Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The Joy of Blathering - An Interview with Jiri Menzel

Jiri Menzel was amongst the key figures in the new wave of Czechoslovakian film-making in the 1960s. Whilst Alexander Dubček's government strove for liberalisation and reform under the banner of 'socialism with a human face', Menzel, and fellow graduates from the FAMU film school in Prague such as Jan Nemec, Vera Chytilova, and Milos Forman, strove to forge new directions in cinema. Humanist in content, with a wry humour, and often highly poetic, their films sought to distance themselves as much as possible from the socialist realist orthodoxy of the time. Menzel found early success, at the age of only 28, when his first feature, Closely Observed Trains, won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1967, but his joy was to be short-lived as, just a year later, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague to put an end to the Czechoslovakian experiment known as the Prague Spring. Whilst Milos Forman and other colleagues fled to the United States, Menzel chose to stay in Prague, only to have his next film, Larks on a String, banned by the Soviet authorities and a period of forced inactivity thrust upon him during the period of 'normalisation'. Larks on a String was eventually released, to international acclaim, in 1990, and this year sees the UK release of Menzel's first new feature in over a decade, I Served the King of England, fresh from its success at the Berlin Film Festival.

It's been a long time since your last full length film, what's kept you? And how have you been keeping busy?
Most of the time I was working in the theatre, not only in the Czech Republic, but also in Hungary, Norway, Croatia, Germany and other countries.

Your new film, I Served The King of England, like your two, perhaps best known (in England, at least) films from the sixties, Closely Observed Trains and Larks on a String, is another adaptation of a Bohumil Hrabal novel. What has drawn you back to Hrabal after all this time? Do you feel like perhaps there are particular resonances between your directorial style and his writing style?
I think I've been lucky in my life that, from the very beginning, I was able to co-operate with an author I loved and respected. Our close relationship and mutual reliance were very helpful in our co-operation. To be honest, I think that his books have more in them than I could put into my films, however, I mediate him to people who would not read his books.

Could you please explain a little Hrabal's notion of “pábitelství”, the title of his second collection of short stories?
I would like to, but it is not easy. This word was used at one time but a long time ago it was forgotten until Mr. Hrabal resurrected this word. It means something like blathering or rambling, but... more than that. It is a joy to be able to blather, the joy of letting out the words from one's mouth without proper solicitude of their content.  

According to various things I’ve read on the internet, this film has been quite a long time coming, and has had something of a difficult and complicated birth. I've read stories about you being asked to make the film ten years ago, but the producer wanting a TV mini series and you said you were only interested if it was for a feature film. Then, I heard, you attacked your producer with a stick at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1998... What's the story behind all this? And what happened since then, that meant the film could finally get made?
The story of the destiny of this book, which preceded it’s film adaptation, is possibly more interesting and more intricate than the film by itself. The novel was written and duplicated secretly, without the awareness of the authorities. People were borrowing it from each other, copying it out laboriously on typewriters. When it was half-officially published, it’s author was under political persecution and the publishers were even put into jail for a certain time. This caused a lot of publicity for the book. After the collapse of the communist regime there were no obstructions for publishing anymore. Hrabal´s novel was translated into many languages and the rights for the film adaptation became subject to different speculations. Bohumil Hrabal was asked from different sides to release the film rights. Finally, on my interceding, he signed the rights to adapt the novel to one producer, who after Hrabal´s death and without my awareness, sold the rights to a private TV station to make a TV serial. For this unethical act I gave him a public thrashing in front of the whole audience at the film festival in Karlovy Vary. Luckily the shooting of the TV series did not happen and after several years the rights to adapt Hrabal´s book were in the hands of a different owner. Finally, this last owner asked me to adapt the book for the cinema screen.

You are speaking soon at the Barbican under the title of 'Censorship as a Creative Force'. In what sense do you understand this title? How has censorship proved creative for you?
Censorship is not the worst scarecrow for filmmakers. Even in times of the most rigourous censorship very good films could appear. On the other hand, absolute freedom has enabled unbelievably foolish and ugly things to be brought into the world.

Everything that limits us at the same time stimulates us. From this point of view, censorship could be inspirational. In a certain sense I am today missing censorship. The river which pours into the sea is losing its banks and, with them, also its motion. This unbounded possibility leads to the fact that you are bound to miss the target.

How have you been affected differently by the censorship of the state and what you might call the censorship of the market? Is one the more powerful, or indeed the more “creative” than the other?
Every creation is a struggle for form. You have to overcome the resistance. What lays down obstacles to you are, beside other things, non-artistic conditions, which you encounter in the process of your creation, be that censorship or financial limits. The difference between two kinds of influence (I would rather use the word restraints) was very well characterised by my colleague Vera Chytilova with one laconic sentence: “You can elude in a certain way the Bolsheviks, but you can not elude money”.

You have been quoted as saying that you don't want to make films that make a statement, but clearly the Soviet authorities at least believed you were making some sort of statement when they chose to ban your film, Larks on a String. What do you think they found so threatening in this film? How did you respond to being silenced in this way? How did it make you feel personally?
Good films should evoke bountiful reflections, you could not replace them with a simple statement. That was the sense of my declaration.

Larks was reflective of one epoch of the regime, which was cruel and at the same time foolish. This film was banned particularly because it uncovered, not only the cruelty, but also the ridiculousness of that regime. Beside many worse repressions which took place after the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks, it was petty of me to take the banning of one film to my personal detriment. There were many more films forbidden, many books and many things were silenced.

In the British press at the moment, there is a lot of talk about the fortieth anniversary of 1968 and a lot of writers are keen to emphasise the global nature of what was going on in that year, that there was some necessary connection between, for instance, Vietnam war protests in America and rioting students in Paris. In Prague in 1968, did you feel like what was going on was connected to this wider global context? To what degree were you involved in the events of 1968 in Prague?

It is interesting that at the same time there were social disturbances in many places on the planet, but nearly everywhere they appeared for different reasons. Maybe they were caused by sunspots and the eruptions appeared in places where the tension was already latent.

It is also interesting that in Czechoslovakia we understood the disturbances you mentioned reversely, not in negative terms. The war in Vietnam for us was a war against communism and we understood it as the parallel to war in Europe against fascism in the Forties. We did not understand the student disturbances in Paris, we thought that their freedom and life conditions were much better than ours and their reasons to revolt seemed irrational to us.

I lived in that year in Czechoslovakia, like most of our citizens, in the hope that the communist regime could be humanised and, as all our citizens, I was surprised and shocked by the Soviet brutality.

Outside of film making, to what extent do politics interest you? How would you characterise your own political position and how does this effect the way you approach film making?
I feel like I am in the middle of two camps. One of them proclaims that everyone is responsible for his destiny, and this is giving an excuse to people for selfishness. The second one calls for solidarity, which is sometimes misused by some people. Maybe you will see from my films that I do not feel comfortable in either of these camps.

During the period in the late sixties and early seventies when you were unable to work as a film maker, did you never consider pursuing a film career in another country, America for instance? Did you ever feel resentful towards those directors, Milos Forman for instance, who did leave to pursue lucrative Hollywood careers?
I think I was clever enough to consider if I would be able to work in another country. I am glad that after several years of enforced inactivity I could make some films in Czechoslovakia which I would not have been able to make somewhere else. On the other hand, I think that Forman’s escape from Czechoslovakia had a sense to it. He made films in America which he would not have been able to make at home. I respect his films and the courage with which he survived during the years which were not very lucrative for him.

Watching Closely Observed Trains again recently I was struck by the use of sound to create a sort of dream-like lyricism, similar at times, though in a less obviously surrealistic way, to that in Vera Chytilova's Daisies. Can you tell me a little about your approach to sound in film?
We both were lucky to have a very good teacher. Otakar Vavra conveyed to us during four years at school everything we would be otherwise discovering for years in our work. One of these things was to understand that the sound should be the contrast to the image, not the descriptive component.

The other thing that struck me watching that film this time around was the way certain inanimate (or at least, inhuman) things seem, through the use of montage, to acquire a kind of sexual life of their own: the tear in the sofa, the rubber stamps, the goose's neck, for instance. Was this inspired by psychoanalytic thought? Was psychoanalysis something you were interested in at that time?
Never, these are for me very complicated things. What you mentioned proves what I already said in one of the previous answers. Film should evoke reflections, and each viewer, according to his nature, experience, education and many other things, will pick from the film something similar, something different, but never identical. Maybe what I am saying now sounds foolish, but I prefer not to theorise, I do not feel I am good at it. I rely on my intuition.

Has your film-making ever been inspired by your dreams?
I am a very rational person. I am not inspired by anything else, just by the pattern of the film, by the script, or the book which I am adapting. Maybe sometimes by personal experience.

Apart from the negative influence of socialist realism, how have Russian ideas on film-making affected your work? For instance, Einsentein's theory of montage, Lenin's proclamation that cinema is "the most important art", etc.
What Lenin said (he did not know about TV) is a little bit the truth, but in a different sense. He considered film a means of propaganda, and filmmakers should not descend to that. On the other hand, Lenin was right in one sense, that film is open to the public and has an influence on the public's soul. This obliges filmmakers to take responsibility. They can influence, with what they produce, the viewers' actions after leaving the cinema.

Eisentein’s theory is correct, but it presupposes a viewer who is able to patiently follow the coherence of shots lined up alongside each other. The contemporary viewer is used to clips lined up in a form of 'goulash' or, on the contrary, he comfortably sits watching the monotone lining up of telenovel shots, where he follows only talking heads. I think that the contemporary viewer does not have the capacity to indulge in Eisenstein’s way of editing (montage).

Who were your biggest influences as a film maker when you were young? Which films made the biggest impression on you when, for instance, you were at film school?
I could mention a lot of names, from Charlie Chaplin to De Sica, but I think that the film which literally enlightened me was a film by Jean Renoir, Partie de Campagne.

Do you remember the first film you saw at the cinema and what impression it made upon you?
As far as I remember it was a romantic picture called Night Butterfly. I did not understand it properly. I had a much better experience after seeing a comedy called Eva Does Foolish Things [Eva Tropi Hlouposti (1939)] directed by Mac Fric. I saw it endless times. I think that this film is, in its intelligence and levity, on the same level as the film Bringing Up Baby and other similar American comedies.

How have your ideas about film making changed since the 1960s?
I think that due to technological development the shooting of a film is getting easier and easier. Unfortunately it leads to the existence of many badly, uselessly and sloppily made films.

Am i right in thinking you currently teach film in the Czech Republic? What do you feel is the most important thing to teach young film makers?
I am not teaching anymore. At the moment the Prague FAMU concentrates, not on professional teaching, but on artistic creation, and this is nothing to me.

I think that a beginner filmmaker should not think about art. In the first place he must learn his profession, how to make films correctly. And only after that can come an art (or maybe even then not). The most important thing is to find the right reason to make the film. To feel the responsibility for what will remain in the viewer after he watches this film.

What are you working on next? (I hope very much we wont have to wait so long for the next Jiri Menzel film!)
This is very kind of you. Unfortunately I do not have in my hands an interesting and motivating script.