode about the stamping of the female telegraphist’s backside in a newspaper. At any rate, it led to a close collaboration between the two and a further four features: Larks on a String, (Skřivánci na niti, 1969 - released 1990), Cutting it Short (Postřižiny, 1980), The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek, 1983), and I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, 2006). Hrabal collaborated on the scripts of all the films with the exception of the last, which was made after his death and based on Menzel’s own screenplay.
Bohumil Hrabal (1914-97) was undoubtedly one of the most important Czech writers of the twentieth century and many of his books were translated following the success of Menzel’s film version of Closely Observed Trains. Trained in law, his subsequent experience as a train dispatcher during the war years, post-war work at the Kladno iron works and as a wastepaper baler gave him a rich insight into everyday life. A small collection of his poems was circulated unofficially in 1949 and a collection of short stories in 1954 in an edition of 150 copies. In 1963, when he was nearly 50, his collection Pearls of the Deep was published and became an instant sensation. The importance of his work to the young filmmakers was borne out by the fact that they all insisted on him making a personal appearance in each of the episodes of their film version.
The two aspects of Hrabal’s work that attracted particular attention were the absence of any official ideology and the choice and observation of characters. Typically, they were down-and-outs or outcasts, people from the fringes of society, figures who were not supposed to exist in a perfectly run socialist society. As Igor Hájek once wrote, they were ideally fitted to ‘Hrabal’s unique vision of the world, acutely perceptive of the grotesque and of beauty hidden beneath triviality’. His approach to narration was influenced by writers such as Joyce and Faulkner, although his desire to leave his work apparently unfinished – ‘like a peeling wall with brick exposed under flaking layers of plaster’ (Hájek) – was clearly linked to personal taste and his roots in the avant-garde. Karel Brušák summarises his highly individual narration as exploiting the oral forms of language and combining ‘elements of crude vulgarity with Surrealism and lyricism’. One book, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé, 1964), consists of a single sentence lasting over ninety pages. While his work was inspirational, the emphasis on an almost stream of consciousness approach did not make it easy to adapt.
Peter Hames' complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
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Front Row Reviews
(i) Lark on the String: The Films of Jiri Menzel - Q&A with Ivan Passer at UCLA, September 2018
(ii) Jiří Menzel’s Witty Subversions
(iii) Jiří Menzel obituary: the last of the Czech New Wave greats by Peter Hames
(iv) Bohumil Hrabal: The World Is Beautiful Enough to Drive You to Distraction