Jiří Menzel: Film maker-beginner can make do with guts. But he has to know the trade!Written by Eva Csölleová, Vítek Formánek
Jiří Menzel is one of the most known, well respected and globally applauded Czech filmmaker. His way how he got to directing films was explained short while ago in his memoires book called „ Rozmarná léta“.
He told us “Read my book and you will find out that I started filming by complete accident“. This book covers all from his childhood, how he got spellbound by film, how he built his love for theatre, how he made his most notorious films and what he thought about dark 70 ś era. There are people who don´t waste their words and they let their work do speaking. Jiří Menzel is one of them.
He was born 23.2.1938 in Prague. His father was renowned writer who was writing books for children and later cooperated with famous Jiří Trnka. He also translated from various world languages. Small Jiří grew up in poor conditions but he loved reading. He was a Boy Scout where he got right knowledge of life values. At the age of 15 he joined typographic course and was taught how to work with printing machine. While printing he wrote his own poems. But in dark 50´s, journalism wasn´t free job so he opted to devote his time to theatre. He often visited as many Prague scenes as he could as often as possible. He dreamt about having his own theatre, own actors and own repertoire. After leaving school he decided he wanted to be theater director and applied for AMU (Academy of musical art).He wasn´t chosen for reported lack of talent. So he joint newly established TV studio and saw it´s very beginning. He changed few departments and met there another would- be- filmmaker Miloš Forman. He worked as jack of all trades in studio and learnt all ropes. Then he decided to apply for FAMU (Film academy). After entering exams he met Otakar Vávra, famous director, who became his lifelong mentor and model. In his class there were other future members of Czech “new wave” Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová, Karel Němec and Jan Schmidt. Otakar Vávra took his pupils onto Barrandov studios to let them see how it is for real.
Jiří was taught how to prepare perfectly for the film and that director is responsible for what a viewer will take from his movies. In his first FAMU year he had to make his own film, which was animation with tables tennis balls.In second year he had to make a documentary film. He didn´t know what to shoot and couldn´t decide which way to go, which didn´t leave him during his entire career. He graduated with film „Umřel nám pan Foerster“. He asked famous actors Bohumil Záhorský and Svatava Hubeňáková to act for him and his tutor was director Otakar Vávra.
Jiří says “Director-newcomer can make do with guts and effort BUT he has to know his trade. To direct a movie is pretty easy but the results doesn´t have to be that good, after all. If all is spot on and well prepared, director may loose his grip and effort. Also it´s no good to hide the film made till public screening. You see, I reckon it´s good to show movie to anybody who understands film and filmmaking, but he doesn´t have to be professional film maker”.
He was fortunate that he caught an eye famous director´s duo Kadár-Klos, who invited him for the casting of their film “ Obžalovaný.” As every man in those days, Menzel had to join the army for two years, but was lucky again since he could film short documentaries of army life , edit them and show them that very evening in army cinemas.
His first movie outside Film academy was a story from motorcycle races called „ Smrt pana Baltazara“ which he made within 7 days. It was for multi-story-movie called „ Perličky na dně“.Other directing contributors were the likes of Věra Chytilová, Jaromír Jireš, Evald Schorm to name but a few of so called „ new wave“ representatives. It´s pretty amazing, that stories made by Juraj Herz or Ivan Passer didn´t make it to that movie and were shown before screening. Bohumil Hrabal, who wrote the story for his first movie, was Menzel´s soulmate and marked his career.
About Czech new wave to which he belonged along with Ivan Passer, Hynek Bočan, Miloš Forman, Evald Schorm, Jan Němec, Věra Chytilová, Pavel Juráček, Jaromír Jireš and Antonín Máša, Menzel said that they knew each other, lived in same town, attended same school, had same restricted entry to information and same life experience. They met infrequently, weren´t organized, had no program, manifesto or theory. Regime taught them how to appreciate ordinary human being and don´t try to find film hero among murders and villains.
For me the film is primarily a human story. I need to when how it starts and finishes
Jiří got a chance to direct “Ostře sledované vlaky“ for which he got Academy award in 1966.Director revealed that Hrabal´s novel came to his hands by pure accident, after it was refused by many other film directors. “Our only aim was to make a good movie that people will like to attend and watch.I believe too big ambition can cause artistic cramp, it´s like chain on your legs“. Even though the film was such a smashing hit, he got only 30 000 crowns for that. Modest director bough himself green painted East German car cos his mates had more noble West German production ones .He flew to America to be at the ceremony of Academy Awards.He said he felt like “standing on the golf course for the first time and striking hole in one”. Two days before that he was visited by people from Universal studio and was offered a contract for two years. Jiří refused the offer knowing, he would have to leave his beloved viewers and he couldn´t do it his way in America.
Jiří Menzel admits he is aware that time has changed and thinks, that „ independent film maker has bigger freedom but smaller possibilities“.
He would also give young directors-to-be 3 advices:“ They should know, what they want, how to do it and for whom they make the movie“. Even such notorious director as he is, he isn´t sure where is the border between independent and commercial movie. Maybe he wants to push indirectly other directors to find this line and turn it to their advantage.
Almost every other film he made, be it „ Rozmarné léto, Skřivanci na niti, Na samotě u lesa, Postřižiny, Vesničko má středisková and others, were awarded at many international festivals. He successfully collaborated with Bohumil Hrabal, Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak. He also acted as a guest in Jára Cimrman theatre. Apart from film directing, he also devoted his time to theatre and directed in Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Norway, France, Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary and Croatia. He is equally good director as is the actor. He appeared in, so far, 76 films made in Czech Republic, Poland, France and Croatia. For his work he got life achievement awards on festivals in Turkey, Israel, Portugal, Spain, Poland and India.
During past 2 decades he made only 3 new films. He latest one, made in 2013 is called “Donšajni“ and is the first movie, he wrote script for as well. Jiří Menzel remains one of the most successful and popular Czech directors of all time.