by Allan Fish
(Czechoslovakia 1969 94m) DVD2
Aka. Skrivánci na niti
Enjoy work, enjoy life!
p Karel Kochman d Jiri Menzel w Bohumil Hrabal, Jiri Menzel novel Bohumil Hrabal ph Jaromir Sofr ed Josef Lojik m Jiri Sust
Rudolf Hrusinsky (Union trustee), Vlastimil Brodsky (Professor), Vaclav Neckar (Pavel), Jitka Zelenohorska (Jitka), Jaroslav Satoransky (Angel, the guard), Vladimir Smeral (minister), Ferdinand Kruta (Kudla), Frantisek Rehák (Drobocek), Eugen Jegorov (saxophonist), Nada Urbánková (Lenka), Jirina Stepnickova (Pavel’s mother),
Of all the films banned by the authorities after the Prague Spring was turned into instant winter by the Soviet tanks in 1968, Jiri Menzel’s Larks on a String has come to be the most emblematic of the ‘lost’ films. It didn’t get an official showing until 1990, held back even further than the Soviet hot potatoes that were released in the soon to be ex-USSR under Gorbachev’s Glasnost thaw. Discussing when it was really first seen, though, is problematic. There have been rumours of public showings all the way back to 1969 when it was shelved, and it was one of three films – along with Jasny’s All My Good Countrymen and Jires’ The Joke – to do the rounds on illegal VHS tapes in the 1980s. When in the 1980s Czech film expert Peter Hames asked Jiri Menzel how he might see the film, he told him to look in hairdressers shops. One imagines it being sold from under the counter, like Soho video shops who stocked US VHSs of A Clockwork Orange or the video nasties banned by Thatcher’s fun police.
It’s hard now not to see Larks as the concluding part in a trilogy of works that began with his most famous film, Closely Observed Trains and continued with what I have long argued was his best, Capricious Summer. That it was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, like Trains, adds to this feeling, but while it has much of the whimsy of Menzel’s two preceding gems, it’s altogether darker in tone. It focuses not so much on a plot as a status quo, and is set virtually entirely in the confines of a metal scarp yard. Here, dissidents are re-educated to conform to the system. Or, as the opening captions tell us, “what remained of the defeated classes were sent into industry to atone for their bourgeois origins.” A variety of superfluous men from various deemed decadent occupations – cook, barber, doctor, professor, prosecutor, boxer, philosopher – are among them. One by one they are taken away for speaking out against the plans, quotas and targets set by the ever-merciless authorities. Some find some refuge fantasising about the girls who work on an adjacent part of the yard, or trying to glimpse them in states of undress in their dorms.
While there was never going to be an attempt to give the same sunny tinge to the photography seen in Capricious Summer, the bleached-out soulless greys and rust reds of the scrap yard and eternally overcast skies perfectly illustrate the sense of moral and political decay. (It’s a feeling made even stronger by the fact that some sequences are in a worse state that others, as they only survive in second generation prints, certain sequences having been snipped direct from the master negative by the censors.). All the cast are well in tune to Menzel’s satirical swipes, with Hrusinsky and Brodsky especially notable in the two principal roles.
Looked back upon it may now seem very much a product of its time and place, as many of the Eastern bloc political pieces do, and the eccentricity may be a bit much for many modern audiences, but Larks is still priceless as a relic of an era when some directors were brave enough to put their careers on the line to make a statement. And if criticising autocracy and totalitarianism may not be too extraordinary in itself, the blatant ridiculing of it makes it all the more powerful. Writing in 2011 for the Second Run DVD booklet, photographer Jaromir Sofr wrote that “the story still remains as a moving document of that gloomy historical ‘experiment’ performed by Communists in our previously democratic country.” And when the minister says at the end “I wish Nemcova and Smetana were here to see this”, one can almost imagine Smetana weeping. Má vlast…my country indeed.