Václav Neckár and Jitka Zelenohorská in Larks On A String (1990)
Although it was shot in 1968, Jiří Menzel's sociopolitical comedy Larks On A String didn't actually see the light of day until 1990, when it premiered and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Censorship had been lifted in Czechoslovakia for a short period, resulting in a fleeting burst of liberalization, especially for filmmakers - but the freedom was soon crushed by the invasion of Soviet tanks, which restored Czechoslovakia's oppressive regime. Communism once again held a vice-like grip over the country, and Menzel's film (which had finished shooting) was banned. It now receives its UK debut courtesy of New Wave promoters Second Run, and it's great to find the film in such brilliant condition.
The film tells the story of an rag-tag group of ex-bourgeoisie, including a saxophonist and professor, who are sent to work at an industrial junkyard in order to 'rehabilitate'. We find them at the beginning of a workers strike, struggling against a union rep trying to dissuade them from their actions. Meanwhile a group of female prisoners are serving a year sentence in the scrap yard for trying to defect, and under the careful eye of a recently married guard one of them falls in love with the largely silent chef. Their tale of love spins out from under a larger tale of uncontrolled chaos, which paints the lowest sector of Czechoslovakia in a shade which sits comfortably between realism and silliness - a peep show ends in a pratfall, for example, but in the midst of intellectual discussion about the difference between Iran and Iraq.
In terms of landscape the film reminded me of another 1969 title, Richard Lester's The Bed Sitting Room - although that was an apocalyptic farce. The comparison exists in the idea of a group of disparates banding together in a desolate, scrap-filled wasteland - the characters inThe Bed Sitting room are in this place, which is of that state, because of the end of the world. The characters in Larks On A String are there because of Communism, which lends the film a depressing pragmatism intentionally missing from Lester's film. The environment, shot by DoP Jaromír Sofr, is like a labyrinth of dulled greys and rusting bronzes, but all shot through the same kind of light filter that gives Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders ( Jireš, 1970), for example, such a dreamy, aesthetically rich texture. It's hard to describe but the film almost looks... like a memory.
A couple chasing each other around a room toying with light switches recalls the playful lightness of Godard's Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961), but the images have a gloominess which reminds us of the dump just outside, inhabited by those who were once chefs and philosophers. The comedy in Larks On A String has been described as "stinging" but there are actually some very charming and whimsical moments that serve character more than politics, which there is also a fair jibe at. The performances are largely superb and the actors are perfectly cast, especially Jaroslav Satoranský as Guard Anděl and Václav Neckár (also in Menzel's Closely Observed Trains, 1966) as Pavel, whose wide-eyed lust is endearing, and his chemistry with the other actors, including Vlastmil Brodský and Vladimir Ptáček, is spot-on.
By turns powerful and humorous in the way it pokes fun at the appalling condition of then-contemporary Czechoslovakia, Menzel nonetheless always shows a deep understanding of character. In the accompanying special feature, an interview titled Jiří Menzel: 7 Questions, he says that the difference between films of the past - like the films he made - and contemporary films, is that contemporary films lack compassion. That's certainly not something we could accuse Larks On A String of. Based on a short story anthology by Bohumil Hrabal, it has compassion in spades and now we hope that a whole new generation will uncover and feel that compassion and celebrate a long lost work that was wrongfully banished when it should have soared...
Extras: The aforementioned interview with Menzel, Jiří Menzel: 7 Questions, in which the filmmaker discusses the Prague of his youth, the grip and effect of Communism, the making of the film and the disappointment he felt upon in being banned... indeed the director shows a great sadness when talking about the film, and realizes the effect its banning had on not just his career, but his entire life. It's an informative and moving interview, bound to be of interest to fans of the film. There is also an accompanying booklet featuring an essay by Larks On A StringDoP Jaromír Sofr, charting the history of the film in a political and technical context and also detailing the latter years of Menzel's career.