Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Good Comedy Should Be About Serious Things: Two Films by Jiří Menzel

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

Near the beginning of Jiří Menzel’s 1965 film Closely Observed Trains – his Oscar-wining feature debut that he made at the age of 28 – there is a lovely offhand moment. The station porter, Mr. Novak, goes to pull a cart along the platform but the handle comes off in his hands, and in a scene of pure slapstick, he falls backwards on the ground while the two station guards look on. At that moment the station clock chimes. ‘That clock has such a beautiful sound,’ he says, smiling on the ground. No histrionics, no complaining, just an acceptance of things and the finding of beauty in a situation. It also serves the purpose of calling attention to the importance of the clock and timing in the station, as the hour approaches for young Milos’s appointment with fate in the form of a Nazi munitions train. In that one small moment, themes of beauty, laughter, survival and liberation, are subtly connected and evoked.

As with I Served the King of England, Menzel adapted Closely Observed Trains from a book by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. The scene I have mentioned was Menzel’s own however and calls to mind Hrabal’s words, quoted by Peter Hames in his essay on the film in the Wallflower Press book, The Cinema of Central Europe: ‘we keep complementing each other, like two mirrors flashing at each other with the reflections of our poetic vision.’

I Served the King of England was Menzel’s sixth adaptation from Hrabal, and I’d like to look at how he adapted it for the screen, and some of the inclusions and omissions he made in order to maintain a certain tone, but also how the context of the story itself has changed over time.

Given the Czech Republic’s physical situation and history, it’s not surprising that the figure of a person caught up in circumstances beyond their making but trying to make the best of a given situation while others play out their grand plans, is a familiar one in Czech film. The protagonist of I Served the King of England, the diminutive Ditie, a barman, and then waiter in ever-grander establishments in 1930s and 40s Prague, is one such figure. It’s worth calling to mind that Menzel has said that the character of Ditie is related to that of Milos – the central character in Closely Observed Trains, but whereas Milos was a sexually naïve figure whose preoccupation with losing his virginity was tied up with an anti-heroic sacrifice for his country, Ditie is fired by his boundless enthusiasm for money and sex, the latter of which, courtesy of an affair with a German woman the same height as himself, leads to him becoming a ‘tolerated Aryan-Boehmian’, having his sperm checked for suitability to populate a future German race, and practising his art of waiting on naked blonde women in a ‘selective human breeding station’ in the hills. As Menzel says, ‘It's the same hero, but after 40 years, you know better who the man is. What is at first view innocent, later you see is more complicated. But he is just like the rest of us. Nobody is perfect.’

The film opens with Ditie being let out of prison, where he has been put by the communists for being a millionaire. Ditie’s first words set the tone of his undimmed, if now world-weary optimism: ‘I was sentenced to 15 years, but because of the amnesty only served 14 years and 9 months’. In a moment of pure slapstick that reminds us of Menzel’s love of silent comedy, he then finds his bagged trapped in the prison door.

As with the scene of Novak the porter, this is entirely Menzel’s work. In the book, Ditie gets just two years in prison (courtesy of his having two million crowns in the bank); here it’s fifteen years by the same rule, which is partly down to sounding more impressive, but crucially, makes for a better punchline. It’s also worth noting that the English translation of the words that appear on screen at the opening are ‘It was always my luck to run into bad luck’. In the novel the line is translated is ‘I was always lucky in my bad luck’. I like to think of them together, as two sides of the same coin.

Bringing Hrabal’s novel to the screen was a long-cherished project for Menzel, and time and familiarity with the material have given the film, filled with lovingly recreated period detail of 1930s Prague, a rosy glow of nostalgia in which wistful remembrance frames farce and troubling recollections. This is interesting as it shows a mutation on the part of the original material. Hrabal’s novel was originally published in illegal samizdat form in Czechoslovakia in 1971. Now, a novel about the ineffable wonder of sex and money, circulated clandestinely while communist ‘normalization’ was abroad in the land, obviously had a different, and far more subversive resonance then than it does today, with us as consumers of the work as a neutral product in the form of a book bought online or a big-budget film distributed internationally on DVD.

The film of course does go into darker areas not normally asociated with comedy – witness Ditie running after a cattle truck of Jewish prisoners with a sandwich to slightly doleful silent film chase scene music – but Menzel’s words: ‘Good comedy should be about serious things. If you start to talk about serious things too seriously, you end up being ridiculous,’ should be remembered here.

Hrabal’s book is both more grisly and more graphically sexual than the film could be. in the novel, Dite‘s love of deorating women's bodies with flowers meets its match in the German woman Lise, who, after they have made love, tears apart spruce branches ‘the way hunters do when they‘ve killed an animal,’ and decorates Ditie’s own body, then taking him so roughly that he is almost afraid of her, as the spruce sprigs tear her mouth until she bleeds. This scene is missing from the film, though Dite’s fear is communicated in a another way entirely, and one unique to the screen, as Lise’s face momentarily morphs into that of Adolf Hitler as they are trying to conceive a child under his portrait.

Another section from the book that doesn’t make it into the film is of Ditie talking about his grandmother, who lived by a mill, and fished out salesmen’s underwear, to wash and sell on. It reads: ‘I can still see Grandma waiting at night by the open window, which wasn’t easy in the autumn and winter, and I can still see that rejected shirt caught in an updraft, hovering for a moment outside our window and spreading its arms. Grandma deftly pulled it in, because in another second the shirt would fall akimbo, like a white bird shot out of the sky, down into the black gurgling waters, to reappear like a tortured thing on the rack of the mill wheel, without a human body inside it, rising in a wet arc and then coming back down the other side, and slip off the wheel and fall into the rushing black waters, to be wept down the millrace under the black blades and far away from the mill.’

It’s a powerful piece of writing, filled with understated threat, which, notwithstanding its tangential relationship to the material selected for the film, was left out I suspect because its contemporary relevance of people mysteriously disappearing has gone.

Menzel has said on adapting works for the screen: ‘An adaptation is always a challenge for a filmmaker. When you write an original screenplay, you create it directly in pictures. In a book, you must turn the words into an image. The challenge is looking for expression in film. For example, how to describe what is going on in the mind of the characters. Sometimes situations in a book are only illustrated, which is often a shame.’

I find a little of such illustrations in I Served the King of England, whereas in Closely Observed Trains, you have to look no further than the opening scenes in which Miloš takes us through his family history, accompanied by illustrations and photographs sharply edited together, to see how adeptly a novel’s material can be given new life on screen. Here, Menzel’s approach has sprightly jocularity that never undermines the reverence for the original, and preserves just that tone of joking about a serious subject. In I Served the King of England, the nostalgia that comes through a man reflecting on his own life, has added a new, less satisfactory element into the mix. At its least successful this approach ends up in, well, the ending, where an aged Ditie, living in an abandoned bar near the German border, raises a glass of beer to the camera. It looks like nothing so much as an advertisement for Stella Artois (though I guess Pilsener would be more appropriate for the beer). If I’m feeling generous though, and bearing in mind that it has taken over two decades for his adaptation to get to the screen, I can read this as an ironic comment on the apparent new golden age of possibility that Menzel finds himself in with regard to filmmaking. Generosity is a good place to end when talking about Menzel I think. As well as his wry, compassionate humanism, irreverence and mischief, and subtly ambiguous characters, unresolvable except to contrary human nature, there is a simplicity about his purpose that is immensely appealing. He says, ‘I can’t stand artistic declarations, the need for a work to say something. In the theatre and on film, I want people to laugh and at the same time to discreetly see themselves as they are. In a way that isn’t too painful.’

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