Monday, November 24, 2008

"It is not possible to talk about history without real human beings": A conversation with Jiri Menzel

Hunger for monetary gain is a mainstay in movies, yet there are scenarios in which mere greed falls short of supplying the motive. Jan Díte, a diminutive, good-natured Czech of plebian background, decides he’d like to be a millionaire. He regards it as a vocation, something to work toward, like learning how to build a log cabin or becoming a better tennis player. He studies the science of it. Jan also wants to make love to beautiful women, and this too he pursues with a sort of honest diligence. He goes into the hotel business. He bears witness to tremendous spectacles of decadence while quietly showering ladies with gentlemanly adoration, seducing them with modesty and sincerity and paying homage to their beauty by decorating their naked bodies with fruit. His actions read as essentially harmless, if indifferent to the world around him. That is, they would read as harmless, were Jan’s career not contemporaneous with the rise of the Third Reich.

Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England is a very dark comedy rendered with a very light touch. Tracing Jan’s unintentional development as a Nazi collaborator—he falls in love with a German who can only screw with a picture of Hitler beaconing down at her—the film warns against the perils of political apathy, yet Jan remains essentially serene in his attitude, even oblivious. Rather than feel the burden of having been a collaborator, as he looks back on his life, he seems largely burdened by nostalgia. Told mostly in flashbacks rife with wordless comic sequences that are equal parts Buster Keaton and Busby Berkeley, Jan is played as a young man by the nimble Ivan Barnev, while the older, penniless Jan is played by Oldrich Kaiser. The actors do not look especially alike, but the dual casting is inspired. The balance of similarities and differences provide the film with a rich sense of time and fate’s weathering of the body and spirit.

Jiri Menzel is probably best known for Closely Watched Trains, which won the 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It was Menzel’s debut, and the first of several adaptations of Hrabal. He was only 28. I Served the King echoes Closely Watched Trains not only in theme and tone—the conflict between one’s seeking of love and sexual fulfillment and one’s duty to one’s job or one’s country—but also in poetic gesture. Re-watching Closely Watched Trains, I had to smile as the young hero foolishly ran after a departing train he has no chance of catching up to—something we see happen twice in I Served the King, the second instance being especially grave in its implications. Hrabal and Menzel worked closely on all of Menzel’s adaptations until Hrabal’s death in 1997, the younger filmmaker always regarding the elder author and his ideas with reverence. Menzel, now 70, is in fact an exceedingly humble guy, looking back on his extraordinary, prolific career as a director, writer and actor as one long stroke of good luck. Yet, despite his rusty English, he speaks eloquently about what defines his approach. “It is not possible to talk about history without real human beings,” he explains. We spoke over the phone, he in Prague, me in Toronto. His bone-dry humour cracked me up repeatedly. We had a good time. I’ve tried to tidy up his responses enough to read fluidly while still giving a sense of his particular cadence.

JB: What drew you to this material? Why now?

Jiri Menzel: I have been very interested in Czech history, in the nature of the Czech character. And I found that we Czechs we are very flexible. We adapted to the Austrian Empire, to the German occupation, to the Russians. We seem able to collaborate with anyone. It’s a bad thing. We need to reflect on our history, on who we are. Mr. Hrabal’s work is an education in this. For many centuries now, we Czechs are heretics. We believe in nothing. We are skeptics. Our goal is only to survive. This is not good.

JB: There is here, as elsewhere in your body of work, a striking juxtaposition between the sweeping events of history and those of an ordinary individual’s daily life.

JM: If I could understand everything you say, I would agree.

Both laugh.

JB: Okay, let's try this one. Would you describe yourself as politically active?

JM: No, I’m not political at all. To be that way you need to be very concentrated, very strong. I’m not so strong. No.

JB: But your films have prompted strong responses from those who hold political power—and from those seeking political commentary.

JM: Yes, but I would like the viewers of my films to leave the cinema without feeling that their minds have had political statements imposed on them. Probably later, the viewer can locate some political connections in his mind, but I don’t like to approach these things directly. I just want to wake up the questions, of morality, of relationships with others, of responsibility. I want only to wake up the questions, not give lessons.

Menzel and Hrabal

JB: This is your sixth adaptation of a literary work by Bohumil Hrabal. Is there something special you can trace in these books that speaks to your sensibility as a filmmaker?

JM: I like his work, as you know, but this film happened simply because the studio owned the rights and offered me the job. I was happy to have the chance, but it was not my initiative. Hrabal for me is very close because of his humour, and he is for me one writer who can describe man with all his weakness and better qualities and can do so without anger. Even the worst qualities in man he can describe with such elegance. Hrabal is not angry like much modern literature, which tends to be very pessimistic. Mr. Hrabal is full of humour and love.

JB: There is in your films an emphasis on work and, in several cases, how to avoid it—did you ever have ambitions to do something other than work in film and theatre?

JM: You are suggesting I have to look for another appointment?

JB: [
Laughing] No. Honest. No, I was just wondering if you ever had other ambitions for your career than those you pursued. If you ever wanted a different job.

JM: I wanted to be a journalist because my father was a journalist. But when I was 15 I started to read the newspaper regularly and found the job was not for me because the newspaper was full of lies. This was the communist paper. So I escaped this fate and flew off to the theatre. From 15 to 20, I wanted to work in theatre as a director but I wasn’t accepted in theatre school for a lack of talent. I tried to work in television, which I thought might need new workers that didn’t have so much talent. I applied to the school for film and television and was given a chance there.

JB: Are there particular films that made an impression on you when you were young?

JM: In my high school, I had a chance to regularly attend screenings of many classic movies. In one week I could see all of Chaplin’s movies, in another, all of Renoir’s. I was able to see many great movies made during the silent era, movies from France, Germany and the United States, and they became part of my aesthetic. I was lucky to have that time because in film school I was not able to see many movies from the West.

JB: Have you felt like you’ve been able to make the sorts of films you wanted to make?

JM: I took it as my profession. I have never had the feeling to be an artist. I have respect for the man who takes his work as his profession. I don’t like art. Many artists are very far from ordinary people. My duty from the start, my decision, was to do everything for my neighbours. My father, you see, was a very educated man. An intellectual, very wise. My mother was a tailor. She was an ordinary woman. So I decided to do films for people like my mother, but at the same time, they needed to be films that I would not be ashamed to show my father. It’s not so easy.  

JB: Have you found filmmaking to be a radically different experience during the communist and post-communist periods?

JM: For me, nothing’s changed with regards to what I choose to do. I don’t see a big difference between the films I made in my youth and those I make now. Politics have had no influence on the content. The only difference now is that financially it’s not as easy as before. Now there is no ideological censorship, but it’s harder.

JB: I guess now you have economic censorship.

JM: Exactly.

JB: The performance style of
I Served the King seems indebted to silent comedy and physical theatre. I think Barnev gives a truly amazing performance, but is it difficult to find film actors who can embody this style?

JM: No. I probably have a good feeling about personalities. I prefer that films convey information without words. It may be because in my youth I saw many foreign movies without subtitles. I tried to understand just from the eyes and movements of the actors as a way of reading what’s inside. To this day, I don’t like too much talking in film.

I Served the King is often characterized as bittersweet. I read a quote from you somewhere recently I really liked: “It is bitter because it is Czech.” I wonder if you could elaborate on that.

JM: [
Laughs] Well, thanks to this film, I know our character better. It is not very sweet. I mean, I am happy to be Czech. I have to be proud to have this nationality. But I think any man has to look at himself with different eyes. And it’s the same for our country. It’s good to read books about what the Germans think of Czechoslovakia, or the French or the English. It’s important to not be blind to our history, and I tried to get a little bit of it in this film.

JB: Of all the great Czech novelists of the last 50 years or so, Milan Kundera, whose novels are nothing if not at once bitter and comic, seems to be the most enduring as an international figure. Have you ever considered adapting his work?

JM: [
Laughs] I asked him many years ago. One of my colleagues wished to make a film from one of his books, and, because Kundera was my teacher, I was in contact with him. But after The Unbearable Lightness of Being he decided that no more films would be made form his work. I asked him nice, but he was very determined. “Even you cannot do anything from my work,” he said. So I said to him, “I will wait for the moment when you need money.” He said, “So long as I’m alive, I won’t need that much money.” He is funny, but I like him. He’s a very nice man. He taught us comparative literature. He was very clever. He taught us what is the difference between Czech literature and that of other countries.

JB: You never considered being a novelist?

JM: Nah. I’m lazy for it.

JB: [
Laughs] But making a movie is really hard work, no?

JM: Well, yes, but you are surrounded by people who work with you, who help you. Like a team. You just tell them what to do and they do it. You know, it’s kind of nice, actually.

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