One of the great European “auteurs”, Jiři Menzel, has died aged 82. He is one of the last of a generation of film directors the likes of which will never be seen again.
They included his fellow Czechs Miloš Forman and Vera Chytilova, the Hungarians Miklós Jancsó, Marta Mészáros and István Szabó, and, from Poland, Andrzej Wajda. From the Soviet Union, Andrei Tarkovsky and Elem Klimov.
From other parts of Europe: Theo Angelopoulos from Greece, the doyens of the French New Wave such as Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda, Germany’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Margarette von Trotta, and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman. And many more.
What unites those directors, in a very loose sense, is their humanism. They were concerned to portray the basic human qualities that make us what we are, and they rarely put “heroes” up on a pedestal.
More often than not they showed us real human beings caught up in difficult situations not of their making, but trying to cope and understand and not lose their basic human dignity and compassion. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they didn’t.
As nearly all of that generation were supported by state funding, they could make films without looking over their shoulders too often, even to the point where they criticised the same governments that were providing them with state subsidies.
Menzel’s best-known film, and his first major production in 1966, was Closely Observed Trains.
Telling the tale of an inexperienced railway worker — the film starts with his first day at work — Menzel’s film is set during World War Two. As so often with films from Central and Eastern Europe around that time, it was also covertly about the time of its making: the idiocies of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the bullying, pettiness and stupidities of state officials.
At times hilarious and even absurd, it is also tragic (a fairly typical Czech mix, you might say). The young protagonist Milos is sexually inexperienced. He attempts suicide. While assisting the local anti-Nazi resistance he is shot dead.
After the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 (the attempt to introduce “socialism with a human face”), the Czech authorities clamped down on artistic freedom. Menzel’s 1969 film Larks on a String, a tale of Czech artists and intellectual, sentenced to working in a scrapyard was banned.
Unlike Forman and others, Menzel never left Czechoslovakia. He stayed and worked on many more films and stage productions, sometimes in collaboration with the writer Bohumil Hrabal. Although his life was not without its difficulties, the authorities tended to leave him alone, no doubt aware of his international reputation.
At a time when we are expected to drool at such morbid dross as Joker and listen in awe as a succession of multi-millionaire actors and actresses, oozing “sincerity”, tell us how devoted they are to cause of humanity, pause for a moment and look back on the career of Jiři Menzel and watch some of his wonderful films (all the major ones are easily available on DVD).
He never needed to posture before a bejewelled, tuxedo-clad audience of narcissists and half-wits. His films spoke for him, and said everything that needed to be said.