The Ceremony of the Everyday
Jiří Menzel's film adaptations of
Bohumil Hrabal's prose
In surveying the history of Central and East European cinema, one of the high points on anybody's list is the Czech New Wave. And taking center stage in this loose movement in filmmaking are the names of director Jiří Menzel and author Bohumil Hrabal. The films they worked on came to epitomize the lightness of touch and sensitivity to the concerns of common people that led the Czech New Wave to be so widely admired—an admiration which culminated in Menzel's Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, 1966) winning an Oscar in 1967.
A relaxed political atmosphere created the space for the New Wave to exist, but much of the creative impetus for this new style of filmmaking came from Prague's film school FAMU (which itself became internationally famous as a result of the successful directors who had passed through it in the 1960s).
Particularly important was the influence of filmmaker and FAMU lecturer Otakar Vávra, a controversial personality in Czech cinema. Vávra's varied filmography includes admired works, which have retained their artistic integrity, such as Romance pro křídlovku (Romance for the Bugle, 1966) and Hammer on the Witch (Kladivo na čarodějnice, 1969), but also Jan Hus (1954), Jan Žižka (1955), Sokolovo (1974) and Osvobození Prahy (Liberation of Prague, 1976), which were all films used as Communist proproganda.
Under the influence of Vávra, young artists were able to develop their own individual styles and visions of the world. Pavel Juráček, Antonín Máša, Ivan Passer, Juraj Herz, Evald Schorm, Jan Němec, Drahomíra Vihanová, Jaromil Jireš, Věra Chytilová and Miloš Forman were among the Czech and Slovak directors who, along with Menzel, were to take their rightful places among the pantheon of creative minds who made the Czech New Wave the success story it was.
The first "official" public presentation of the Czech New Wave was the film Perličky na dně (Pearls from the Deep, 1965), a portmanteau film composed of five adaptations of Hrabal's stories. Despite its status as the Czech New Wave's debut, many of the young directors who participated in it had made films before that: Věra Chytilová had directed O něčem jiném (About Something Else) in 1963, Slovak director Jaromil Jireš had already made Křik (The First Cry, 1963), Jan Němec's debut had been Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964), and Evald Schorm had made several films previously, including the anti-Stalinist Každý den odvahu (Everyday Courage, 1964).
As well as contributions by Chytilová, Jireš, Němec and Schorm, Perličky na dně includes Jiří Menzel's adaptation of "Smrt pana Baltazara" (The Death of Mr Baltazar).
The decision to make a film composed of adaptations of Hrabal's prose was typical of the "Golden Age" of Czech culture in the 1960s. A great surge of creativity electrified literature, theater and film due to the new political conditions that gave creators a new artistic freedom not permitted in the Stalinist fifties. Film turned from the collective hero, which had dominated the fifties to the individual problems of the ordinary man.
New prose for a new generation
Hrabal's prose seemed to fit with the ideas of the new generation of filmmakers. This was partly because of the ever-present concern with the ordinary man living in everyday reality, and also because of Hrabal's montage writing style, which utilizes vivid contrasts and carries its word and image association along with a prose style marked by long, complex sentences. Hrabal wrote as if he was assembling a mosaic, and the author admitted that surrealism and stream of consciousness influenced his style. Everything together creates a specific stylized picture of the world where poetry and cruelty meet to define Hrabal's twisted surrealist beauty.
The seemingly banal stories constitute a specific picture of the world that Hrabal refers to as a "pábitelství". This word is a term invented by Hrabal and one he used as the title for his second book of stories in 1964. Pábitelé are ordinary people who suddenly surprise the reader by the beauty of their souls and uncover it from within, with pábitelství the realm of the beautifully ordinary that they inhabit.
Using this style of writing Hrabal brought to literature several immortal figures: among them Uncle Pepin, who is popularly known from his appearance in a number of Hrabal stories, including "Smrt pana Baltazara."
A day at the races
The story of "Smrt pana Baltazara" takes place in Brno at a motorcycle race. Aside from Uncle Pepin (who is played by Emil Iserle), the main characters of the story are Mother (Pavla Maršálková), Father (Ferdinand Krůta) and a legless man in a wheelchair. Hrabal also makes an appearance in this episode, appearing as himself at the beginning coming out of a forest to greet his characters with eyes lit up in detail.
Everyone is concentrating on the beginning of the race, except Uncle Pepin. Any pause in the conversation is an opportunity for Pepin to tell his tall tales. Menzel, in his film version of this story, stresses the poetic character, with absurd motives that we can also find in Hrabal's texts. A scene portraying a motorcycle "ballet," where the rumble of machines is substituted by the slow melody of a waltz is one example. He uses the basic elements of film slapstick. However, he reduces the cruelty of the tableaux by not showing the death of the racer Baltazar as it is in the book.
Train trip to the Oscars
Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, 1966) was Menzel's first feature-length film and also his greatest success. The film received many awards, including ones from film festivals as far apart as Mannheim and Addis Ababa, as well as winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in the spring of 1967. Ostře sledované vlaky is again an adaptation of a Bohumil Hrabal story, with the script written by director working in collaboration with Hrabal himself. This time the story has an integral conception, something rather unusual in the Hrabal's style.
The film's "hero" is Miloš Hrma, a young railway worker, and through his eyes we see life in a little Czech village at the end of the Second World War. While the village suffers from the effects of the German occupation, Miloš himself is unhappy because of his "poor masculinity" and inability to lose his virginity, and as a result unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide. Eventually, he succeeds in his task to prove himself as a man, but his newfound sense of self-confidence proves to be fatal.
The Second World War was a frequent theme film during the sixties, since many of the young directors had grown up during the war (Menzel himself was born in Prague in 1938). In contrast to the bigger historical films from the fifties that showed the War through battle scenes, the films of the Czech New Wave focused on the intimate stories of individuals whose lives were brutally disturbed by the war's events.
War is also seen from the perception of the ordinary man in Němec's Démanty noci and Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos's Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street, 1965), the latter also an Oscar winner. The war in Ostře sledované vlaky is presented in short fragments, through a few words here and there and the final scene of Hrma's "heroic" death, but it is not a theme that dominates.
Finding beauty everywhere
Menzel's film maintains the poetics of Hrabal's text and transforms it into film pictures. But where does the poetry come from? It is a result of the perception of everyday life in shown through ceremonial presentations of ordinary figures as special personalities. Miloš looks at the other characters in the story with respect and admiration and makes ordinary people beautiful and magnanimous poets of everyday life.
Thus, for example, when the lecherous dispatcher Hubička (whose name means "little kiss," one of many cases of Hrabal using a person's surname to reflect on their character)seduces a young telegraphist by means of stamping her legs and thighs with official railway stamps it is presented as a gentle sexual ceremony. The uniform of the pigeon-loving station chief's bird-excrement encrusted cloak becomes a gorgeous and mystic robe, and a mason in white clothes who saves Miloš when he attempts suicide is perceived as God.
The drawbacks of these characters are perceived just as bizarre components of their personalities, and Miloš even admires the members of the Gestapo for their beauty, even though they could kill him at any time. With a similarly quirky aesthetic sense, Miloš even sees a special kind of poetry in dying or decaying animals.
A switch of source
After Ostře sledované vlaky, Menzel made Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer, 1968), an adaptation of the 1926 avant-garde novella of the same name by Vladmír Vančura.
An idyllic summer in the little village of Krokovy Vary is interrupted by arrival of some entertainers, an illusionist Arnoštek (played by Menzel himself) and his beautiful assistant Anna (Jana Drchalová, later Preissová). Three friends, a lifeguard Důra (Rudolf Hrušínský), an abbé (František Řehák) and a major (Vlastimil Brodský), admire Anna, who brings poetry into their everyday life, and chase after her in vain, humiliating themselves in the process.
The switch from Hrabal to Vančura as a literary source was a logical one for Menzel. Poetry that changes ordinary reality into a special experience is just as much a typical constituent of Vančura's work (whose style is described as Poetism) as it is of Hrabal's. Vančura uses language experimentally, and that is the main source of the poetry. Menzel transforms the literal language into film dialogues with a lightness that, together with pictures and stylized acting, bring the world of the text to life.
Socialism as absurd drama
For Menzel's third film, Skřivánci na niti (Larks on a String, 1969), he returned to adapting Hrabal. The film takes place in a steelworks in Kladno during the fifties, where Hrabal had been working at that time. The situation in Czechoslovakia at that time is expressed in the film's ironic introductory titles:
After the Triumphant February of 1948, the blue-collar class took power and became a leading force in the state. The remaining classes were integrated into the working process to compensate for their bourgeois origins through fair work.
A group of intellectuals and members of the bourgeoisie are forced to give up their professions and do hard manual labor. Among them are a professor of philosophy, a procurator, a hairdresser, a saxophonist, a milkman and a cook— Pavel Hvězda, who cannot work on Saturday because of his Jewish beliefs (as is emphasized, again, in his surname, which means "star," referring to the Star of David). Of the this crowd, the milkman is the only one to have gone voluntarily, the intellectuals having been forced from their jobs and the state having confiscated their property.
At the same works, but on the other side of the fence , is a group of women called "kopečkářky", or the "hill women." These are women who tried to escape from Socialist Czechoslovakia to Western Europe but were caught at the border. Their presence perpetually arouses the interest of their male counterparts, much to the chagrin of the guards who watch over them. Despite their best efforts, the guards cannot prevent love from blossoming across the divide.
Men in black
The film is a clear commentary on not just the absurdity of Communism, but also its criminality. A visit by a television crew along with the young Pioneers and their leader offers a spectacle in the perversion of mass ideology, and it exhibits the helplessness of innocent people and the abandonment of clear reason.
Members of the secret police, in their characteristic raincoats, are an ever-present danger. Anyone who resists or says anything against the regime is taken off in one of their black cars, with first the milkman vanishing into their clutches and then the professor for questioning where the milkman has gone.
The same fate is granted to the character Pavel Hvězda, who at the happiest moment in his life is taken away by the secret police to what to his friends in the steelworks must appear an uncertain fate. Thus, as Pavel becomes a man through marriage to a kopečkářka, his masculinity stirs up a natural courage in him and is soon punished for it by the regime. This can be compared to the tragic death of Miloš Hrma in Ostře sledované vlaky, but, in stark contrast, Pavel has a future, even an optimistic one.
The sequence of Pavel's futile act of resistance was one of the most biting pieces of satire in the film, parodying the then president of Czechoslovakia, Antonín Zápotocký. This section was too much for the Communists—who were usually just content to lock things they didn't like away in safes—and the clip was cut from the film with the intention of destroying it. However, by sheer chance, the piece survived and it was able to be edited back into the film as it was originally intended.
The actors of the film were not just great personalities; the roles they played in several cases mirrored their individual experiences. For example, Věra Ferbasová, a filmstar during the occupation of the forties, plays the role of an older kopečkářka. The "Triumphant February" in 1948 when the Communists completed their stranglehold on the political system brought her a similar life to that of the Hill Women as she was accused of having collaborated with the Germans.
Another example is Jiřina Štěpničková, a film and theatre actress, who represents Pavel's tired and slightly crazy mother; in reality she tried to escape to West Germany in 1951 and was caught and imprisoned. Some of her theater colleagues from Divadlo na Vinohradech (Vinohrady Theater) signed a petition for her death.
The director was robbed of immediate acclaim of the kind he had won with Ostře sledované vlaky due to a change in political climate. Following the Russian-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the regime clamped down heavily on personal and artistic freedom. The film—which was an undisguised attack on Socialism—had to wait until the fall of Communism for its premiere while it languished in the censor's safe, having been banned "forever." When it did emerge, it won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1990, thus confirming the artistic potency of the Menzel-Hrabal team.
Finding happiness amid oppression
A poetic line in the film balances the strong elements of absurdity. Against the feeling of estrangement in an absurd and brutal state, the director depicts human solidarity, toleration and love, as for example in the simple touch of hands between the kopečkářky and the workmen while they hand pieces of iron to each other.
In ordinary life, in an everyday moments, Pavel finds poetry: "Eat, drink, sleep, bathe, and even the act of love, these are our most noble tasks." These sentiments are echoed by the procurator:
You know, I'm interested in Dressier, Picasso, and Chaplin today, but against them I pale in comparison to my landlord who dresses three children in the morning and hauls them to a sanctuary, and all day she stands by a mixer and in the evening she picks up the children and comes back home with them. My landlord means more for me than the American Tragedy, Monsieur Verdoux and the Dove of Peace together.
In the final sequences, the milkman, professor of philosophy and Pavel are all going down a lift into a forced labour colliery. Despite their circumstances, it seems that all the figures have reached some inner peace with themselves. As the professor says:
Oh, people, I am so happy. I was born. All the sorrow all the anger, everything burned by fire that cleaned me. I am happy. I have found myself.
In retrospect, these final words seem to be bracing the Czech nation for the new era of "Normalization" when once again personal honor would be challenged and human dignity would exist only in people's souls and not come from the state apparatus.
Adapting to circumstances
Menzel could not work in films for some time after Skřivánci na niti. It was a period when he had to decide if he would accept the rules dictated by the regime or leave his profession yet keep his "artistic freedom." This difficult situation was also faced by other members of the Czech New Wave. Miloš Forman, Jan Němec and Ivan Passer decided to emigrate, while Věra Chytilová and Evald Schorm stayed in Czechoslovakia even though they could not work as film directors (Chytilová for seven years, Schorm for 17 years).
Menzel decided to continue as a film director in Czechoslovakia. Choosing this possibility meant making films within the Socialist ideological scheme: in other words, film as propaganda. The result was a film called Kdo hledá zlaté dno (Who looks for Gold?, 1974), a story about a young man who decides to build a dam with other Socialists. One of the collaborators on the script was Zdeněk Svěrák, who went on to work further with Menzel and also wrote the script for the Oscar-winning Kolja (Kolya, 1996).
Menzel had relative freedom in making his films after that. The film Na samotě u lesa (Seclusion Near a Forest, 1976) was based on a script by Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak and it received awards at some international film festivals, including the prized OCIC in San Sebastian and The Silver Hugo in Chicago. Two years later Menzel made the film Báječní muži s klikou (Those Wonderful Men with a Crank, 1978) with the famous actor Rudolf Hrušínský in the main role. But it wasn't until 1980 that another Menzel film based on the prose of Bohumil Hrabal hit cinema screens.
The story of Menzel's film Postřižiny (Cutting it Short, 1980) is based on one that Hrabal published in the seventies, and it goes back to the time of the writer's childhood (Hrabal was born in 1914) spent at the brewery in Nymburk, a small town close to Prague. The author talks about his parents, about the time of the beginning of the new century when the enchantment of technology started with the advent of motorcycles, cars, electricity, short skirts and short hair for women.
This Hrabal text is lit up by the magic of the old "golden age" of the optimistic early years of the First Czechoslovak Republic. The breaking up of the Old World with the new century is represented by the wonderful long and bright hair of Hrabal's mother Maryška that she cuts in accordance with the new tempo of civilization.
Menzel in his film adaptation changed the order of the episodes. Whereas Hrabal uses the literal figure of his mother as the narrator of the text, the director transforms the storytelling into the third person form. Menzel also does not show the motifs of cruelty in his film: for example, Maryška cutting the tail of the dog because of the new age in which everything seems to be getting shorter, from travel times to skirt lengths.
Menzel's by now trademark poetic line is made up of scenes that are very close to events in the actual text. One example of this is the scene following the slaughter of a pig: Maryška chases the butcher and the doctor Gruntorád (Rudolf Hrušínský) and they both try to spread bloody sausage meat on each other's face. This is a return to that now familiar device, the ceremonial aspects of everyday existence, with the killing of the pig becoming a kind of pagan ritual.
The same ceremonial tones are showed between Maryška and Francin, Hrabal's father. Their ritual of seeking for presents is not just an erotic game, but it also turns an ordinary moment into a unique event.
Menzel also relies heavily on the use of slapstick. A typical illustration of it is the figure of a laborer in a brewery played by Rudolf Hrušínský Jr, who is always getting hurt as a result of accidents caused by Uncle Pepin.
A final collaboration
Menzel's last film based on the prose of Hrabal was Slavnosti sněženek (Snowdrop Celebrations, 1983). The author, as by now was usual, cooperated on the screenplay together with the director. The story takes place in Kersko, on the way from Prague to Poděbrady and another area in which Hrabal had lived.
As always, the main "heroes" are seemingly ordinary people. This time they live in little villages or in cottages among the forest. But all of them have some extraordinary interests that make them special. The figure of Leli (Jarmír Hanzlík) hoards various useless things bought at bargain prices, Mr Karel (played by film director Jiří Krejčík) has such an enormous appetite that he eats everything he sees, Liman (Bořík Procházka) loves his goats so much that he takes them for a trip by car, and so on.
Menzel again uses slapstick in the form of a chase and several fight scenes. This time, the chase is that of hunters after a wild pig that is running on the road and hides in a school building where the hunters finally kill him in front of the children and terrified teacher. Fighting between two groups of man from neighboring villages runs through the whole film.
Slavnosti sněženek harks back to Ostře sledované vlaky with the motif of the most innocent character dying. This time the death is even more senseless because Lilo dies after being hit by a bus while riding his bike to bring his friends some more soup.
Menzel films without Hrabal,
Hrabal films without Menzel
Slavnosti sněženek was to be the last time Menzel would work with a Hrabal script. But over the following ten years Menzel would continue to produce films, working from original scripts by Zdeněk Svěrák (Vesničko má středisková/ My Sweet Village, 1985; and Život a neobyčejná dobrodružství vojáka Ivana Čonkina / The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, 1993) and also a film adaptation of Václav Havel drama (Žebrácká opera / The Beggar's Opera, 1991).
In this time, a new generation of Czech directors came in to try their hand at adapting Hrabal: Petr Koliha with Něžný barbar (Tender Barbarian, 1989), Dušan Klein with Andělské oči (Angelic eyes, 1994) and Věra Caisová with Příliš hlučná samota (Too Loud a Solitude, 1995). While Koliha's film keeps the poetry of the original text and could be seen as a successful adaptation, Dušan Klein took only a few motifs from Hrabal and made a film where the writer's style is completely lost. The attempt by Věra Caisová is the least successful of all.
Menzel from early on in his filmmaking career is connected to Hrabal. The styles of both artists are so similar that it is hard to say what was Menzel's natural film style and what he took from Hrabal. For this reason, while Hrabal
has been best served by Menzel in seeing his prose brought to the screen, Menzel was able to make interesting films from sources other than Hrabal. Significantly, both Vančura and Zdeněk Svěrák have common interests with Menzel (and thus also with Hrabal): the poetry of everyday life, celebration of ordinary people, everyday situations that become rituals, humor and a positive perception of the world.
Menzel's notion of the absurd shifts between his early New Wave works and his later ones. His early films attempt to come to terms with a traumatic past—the Second World War and the Stalinist fifties—while his later works move away from the absurdity of existence to a warmer and more charming vision of a lost golden age, expressed through comic "gags." Indeed, Menzel has said many times that he does not make art but he tries to produce good quality craftmanship to amuse his audience. But despite this changing conception of the absurd, Menzel never lost his love of everyday life and its elevation to a higher plane.
A failed attempt to return
Recently, Menzel has tried to return to adapting Hrabal. The attempt hit news headlines when the director beat his producer Jiří Sirotek with a stick in public at the 1998 Karlovy Vary film festival. The cause of the dispute was Hrabal's "almost novel" (skororomán), Obsluhoval jsem anglickeho krále (I Served the King of England), which Menzel wanted to adapt for the screen. However, another famous Czech director, Karel Kachyňa, had also shown his interest.
The problem originated before he fell to his death from a window (which some speculate was suicide), when Hrabal signed the exclusive rights to the book to more than one party. One contract was signed with Kachyňa and a second with a production company headed by Jiří Sirotek, who chose Menzel as the director of the project. Menzel, however, blamed Sirotek for the fiasco, considering his behavior to be unethical, and for this reason he exacted his revenge in public.
After much wrangling, the case has been settled, although Menzel, who now mainly works as a director at Prague's Divadlo na Vinohradech theater, has not emerged as the chosen director. The rights were bought from both sides and Jan Hřebejk was chosen to direct the project. Hřebejk, is getting ready to start shooting, reportedly in April, based on a script by Petr Jarchovský.
Hřebejk and Jarchovský may yet well prove to be inspired choice. Their most recent collaboration, Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000), has been nominated for an Oscar this year. If the team can build on this success, the name of Hrabal may yet be associated with another Oscar.
Ivana Košuličová, 5 March 2001
Jiří Menzel's film adaptations of Bohumil Hrabal's stories can be currently be seen in the UK as part of a season organised by the London Czech Centre. Visit their website for details of this and other Czech film events in the UK.
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