Jiri Menzel

7.0 Closely Watched Trains (1966)
6.9 Larks on a String (1969)
6.5 The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1994), adapted from Vladimir Voinovich's satirical trilogy (1969).

Jiri Menzel (Czechoslovakia, 1938), was already a successful theater actor and stage director, notably for a production of Machiavelli's comedy "Mandragora" that ran continuously between 1965 and 1976, when he made his first shorts. He rose to prominence in cinema with the satirical Ostre Sledovane Vlakj/ Closely Watched Trains (1966), photographed by Jaromir Sofr and debuting actor Vaclav Neckar, an adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's 1965 novel (and a testament to the immense popularity that Hrabal enjoyed among that generation). It is mostly a comic movie that satirizes ordinary anti-heroes but ends in tragedy as the ultimate anti-hero becomes a hero. Milos tells us that his great-grandfather received a pension for a long time after being accidentally hit during a famous riot, and his grandfather was a hypnotist that conned the town, and his father was a railway worker who was allowed to retire still young and did nothing the whole day. Milos' mother is proud that Milos has been hired by the railway company and has been given a uniform: finally a successful man in the family after a long time. Milos tells us that his great-grandfather was beaten to death by angry workers after mocking them, while his grandfather was killed by a German tank that he tried to stop with hypnosis. Milos tells us that he wants to find a way to do nothing the whole day just like all his ancestors. His boss, the stationmaster, spends most of his time breeding pigeons. The work day goes by mostly uneventful. His pretty girlfriend Masa works as a train conductor. An arrogant countess is the main business client of the railway station. The stationmaster tells Milos that the other young worker Hubicka won't be promoted because of his womanizing reputation. A fascist who collaborates with the German occupying forces stops by to inform the railway staff of the "tactical" withdrawals of the Germans on all fronts: Russia, Belgium, Italy, etc. The stationmaster is married but flirts with a sexy cousin of Hubicka. At home he vents his anger against Hubicka who keeps seducing girls and in general against their amoral era. In fact, Hubicka is making love to his sexy cousin. And Milos is peeking through the keyhole and forgets the telegraph. Later the stationmaster gets even more furious at Hubicka because the couch has been damaged. Hubicka asks Milos for embarrassing details about Masa and figures out that Milos is still a virgin. A train full of nurses gets stuck at the station. Milos climbs in it and discovers that the nurses are making love with a lot of soldiers. Masa invites Milos to spend the night with her at her uncle's place. Her uncle is a photographer and Masa is his helper. That night Masa undresses and gets in the bed to have sex with Milos but Milos has premature ejaculatation. In the morning as they are getting dressed the town is bombed by airplanes and the photo studio badly damaged. Masa's uncle simple laughs out loud. Milos walks out and takes a room in a brothel for one hour. The owner is puzzled that he takes a room for one hour but without a girl. Milos undresses, fills a bathtub, prepares two blades, gets into the bathtub and slits his wrists. Luckily a worker who is hammering against the wall outside the bathroom makes a hole in the wall and sees the bleeding Milos. Milos is taken to a hospital. Meanwhile at the train station Hubicka is doing the nightshift, alone with the pretty telegraph girl. She is reading a romantic novel and gladly surrenders when Hubicka tries to make love to her. As a sort of foreplay, he rubber stamps the girl's legs. At the hospital Milos tells the doctor what happened to him and the doctor advises him to try sex again but with an older, experienced woman. Meanwhile, the telegraph girl's mother finds out what happened at the train station and reports it to the police. The police sends her to the court, where she interrupts a criminal trial to show her daughter's legs, full of rubber stamp imprints. The judge sends her to complain with the stationmaster. Meanwhile, Milos is summoned by the Nazi collaborator who shows him a map of the war underway and tells him that young Germans are shedding blood on the battlefield while he is shedding blood in a brothel's bathtub. Milos returns to work and asks both the stationmaster and Hubicka whether they can recommend any older woman to teach him about sex. Finally, he asks the priest and the priest offers help. A train conductor who loves to paint the sea tells Hubicka that the partisans are blowing up trains and railways. Unsueen by Hubicka, Milos gets kidnapped by a German train, but is released without a word when the Germans see the scars on his wrists. Hubicka tells Milos that he volunteered to help the partisans to blow up a German ammunition train. Masa stops by to tell Milos that she knows everything and forgives him. The problem is that Milos still hasn't found an experienced woman to teach him about sex. He even asks the stationmaster's wife for help but she declines. That night a mysterious woman shows up. Her name is Viktoria and she works for the resistance. She delivers a shoebox containing a time bomb for Hubicka. She notices the scars on Milos' wrists and Hubicka explains to her what Milos did and what Milos needs. Viktoria asks to take a nap and she invites Milos to join her, so Milos finally learns. The following day Hubitcka and Milos are excited about bombing the ammunition train, but just when the train is about to arrive the Nazi collaborator shows up with the telegraphist and her mother: she reported the case to the Nazi collaborator, the highest authority in town. They find the stationmaster with the uniform littered with pigeon shit and feathers. The Nazi collaborator stages a trial of Hubicka, during which the telegraphist recounts in detail and smiling how Hubicka undressed and admits having enjoyed it. Masa also arrives looking for Milos. In the middle of all of this, Milos calmly retrieves the shoebox from Hubicka's desk, walks outside, climbs a semaphore pole and drops the bomb on the ammunition train. Unfortunately a soldier sees him and shoots him dead. Milos' body falls on the same train. The "trial" of Hubicka is disrupted by the violent explosions. Hubicka smiles. Masa waits in vain for Milos.

Zlocin v Santanu/ Crime in a Music Hall (1968) is a simple comedy, scripted by novelist Josef Skvorecky, starring the playwright Zdenek Sverak as well as Rudolf Hrusinsky. It was made while Soviet tanks were rolling into Czechoslovakia.

The actor Rudolf Hrusinsky and the cinematographer Jaromir Sofr became his main collaborators starting with his first color film, Rozmarne Leto/ Capricious Summer (1968), an adaptation of Vladislav Vancura's novel.

Menzel, Sofr and Hrusinsky succeeded again with the Kafkian satire of communist bureaucracy Skrivanci na Niti/ Larks on a String (1969), based on Bohumil Hrabal's novel, but the film was banned for 20 years: it was clearly targeting communism.

For a few years Menzel devoted himself to theater.

Kdo Hleda Zlate Dno/ Who Looks for Gold? (1974) was a far less interesting collaboration with Sverak, Hrusinsky, and Sofr.

The comedies kept coming: Na Samote u Lesa/ Seclusion Near a Forest (1976), scripted by Zdenek Sverak,

Bajecni Muzi s Klikou/ Those Wonderful Movie Cranks (1978), a nostalgic tribute to early cinema, Postriziny/ Cutting It Short (1980), another Hrabal adaptation, a comic Tati-esque portrait of an independent woman, starring Magda Vacaryova, Slavnosti Snezenek/ The Snowdrop Festival (1983), another Hrabal adaptation, the rare film not shot by Sofr, Vesnicko ma Strediskova/ My Sweet Little Village (1985), written by Sverak, Konec Starych Casu/ The End of Old Times (1989), and Donsajni/ The Don Juans (2013).

His most ambitious projects of the later years, both with ordinary simpletons as anti-heroes, were the picaresque Obsluhoval Jsem Anglickeho Krale/ I Served the King of England (2006), yet another Hrabal adaptation, from a historical novel that covers the period from the 1930s to the 1960s, notable also for Ales Brezina's soundtrack, and the comic Russian-language Zvot a Neobycejna Dobrodrizstvi Vojaka Ivana Conkina/ The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1994), adapted from Vladimir Voinovich's satirical trilogy (1969).

Menzel clearly owed a lot to his two main collaborators: Hrabal and Sverak

Menzel died in 2020.

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