At the age of 28, Jiri Menzel's debut feature, "Closely Watched Trains" (1966), one of the important films of the Czech New Wave, was award the Best Foreign-Language Academy Award. Menzel's vision combined a devotion to the poetry of the commonplace with his own special brand of slapstick. Menzel's first outing as a director was the episode, "The Death of Mr. Baltazar," in "Pearls of the Deep" (1965), devoted to the work of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. Another episodic film, based on works by writer Josef Skvorecky, featured a Menzel-directed title episode, "Crime at the Girls School" (1965), in which characteristically quixotic details--a statue blowing smoke, potted plants camouflaging potty teachers--enlivened the narrative. Naivete led him to accept the direction of "Closely Watched Trains," an adaptation of a Bohumil Hrabal novel offered to, but refused by, several other filmmakers. After Menzel convinced the author to make changes in the interest of cinema, the completed work appealed more to Hrabal than his own book. This story illustrates Menzel's ability to work in close creative collaboration and still maintain artistic integrity; it also indicates his modesty in offering others the credit for work bearing his own distinctive signature. "Closely Watched Trains" celebrates the primitive but life-affirming sexuality of the Czech peasantry as well as exploding the popular conception of the heroic WWII resistance fighter. In 1968, Menzel adapted another literary masterpiece, Vladislav Vancura's "Capricious Summer." Menzel himself plays the interloping tightrope walker, Arnostek, in an astonishing performance full of enthusiastic amateurism and the split-second timing and balance of circus professionals. (It is an act Menzel is wont to repeat on stage, where he still performs nightly when not directing films. He has also appeared in movies by other directors.) Menzel's 1969 masterpiece "Larks on a String," an outspoken satire on the Communist "reeducation" of the bourgeoisie, was banned upon completion but released to critical acclaim in the West in 1990. By 1974, Menzel had managed to work again on the conventional "Who Looks for Gold?," a film he now disowns as simply a reward for having recanted his political beliefs (he vigorously resumed his political activities in 1989). His comedy became more physical, drawing on the styles of the American silent era. "Those Wonderful Men with a Crank" (1978) and "Short Cut" (1980) defend nonconformity from within the safety of nostalgia. The latter was again written by Hrabal, as was "The Snowdrop Festival" (1983). This film and "Seclusion Near a Forest" (1976) poke fun at the idyllic notions cherished by urban Czechs of the countryside to which they retreat every weekend. In 1986, "My Sweet Little Village" elaborated on this theme and became an international hit.Jiri Menzel died in his hometown of Prague on September 5, 2020 at the age of 82 following a long illness.
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