Jiří Menzel obituary: the last of the Czech New Wave greats

Best known and loved for his Oscar-winning 1966 feature debut Closely Observed Trains, the Czech satirist persevered and provoked through the eras of Communism and free-market capitalism.

Updated: 9 September 2020

By Peter Hames

Jiří Menzel
Sight and Sound

The death of Jiří Menzel (23 February 1938–5 September 2020) at the age of 82 marks the end of an era. Most of his colleagues from the Czechoslovak New Wave – Věra Chytilová, Miloš Forman, Jan Němec, Ivan Passer – have also recently passed on. Apart from Forman, whose superb Czech films were superseded by One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, Menzel was the best known.

This has almost certainly been due to the success of his Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains (1966), a huge success in its time and a film that has continued to resonate down the years. Menzel’s first and arguably best feature – Ivan Passer described it as virtually perfect – it told the story of a young railway station apprentice during World War II, spanning his sentimental education and accidental death planting a bomb for the Czech resistance. A collaboration with one of the century’s most distinctive novelists, Bohumil Hrabal, it was full of human observation and wry and subversive humour. Hrabal once said that, during their collaboration, he and Menzel kept complementing each other “like two mirrors flashing at each other with the reflections of our poetic vision”.

Closely Observed Trains (1966)

Menzel collaborated with Hrabal on a further three films – Skylarks on a String (1969), Cutting it Short (1981) and The Snowdrop Celebration (1984). The first, which examined the life of ‘bourgeois remnants’ undergoing forced labour in a scrap metal yard along with a fairly brutal satire of Communist bureaucrats, was banned for 20 years after the Soviet invasion of 1968 before winning the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1990. The exiled novelist Josef Škvorecký described its successor, Cutting it Short, as a flower in the desert of contemporary Czech film production. During the 20 years of so-called ‘normalisation’, it was Menzel and Chytilová who maintained the reputation of Czech film, often against the odds, and despite the reluctance of the authorities to promote their work either at home or abroad.

In 1990 Menzel produced Václav Havel’s play The Beggar’s Opera on stage in Prague in a performance that ran for over a year. Havel’s adaptation of John Gay’s original had, of course, more contemporary targets, and had previously been banned. The next year, Menzel directed the film version, one of the last films to be produced by the nationalised industry. Like many of his fellow filmmakers, Menzel hoped that after 20 years of suppression Czech film culture would return to former glories after the fall of Communism. But this proved far from the case. With the denationalisation of the industry, finding money and support became even more difficult.

The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1993)

His first privately produced film, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1994), was unjustly ignored both at home and abroad. As an adaptation of Ivan Voinovich’s classic Švejkian novel with an all-Russian cast, its lukewarm reception at home was no doubt predictable – while, abroad, a satire on the Soviet Union was considered out of date. He once turned to me at a London screening and said “I don’t think I’ll make another film.”

I Served the King of England (2006)

Twelve years later, however (and nine after Hrabal’s death), he directed his final long-projected Hrabal adaptation, I Served the King of England (2006), from his own faithful screenplay. The story of an apprentice waiter, Dítě, who eventually becomes a hotel owner and millionaire only to have his property confiscated under the Communists, while an enormous success in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere), was not as balanced as the earlier adaptations mainly because the novel presented a more diverse narrative. Nonetheless it was directed with enormous brio, with extensive reference to silent film, and a standout performance by Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev as its Chaplinesque hero.

Although he was educated at FAMU (the Prague Film School), Menzel also followed a career in theatre and his website lists over 80 productions ranging from Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Mozart to Havel and Michael Frayn.

The names there of Feydeau, Wilde, and Mozart perhaps provide a clue to the emphases of some of his later films. He produced his first play, Machiavelli’s The Mandrake, as early as 1965, and it was still in repertory some eight years later when he was banned from the film industry and Closely Observed Trains had ‘disappeared’ from distribution.

As an actor, he played subsidiary roles in many films as well as a number of major roles, most recently the title role in Martin Šulík’s The Interpreter (2018) opposite Peter Simonischek. The importance of actors is already apparent in his marvellous adaptation of Vladislav Vančura’s Capricious Summer (1968).

Menzel (left) and crew shooting Capricious Summer (1967)

Menzel, along with Chytilová, was one of a select group of FAMU students who studied under the systematic tuition of veteran director Otakar Vávra. Chytilová wanted to learn the rules so that she could break them while Menzel was a more careful disciple, even though he never submitted to the rigour of Vávra’s own approach. He once sent me a copy of Vávra’s course in the vain hope that I might find a publisher. It was reputedly the basis for Frank (František) Daniel’s teaching in the US.

While many ‘New Wave’ directors were influenced by the French New Wave and directors such as Antonioni and Fellini, Menzel drew more on René Clair, Jean Renoir, and the pre-war comedies of Czech director Martin Frič. He specifically mentioned Clair’s almost forgotten Le Silence est d’Or (1947) in connection with his last film The Don Juans (2013). Menzel never forgot his audience and maintained a gentle lyricism even in such potentially disturbing works as Skylarks on a String.

Jiří Menzel

In post-film interviews, Menzel was often both reticent and mischievous although always willing to talk at length about Hrabal – and indulge in a little ‘acting’. My lasting memory is of his discussion at the National Film Theatre in 1989 when presenting his film of Vančura’s The End of Old Times and prior to the Velvet Revolution. His description of Czechoslovakia as a ‘sleeping princess’ had a lasting resonance.

In recent years, the Czechoslovak New Wave has enjoyed an extraordinary revival of interest with many retrospectives (including a Polish retrospective of 45 films), academic studies, and DVD releases via Criterion (USA), Second Run (UK) and Malavida (France). Indian director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s recent film Czech Mate – In Search of Jiří Menzel (2018), a seven-and-a-half-hour examination of the New Wave as well as of Menzel, is further evidence that he and his generation will not be forgotten.

Originally published: 8 September 2020