Czech film director Jiří Menzel died on 5 September aged 82, in what the British Film Institute have called “the end of an era”. His first and best known feature film, Closely Observed Trains, was released in 1966, and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.
That – and another nomination for the same Academy Award in 1986 – is about the closest he came to mainstream attention from the English-speaking world. It wouldn’t be until this year that a non-English language feature (Parasite, 2019) would win Best Picture. The “1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” that its director – Bong Joon-ho – pointed out seems to be nothing new.
Still, Menzel’s career is testimony to the fact that there is more to cinema than what interests Americans. In Europe, he was far from uncelebrated. A jury member at the Berlin International Film Festival, and twice at the Moscow International Film Festival, he was also awarded a score of honours. This includes the Czech Lion for lifetime artistic contribution, and the French Order of Arts and Letters.
“Good comedy should be about serious things. If you start to talk about serious things too seriously, you end up being ridiculous.”
Before any awards, though, he had to make his name. Living in the Soviet sphere of influence, that wasn’t always easy, thanks in no small part to strict censorship rules. The country attempted to liberate itself from the grasp of the USSR with the Prague Spring in 1968, which was met with a full-scale invasion. It would not be until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that Czechoslovakia would be free from Russian control. If Menzel was to be subversive, he would also have to be creative.
He often relied on humour. He once remarked that “Good comedy should be about serious things. If you start to talk about serious things too seriously, you end up being ridiculous.” With that attitude, he helped shape a new era for his country’s cinema, pioneering the Czech New Wave in the 1960s.
Films that came out of this era got away with what the previous generation of writers and directors rarely could. Through humour and surrealism, the realities of Communism were poked at. Disaffected youth saw themselves on-screen, in films like Loves of a Blonde (1965) and Black Peter (1964). Many were banned, including Menzel’s own Larks on a String, which was only shown in 1990, 31 years after it was filmed. To this day, the products of the Czech New Wave remain an important representation of the country’s first flirtations with liberalisation.
Aside from directing, Manzel was able to find the time to act in nearly 80 films, most recently in 2018’s The Interpreter. He also worked as a theatre director.
Another prominent part of his career was collaboration. Closely Observed Trains (1966) was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal. In 2006, he noted that “More than all the prizes and medals I received for this movie, I valued the lifelong friendship with Hrabal.”
Manzel is survived by his wife and two daughters. His wife, Olga Menzelová, wrote on Facebook “Dearest Jirka, I thank you for each and single day I could spend with you. Each was extraordinary.”
Featured image credit: IMDb
Last modified: 13th September 2020