Cutting it Short (Postřižiny) – Jiří Menzel, 1980

Jiri Menzel Cutting it Short

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.

Postriziny DVD

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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…

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The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) – Jiří Menzel, 1984

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.

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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…

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Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) – Jiří Menzel, 1969/1990

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.

It’s a shame that it has dated in comparison to the likes of Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) and Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto), because as well as ripping the piss out of the petty bureaucrats and their dim-witted slogans (“We’ll pour our peaceful steel down the imperialist war-mongers’ throat!”) it is also an extremely tender and poignant film.

Larks on a String DVD

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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…

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Seclusion Near a Forest (Na samotě u lesa) – Jiří Menzel, 1976

There can be no greater picture of contentment than a Czech guy standing with a beer in his hand, meat on the grill, and his feet in the grass on a summer’s day. Czechs rarely need an excuse to evacuate the towns and cities at the weekends in the summer and head out to the forests, lakes and hills, where many still own a vacation cottage. They genuinely seem to draw spiritual energy from contact with their nature, which stands in stark contrast to back home in Britain. For many urban-dwelling Brits, a trip to the countryside is something to be dutifully endured rather than enjoyed. This may be the reason that we have folk horror, and the Czechs have gentle folk comedies like Na samotě u lesa.

Zdeněk Svěrák (Kolya, Empties) plays Olda Lavička, head of a nice Prague family who are looking to buy their own country cottage. An eccentric acquaintance, Radim Zvon (Ladislav Smoljak, the man behind Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping in a colourful role) has taken up residence in a beautiful old mill. He points them in the direction of an elderly farmer, Mr Komárek (Josef Kemr – Marketa Lazarova), who may be willing to sell up and relocate to Slovakia to live with his son. He’s got a few loose ends to tie up first though, like selling his cow and sorting out the crops, so in the meantime, he agrees to rent the Lavičkas a room so they can stay whenever they like.

Seclusion DVD

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Mr Komárek’s cottage is picturesquely ramshackle, with rotten floorboards and damp in the walls. Apart from the old man, the Lavičkas end up sharing the joint with his mischievous goat, some invasive chickens, a cow, a dog and its fleas (despite the locals’ insistence that dog fleas don’t bite humans). Olda is totally enthralled by every aspect of country living, and his inquisitive son and daughter settle in well, instinctively calling Mr Komárek “grandad”. Mrs Lavička is less enthused about cottage sharing with a strange old man and the total lack of mod cons, such as electricity. She also thinks they should be encouraging Mr Komárek to get his arse into gear and sell up so they can enjoy the cottage without him hanging around, rather than feeding him and keeping him company…

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Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto) – Jiří Menzel, 1967

Unlike where I come from in England, we tend to get long hot summers here in the Czech Republic. The good weather sets in towards the end of April and usually runs through until late September. It’s my ninth summer here now and each year, sometime around late August, when the nights are drawing in and there’s a breath of autumn on the breeze, I’m always struck by a bittersweet feeling. It’s a sense of longing and loss and melancholy, a sensation that has intensified as the years ticked down towards my 40th birthday. Somewhere inside I sigh and think, “Well, that’s another year over.” Followed by a nasty little whisper at the back of my mind, “How many good summers have you got left?”

That bittersweet feeling is captured so beautifully by Jiří Menzel’s Rozmarné Léto. I first saw it very early after we arrived to live in the Czech Republic, and initially I was quite dismissive of it. I hadn’t adjusted to the rhythm and pace of Czech films and to me it felt like a pilot for a sitcom, mainly because of its surface similarity to the long-running British comedy series, Last of the Summer Wine, which followed the shenanigans of three retired blokes in a small town in northern England.

Capricious Summer DVD

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Rozmarné Léto is a perennial favourite in the Czech Republic. It is Menzel’s follow up to his Oscar-nominated Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), adapted from the novel by Vladislav Vančura. It’s a gentle yet neatly observed bedroom face about three old friends whose comfortable boredom is disrupted when a travelling acrobat rolls into town, and each one’s trousers are set a-rustling by his beautiful young assistant.

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Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) – Jiří Menzel, 1966

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.

Closely Observed Trains Blu Ray

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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.

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