Jirí Menzel - Director

Nationality: Czech. Born: Prague, 23 February 1938. Education: Film Academy (FAMU), Prague, 1957–62. Career: Assistant director on Vera Chytilová's Something Different , 1963; director at Barrandov Studios, from 1965; also stage director for Drama Club and Semafor Theatre, Prague, from 1967. Awards: Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, for Closely Watched Trains , 1967; Grand Prize, Karlovy Vary Festival, for Capricious Summer , 1968. Address: Solidarita E/31, 100 00 Praha 10, Czechoslovakia.

Films as Director:


Zločin v dívčí škole ( Crime at a Girls' School ) (+ co-sc); Smrt pana Baltisbergra ( The Death of Mr. Baltisberger ) (+ co-sc)


Ostre sledované vlaky ( Closely Watched Trains ) (+ co-sc, role as the doctor)


Rozmarné leto ( Capricious Summer ) (+ co-sc, role as the magician Arnoštek); Zločin v šantánu ( Crime in a Night Club ) (+ co-sc)


Skrivánci na niti ( Larks on a String ) (+ co-sc)


Kdo hledá zlaté dno ( Who Seeks the Gold Bottom )


Na samote u lesa ( Seclusion Near a Forest ) (+ co-sc)


Báječni muži s klikou ( Magicians of the Silver Screen ) (+ co-sc, role as the director)


Postrižny ( Short Cut ; Cutting It Short ) (+ co-sc)


Slavnosti sneženek


Prague ; Vesnicko ma strediskova ( My Sweet Little Village )


Koneč starych casu ( The End of the Good Old Days )

Jirí Menzel
Jirí Menzel


Havel's Audience with History (for TV)


Opera Zebracka ( The Beggar's Opera ) (+ pr, sc)


The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin

Other Films (incomplete listing):


Courage for Every Day (role as guest in a pub); If One Thousand Clarinets (role as soldier Schulze); A Place in a Crowd (role as a secretary of the SCM); The Defendant (role as the young defense lawyer)


Wandering (role as Dohnal); Nobody Shall Be Laughing (role as a bicyclist)


Dita Saxová (role as the shy suitor)


The Apple Game (Chytilová) (role as the doctor)


Upir z Feratu (Herz) (as Dr. Marek)


Hard Bodies (as Pfarrer)


Tender Barbarian (Koliha) (as Doctor)


Jak si zaslouzit princeznu (Schmidt) (as Painter)


Hanna's Ragtime (Svarcova) (as Pfarrer)


By MENZEL: book—

Closely Watched Trains (script), with Bohumil Hrabal, New York, 1977.

By MENZEL: articles—

"O režii a herectvi, o filmu a dicadle—Rozhovor s Jirim Menzelem," interview with K. Pošová, in Film a Doba (Prague), December 1977.

Interview with A. Tournès, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), May/June 1987.

Interview with M. Buruiana and J. Beaulieu, in Séquences (Montreal), September 1988.

"Hallo, hast du jetzt Zeit?" an interview with G. Kopanevova, in Film und Fernsehen , vol. 18, no. 11, 1990.

"Med smilet som vapen," an interview with K. Lochen, in Film & Kino , no. 8, 1990.

"Jirí Menzel: le printemps de Prague, la normalisation et la revolution de velours," an interview with D. Sauvaget, in Revue du Cinema , June 1990.

"Tragizm i humor to bliznieta," an interview with L. Szigeti, in Kino , March 1991.

"Jirí Menzel," an interview with R. Filac-Schindlerova, in Ekran , vol. 17, no. 4, 1992.

"End of the Line," an interview with R. Carver, in Sight and Sound , May 1993.

Interview with J. Varden, in Filmkultura (Budapest), January 1994.

Interview with Christina Stojanova, in Ciné-Bulles (Montreal), vol. 15, no. 1, Spring 1996.

Interview with Jan Lukeš, in Iluminace (Prague), vol. 9, no. 1, 1997.

"Setak, a Doktor Urral," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 4, 1997.

"Onova, koeto ostava," an interview with Ralica Nikolova, in Kino (Sophia), no. 2, 1998.

On MENZEL: books—

Skvorecký, Josef, All the Bright Young Men and Women , Toronto, 1971.

Liehm, Antonin, Closely Watched Films , White Plains, New York, 1974.

Stoil, Michael, Cinema beyond the Danube , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1974.

Liehm, Mira and Antonin, The Most Important Art , Berkeley, 1977.

Skvorecký, Josef, Jirí Menzel and the History of the Closely Watched Trains , Boulder, Colorado, 1982.

Hames, Peter, The Czechoslovak New Wave , Berkeley, 1985.

On MENZEL: articles—

Liehm, A. J., "Zádný strach o Jirího Menzela" [Never Fear for Jirí Menzel], in Film a Doba (Prague), no. 1, 1967.

Kolodny, Irving, "The Man Who Made Closely Watched Trains ," in Action (Los Angeles), May/June 1968.

Crick, P., "Three East European Directors," in Screen (London), March-April 1970.

Bluestone, George, "Jirí Menzel and the Second Prague Spring," in Film Quarterly , Fall 1990.

Cazals, P., "Jours tranquilles en Tchecoslovaquie," in Cahiers du Cinéma , December 1990.

Ahlund, J., "Hemvavd surrealist gor tragedin till fars," in Chaplin , vol. 33, no. 4, 1991.

Schutte, O., "Wenn wir filme machen, koennen wir nicht zufrieden sein, wenn das Kino leer ist," in Filmbulletin , vol. 35, no. 2, 1993.

Turcsanyi, S., "Mit tehet a kolto," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 5, 1995.

Rother, Hans-Jörg, "Der böhmische Faun: Eine Jiri-Menzel-Retrospektive in Berlin," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 25, no. 3–4, 1997.

* * *

Jirí Menzel's chief claim to a firm place in the history of the Czech cinema to date is his masterpiece, Closely Watched Trains. He received an Oscar for it in 1967, and the film was the biggest boxoffice success of all the works of the New Wave in Czechoslovakia. Banned from the industry after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Menzel eventually saved his career by recanting and publicly dissociating himself from his pre-invasion films, including Closely Watched Trains. However, even in his humiliation he scored one important point against the establishment: he refused to return his Oscar to Hollywood as the authorities had demanded (he was supposed to explain that he "did not accept awards from Zionists") and merely made a repentance movie, Who Seeks the Gold Bottom , a social realist formula story about workers building a huge dam.

Like Milos Forman, Menzel was influenced by Czech novelists rather than by Western filmmakers, and for a considerable time worked under the tutelage of his teacher from the Film Academy, Otakar Vávra, and his admired older colleague Věra Chytilová. Except for Crime in a Night Club , which was based on an original idea by novelist Josef Skvorecký, his pre-invasion films are adaptions of novels and short stories by Czech authors, either modern classics ( Capricious Summer from a novella by Vladislav Vančura), or his contemporaries (Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains, The Death of Mr. Baltisberger , and Larks on a String , and Skvorecký's Crime at a Girls' School ). Except for Capricious Summer , all these films were banned, Larks on a String even before release. After three hesitant efforts following his recantation, all developed from original ideas, Menzel found his old self in another adaption of Hrabal, Short Cut. An even less subliminal anti-establishment message is contained in The Snowdrop Festival , whose hero sacrifices his life for a pot of tripe soup. Menzel's recent, very amusing comedy My Sweet Little Village , and another adaptation of Vančura, The End of Old Times , though largely apolitical, show him as the supreme craftsman of contemporary Czech cinema.

Except in his black comedies ( Crime at a Girls' School, Crime in a Night Club ), Menzel is essentially a realist whose method could, perhaps, be described by the theories of André Bazin: he reveals rather than describes reality. There is very little of the formalist elements of movie making, and if, occasionally, there are some (for example, the opening montage in Closely Watched Trains ), they are used mainly for comic effect. Menzel even dropped the achronological structure of the novella from which he made Closely Watched Trains , and replaced it with linear narrative. However, there is inventive use of subtle symbolism (for example, the clocks and their chiming in Closely Watched Trains ), excellent work with actors, both professional and non-professional, and superb editing. The trend towards subtle symbolism culminates in Short Cut , a Rabelaisian tribute to elan vital which, however, hides a caustic, encoded comment on "goulash socialism," on the Marxist refutation of Freud (the commanding image of the pretty girl sitting on a high chimney), and on various smaller malpractices of "Realsozialismus" such as jamming foreign broadcasts. The nearly subliminal nature of such satirical stabs, apparent also in The Snowdrop Festival , is a nut too hard for the censors to crack.

Unlike his mentor Chytilová's crude defensive moral statements, the messages of Menzel's pre-1968 works (and of Short Cut and The Snowdrop Festival ) are—in the light of establishment philosophy—extremely provocative. In a way, his entire oeuvre is one continuous eulogy of sex—a subject at best tolerated by Marxist aestheticians in Czechoslovakia. The shock value of Closely Watched Trains is the combination of commendable resistance heroism with an embarrassing sexual problem: an anathema in socialist realism. Similarly, the "crime" in Crime at a Girls' School turns out to be not murder but loss of virginity, and the "philosophical" ruminations of the three elderly Don Juans in Capricious Summer concentrate on a young artiste. The main theme of Short Cut —characterized by the phallic symbolism of the chimney which dominates the small central Bohemian Sodom—is simply the joy of sex. Considering that sex has always been the most dangerous enemy of puritanical revolutions, Menzel's message is clear. It is a much less acceptable one than the moralizing of Chytilová, whose eccentric form and merciless vision, on the other hand, stand against everything the government watchdogs would like to see. The two artists, taken together, represent the two basic headaches any repressive aesthetic necessarily faces—the objectionable form, and the objectionable content. The survival of Menzel and Chytilová in a national cinema so full of victims demonstrates that, with perseverance, intelligence, cunning, and good luck, art can occasionally triumph over censorship.

—Josef Skvorecký

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