Living under a repressive regime, famed Czech director Jiri Menzel never compromised his work. Receiving an honor at the Haifa Film Festival, he reflects on his struggles, his work and his philosophy.
'Chicago, Saloniki, Washington, New York, Seville, India," says director Jiri Menzel, reeling off the names of the festivals to which he will be bringing his latest film, I Served the King of England, in the coming months.
The Czech director, who is in Israel to attend the 23rd Haifa International Film Festival and receive its award for Cinematic Excellence and Innovation, is clearly no stranger to the festival circuit, or to being awarded its highest honors.
As one of the most lauded directors of the Czech New Wave in the mid-Sixties, his 1966 film, Closely Watched Trains, a darkly comic look at a bumbling railway worker during World War II who is drawn into helping the Resistance for less-than-heroic reasons, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
He accepted that award just months before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. Unlike virtually every other Czech director, he refused to take either of the two paths open to filmmakers at the time: toeing the line and making apolitical films acceptable to the regime, or going into exile (as such directors as Milos Forman and many others did). Instead, he stayed and tried to make the films he wanted, for which he paid the price.
His 1969 film, Larks on a String, which, like Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England, was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, told the story of a group of "bourgeois elements" - that is, professionals who are put to work in a junkyard to be rehabilitated. Considered by many to be his greatest film (along with several others, it is being shown in a retrospective at Haifa), it was banned by the government and not released until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In 1990, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Menzel was not allowed to make movies again until the mid-Seventies. However, he insists he is not bitter.
"I am not so focused on my own ego," he says. "I am not so angry, because in this time, many people were in much worse situations."
His explains his philosophy: "If you're born in a bad place, you have the responsibility to work for that bad place."
He does not begrudge those who chose to go into exile. "If you feel you can do something better on the outside, like Milos Forman, you have the right."
His latest film shows the compromises and pressures that characterized the Czech experience during the 20th century. I Served the King of England takes a light tone but looks at weighty subjects.
It focuses on a provincial waiter in the Thirties who dreams of being a millionaire and moves up to ever more prestigious establishments, eventually landing a job in a fancy Prague hotel.
By then, the Nazis have occupied the country and the waiter turns away from his idol, a polyglot headwaiter who is a strong Czech patriot, and falls for a young German teacher.
She won't marry him unless he is approved as Aryan enough by Nazi doctors. Due to his blond hair, high sperm count and one ancestor with a German name, he makes the cut and they are wed.
Gradually, under the Nazis, he accumulates the fortune he's dreamed of, but it's all tainted in one way or another and when the Communists come to power, he's shipped off to jail.
The film alternates between the earlier period and then the Sixties, when he is finally released from prison and tries to make a new life for himself in a rural area.
"It's not a realistic story," he says, referring to the film's whimsical tone.
Speaking about the character's journey from innocence to corruption and finally, to a more knowing purity at the end, he says: "I like stories when someone is pushed into the corner. You have to go down, and then you can go up."
Addressing the era the film depicts, in which Czechs turned their backs on the Nazi threat on their doorsteps until it was too late, he speculates on what could have happened if they had taken action sooner.
"Maybe if we had fought, we would lose much blood. But we wouldn't lose our dignity. Maybe if we had fought a war, the Germans wouldn't have attacked Poland," he says. "By the time of the Russian occupation, we have lost our dignity. Like a girl who sells her body, the first time it's tough; the second time, not so difficult."
Some directors from the former Soviet Union complain that it is actually harder to get serious movies made now than it was under the Communists, but Menzel does not agree.
"There is a very high quality of people now, very sophisticated conditions," says the soft-spoken director with a smile. "Yes, it's hard to find money, but I am no beggar. The producer is the beggar."