‘I’m not really that intelligent’: Czech New Wave veteran Jiri Menzel is still giving it those ones

The recipient of the lifetime achievement award at the Kerala film festival is also the subject of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s upcoming documentary ‘CzechMate’.

Jiri Menzel looks spry for a 78-year-old veteran of one of the most exciting filmmaking movements in the world. The recipient of the lifetime achievement award at the International Film Festival of Kerala held in Thiruvananthapuram from December 9-16 marked his attendance at the mandatory press conferences and panel discussions. But he looked most relaxed back at the Taj Vivanta Hotel, and his eyes lit up brighter than the afternoon glare when his adorable two-year-old daughter, Eva, came running into his arms.

Menzel has done the rounds of enough film festivals, both as a guest as well as a jury member, to treat an invitation as an excuse to visit a new place and “soak it in”, as he says. He has been to India before on a few occasions, to show his films as well as pick up lifetime achievement honours. And his stature has meant festival jury duty – a responsibility that signifies labour rather than glamour.

“It’s very hard work to do jury duty and watch films at festivals,” Menzel said. “When I was younger, I used to watch films all day long but not remember anything by the end of it. It was all work, just blah blah, and only rarely did I see something interesting.”

One evening during one such festival in Mannheim several years ago, Menzel bunked festival duty and walked into a local theatre to watch a dubbed German version of Mary Poppins. “After that, I said I would never watch films at any festival again,” Menzel said only half-seriously, sounding like one of the many mad-hatter characters from his movies.

Jiri Menzel. Photo by Nandini Ramnath.
Jiri Menzel. Photo by Nandini Ramnath.

Menzel is one of the survivors of the Czech New Wave, in whose currents swam such champions as Jan Nemec, Vera Chytilova, Ivan Passer, Milos Forman and Jan Kadar. Menzel’s best-known film from this period is Closely Watched Trains (1966), made during the short-lived cultural efflorescence in Czechoslovakia that came to be known as the Prague Spring. Winter followed directly in the form of repression and censorship that accompanied the formal invasion of the former Soviet Bloc nation in 1968 by its masters in Moscow.

Several Czech New Wave productions were thinly disguised satires and allegories on mind-numbing bureaucracy, erasure of local subcultures, and insistence on following the Communist path. Menzel’s commemoration at IFFK was accompanied by a package of restored Czech New Wave titles, including Diamonds of the Night, Nemec’s unforgettable experimental feature on two young victims of the Holocaust, The Fireman’s Ball, Forman’s hilarious farce about a celebration that goes belly-up, and Pictures of the Old World, Dusan Hanak’s brilliant documentary on the memories, hopes and anxieties of elderly rural people.

‘Pictures of the Old World’.

Many of these films faced censure or outright censorship. Chytilova’s Daisies (1966), about the surreal adventures of two teenage girls, was banned, as was Foreman’s The Fireman’s Ball (Forman fled to Hollywood soon after, where he directed such modern classics as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus and The People Vs Larry Flynt). Nemec faced state oppression for years, and even left the former Czechoslovakia for several years after he was barred from making films.

Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains didn’t suffer the same fate, but that doesn’t undermine its sly subversions. Based on a novel of the same name by future Menzel collaborator Bohumil Hrabal, the movie follows the misadventures of Milos, a young guard at a railway station during World War II. The country is under German occupation, but Milos is facing an altogether personal set of enemies – the fear of sexual performance when confronted with the bountiful Masa, for one thing. In one of the movie’s most iconic sequences that erotic as well as funny, Milos plants rubber stamps on Masa’s bare bottom.

‘Closely Watched Trains’.

“It’s free, it is realistic, as per my temperament,” Menzel said during a conversation with filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. Menzel is the focus of Dungarpur’s upcoming magnum opus on the Czech New Wave. CzechMate – In Search of Jiri Menzel will use interviews with Menzel as the launch pad to dive into the history of the movement that influenced filmmakers across the world. Dungarpur has been making CzechMate for the past six years and he is finally read to draw the project to a close. The running time of the self-produced documentary, which includes numerous interviews, including with Andrezj Wajda, Ken Loach, Woody Allen, Raoul Coutard, Agnieszka Holland, Istvan Szabo, and Agnes Varda, will be a staggering eight hours. “The film became broader and broader as I continued filming,” Dungarpur explained as Menzel pulled a mock-irritated face. “I remember being blown by these films at the Film and Television Institute of India, where I studied direction. These were films about little people in historical settings, and they were tragic and comic at the same time.”

Dungarpur met Menzel for the first time in 2016 at a café in Prague. “I thought he was crazy, I mean, I am not really as good or intelligent as he thinks,” Menzel said as Dungarpur grinned. “This entire film is Dungarpur’s mistake.”

Jiri Menzel with his daughter Eva.
Jiri Menzel with his daughter Eva.

The reason he submitted to Dungarpur’s scrutiny was because he is “selfish”, Menzel said with an unmistakable twinkle behind his spectacles. That is also the reason he is lounging by the pool at the Thiruvananthapuram Taj Vivanta as his wife Olga and daughters cool off in the water. “I am happy that people are interested in me – but it is also my duty when people are interested in Czech cinema.” Menzel has several films to his credit since Closely Watched Trains, including My Sweet Little Village (1985), and he has also directed TV series and operas.

“Imagine, for somebody who doesn’t know anything about music.”

Among the Czech New Wave filmmakers with whom Menzel is still in touch is Forman. “I spoke to him recently and he asked me, how many pills do you take,” Menzel said. Unlike Forman, Menzel turned down offers to work in the West or leave Czechoslovakia. “I never wanted to leave – I was from a peaceful bourgeois family and I rarely faced problems,” he said. “Milos, on the other hand, was a self-made man, who lost his family in Nazi concentration camps. He was very ambitious and struggled a lot in America before he made it.”

One of the reasons Menzel did not leave his country, which was freed from Soviet control in 1989 and split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, was because he felt a sense of duty towards it. “The educated people were very few, and somebody needed to stay back,” Menzel said.

In doing so, Menzel has remained one of the most prominent faces and voices of the Czech New Wave, and Dungarpur’s documentary will reveal more about the filmmaker and the movement that nurtured him.

“I will definitely finish the film in 2017,” Dungarpur promised.

“I don’t buy it,” Menzel said. “Give me the rushes and I will make a one-minute version.”

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