Dialogue: Jiri Menzel


Aficionados of the work of veteran Czech director Jiri Menzel know all about the passion he brings to his films. "Closely Watched Train" -- the 1966 film that established him at the age of 28 as one of the rising stars of the Czech 'New Wave' and won him an Oscar in 1968 -- contains one of the world's most memorable (and arguable erotic) movie scenes when, as train despatcher Hubicka (Josef Somer) seduces the beautiful Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorska), he lovingly decorates her bare behind with official railway rubberstamps. The offending bottom -- and Swastika-embossed stamps -- are later paraded before court officials examining misuse of state property in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Hilarious, saucy, erotic and subversive -- the film's sly digs at the Nazi regime would not have been lost on local audiences suffering under the oppressive Communist regime of the 1960s -- the film is a masterpiece. The movie was the first of a number of adaptations of Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal's gifted works that Menzel made; his adaptation of "Larks on a String" a tragicomedy about political prisoners sent to work in a junkyard, shot in 1969, was banned by the Communists. It was finally released in 1990 and immediately won the Golden Bear at that year's Berlinale. Now, after an absence of 17 years, Menzel is back in competition again with another film based on a Hrabal novel with an equally intriguing history: "I Served the King of England."

The Hollywood Reporter: The making of "I Served The King of England" has a particularly dramatic history -- the film is based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, who left the film rights to a number of different people. You helped secure the rights for producer Jiri Sirotek -- on the understanding that he would use them for a feature film. Angered when he then sold them to television for a miniseries you attacked him with a stick in front of an audience of 2,000 people at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1998, an incident for which you were subsequently convicted of disorderly behaviour by a Czech court. Why were you so passionate about this particular project?
Jiri Menzel: It was not a question of this particular project! From my side it was punishment for (Sirotek's) non-ethical behaviour. The reason I gave him a hiding was this: I had negotiated with Hrabal the film rights of his book for Sirotek but then behind my back he sold the rights to commercial TV. In my film version of the book I have tried to preserve not only the plot, but most importantly, its spiritual value.

THR: The film covers a period that coincides with your early life, and your earliest memories will have been of wartime Prague and then the post-war Communist takeover. How personal was this film to you? What did you bring to it beyond the material in the book?
Menzel: World War II, the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the history behind all this has always been interesting for me. A key focus for me is that I still remember wartime Prague. Even this film ("I Served the King of England") has something of my own experiences and memories in it. As a five-year-old boy I remember being forced to do the Nazi 'Sieg Heil' salute on the street. I raised my left (rather than right) hand and my mother had to correct me.

THR: How do you feel about presenting "I Served the King of England" at Berlin? The film covers the tumultuous events in Central Europe between the 1930s and 1960s, examining themes of collaboration with totalitarian authorities. How relevant is the film's message to audiences in today?
Menzel: Bohumil Hrabal touched on the history of both Czechoslovakia and Germany, so this is something I could not disregard in the film. The film touches on recent Czech history but it is mainly about Czech character and its flexibility. I have also tried to make a film which will be understandable to the younger generation and to audiences worldwide, not only in these two countries. Of course, I am delighted the film is in competition at such a prestigious festival. I was last here in 1990 when "Larks on a String" won the Golden Bear.

THR: Where was "I Served the King of England" shot? As a historical film did it involved any special challenges? Did this influence choice of cast?
Menzel: The film was shot in locations in the Czech republic, including Prague's city hall, in front of the Le Palais hotel and Prague's Reporyje district. We also shot in provincial town Liberec -- at the local railway station -- at Mlada Boleslav's prison and on various Czech mountains. We were welcomed wherever we went. As a historical film, when writing the script and shooting the film, I was aware of the need to translate Hrabal's idea in a way that would be understandable and comprehensible to all viewers. One of our main challenges was to find houses and properties that had the correct early 1960s look -- ravaged by war and neglect 15 years after the war. As far as cast is concerned, I had an absolutely free hand. I knew the main character (Jan Dite played by Ivan Barnev) from Sofia, Bulgaria, from my work in the theater there. Julia Jentsch (Liza), recommended by the producer Rudolf Biermann, was an excellent choice.

THR: You have a long and notable filmmaking career. How did you start out and what difference to your life and career did "Closely Watched Trains" make?
Menzel: Prizes from the festivals and, principally, the Oscar from the American Film Academy brought me prestige and the attention of producers. But very soon after that (in August 1968) Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia and all my glory was gone. I was the first Czech filmmaker prevented from working and was only able to return to filmmaking in 1974. It was only after some years and several more films that I felt I had returned to a position of prestige.

THR: Does "I Served the King of England" represent any kind of trend in your work? Is it related in any way to other films you have made about this period in Czech history?
Menzel: When I am shooting films, I try to do them as best I can. And I do not care about trends.

THR: What is your next project? Do you have any plans to shoot in English?
Menzel: I do not have a plan. I do not intend to waste my time and energy on advancing my intentions and seeking finance. I am only a filmmaker. I am waiting for another reasonable offer.

THR: What single measure -- or group of measures -- would most help Czech filmmakers today? Last year, President Klaus vetoed a long-awaited film funding law. There are now moves to create a new one. What do you think about the situation?
Menzel: We have been waiting for the film funding law for a long time. The problem is that those responsible -- lawmakers -- are so busy with their inter-party disputes that they do not have time to work on laws, even those that are more important then the film funding one.