A subtitle for this anthology of short films based on the stories of Bohumil Hrabal may as well be “The Czechoslovak New Wave in a Nutshell”, as it showcases the work of five of the movement’s then up-and-coming directorial stars: Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová and Jaromil Jireš. While the garrulous voice of the author comes through loud and clear in all segments, each director uses their tale as a framework for their burgeoning filmmaking talents.
First up is Menzel, who was the only one of the five who didn’t already have a full feature under his belt, but would go on to have a rewarding long-standing collaboration with Hrabal with films such as Closely Watched Trains, Cutting it Short and I Served the King of England. In The Death of Mr Baltazar, we follow three ageing petrolheads to a day at the Moto GP in their vintage 1931 Walter Convertible, a rickety old jalopy still capable of transporting six butchers and a bed. While the crowd wait for the race to start, they trade stories with another elderly spectator about all the horrific accidents they have witnessed. It’s almost as if they watch the sport to see which rider will come a cropper next and, sure enough, the day’s race adds another fatality to their highlight reel.
It has taken two years to reach this point, but this article marks the 50th post on Czech Film Review. Since the first Czech film I saw was Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, I thought it would be appropriate to mark the occasion by talking about another one of his films, Cutting it Short.
It’s yet another idyllic shaggy dog story based on a Bohumil Hrabal work, a rose-tinted yet ultimately kinky tale about the writer’s parents when they conceived the future literary legend. Set around the end of the First World War and shortly before the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic, it is a typically Menzelian joint lovingly satirizing small-town life, populated by a familiar bunch of cranks and oddballs.
The story centres on Francin (Jiří Schmitzer), an earnest accountant who has been hired by the local brewery to get their books in order and take the business to the next level. He sets up home in a spacious apartment on the brewery premises with his free-spirited wife Maryška (Magdaléna Vášáryová, who played the eponymous Marketa Lazarová). She knows the way to a Czech guy’s heart, currying favour with the board of directors by slaughtering a pig and laying on a copious meat feast…
In The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) Jiří Menzel returns to the well to make another gentle comedy featuring his favourite things: the works of Bohumil Hrabal, Rudolf Hrušínský, the idyllic Czech countryside, and the shenanigans of quarrelsome but essentially good-hearted village folk.
As with many of Menzel’s films in a similar vein (Capricious Summer, My Sweet Little Village, Seclusion Near a Forest) the plot is slight – more a comic panorama than a conventional narrative, as Vincent Canby of the New York Times kindly put it. The pacing of The Snowdrop Festival is relaxed even by Menzel’s standards, with the film apparently starting before anyone in it has noticed.
We’re gradually introduced to the inhabitants of the small village of Kersko, including Franc (Hrušínský Senior), a browbeaten retiree who spends his whole time trying to sneak off to the pub without incurring the wrath of his domineering wife and daughter; Leli (Jaromír Hanzlík) an accident-prone, optimistic guy who can’t resist buying defective knock-offs just because they’re cheap; and Karel (Jirí Krejcík) who is thrown into carnivorous ecstasy at the mere smell of freshly smoked salami…
“I can be by myself because I’m never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.” – Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude
Too Loud a Solitude is my favourite book, and that passage in particular resonated so deeply during my teaching days in Prague. I’ve always been someone who enjoys time with my own thoughts, and I never felt lonely while I was there. I was in love with the place and, although I had friends, I often preferred it when it was just me alone with the city…
Banned for over twenty years and only released after the Velvet Revolution, Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String is a film out of time. It was one of the director’s more overtly critical works in the ’60s, openly sarcastic about the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. As a result, it endured censure and became a valuable relic of the grim post-Prague Spring era, lacking the timelessness of Menzel’s more gently comedic films of the period.
Set in a huge scrapyard in the Bohemian town of Kladno in the ’50s, the story centres around a group of so-called dissidents and counter-revolutionaries, sent by the authorities for re-education among the piles of broken typewriters and twisted wrought-iron bedsteads. They’re a mostly meek and browbeaten bunch, resigned to shuffling about among the mountains of waste, having philosophical discussions and sneaking a peek at the group of women detained for attempted defection across the fence…
Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) is probably one of the best known Czech films beyond the country’s borders, having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. Adapted from Bohumil Hrabal’s slender novel, it was also the first Czech movie I saw by a long way, years before the idea of even visiting the country crossed my mind, let alone immigrating here.
I was pretty underwhelmed on first viewing – it was when I was first getting heavily into film, after the treble-whammy of Pulp Fiction, Seven and Trainspotting first made me conscious that there was a director behind the camera making decisions resulting in the movie I saw up there on the big screen.
I could handle the nonlinear structure of QT’s early efforts, but struggled a bit with the rhythm and pace of my first Czech movie – having been brought up on a diet of largely British and American films, usually with a distinct beginning, middle and end, Closely Watched Trains seemed a lot like all middle with a little bit of end.