Jiri Menzel, Oscar-Winning Czech Director, Dies at 82


You might think the Czech director Jiri Menzel, having spent much of his life behind the Iron Curtain, wanted nothing more than to be free of it. But Mr. Menzel knew the value of having limits to test.

“There were great films made under censorship, even in the United States — for instance when they were not allowed to show kissing,” he told The East European Film Bulletin in 2013. “Freedom has this unlucky side effect that by making everything possible, you lack purpose and a direction. Creation always needs limits.”

Mr. Menzel won international acclaim and an Oscar for his first feature, “Closely Watched Trains,” in 1966, a time when he and other directors — including Milos Forman, Vera Chytilova and Ivan Presser — tested authoritarian limits under Communism in Czechoslovakia.

The movement, which became known as the Czechoslovak New Wave, was muzzled when Soviet troops marched into the country in 1968, a crackdown that began a period of creative limbo for Mr. Menzel. But he re-emerged, directing movies known for irony and humor. He also had substantial careers as an actor and a stage director.

Mr. Menzel died on Sept. 5, his wife, Olga Menzelova, said in a post on Facebook. He was 82. She did not provide further details, though Mr. Menzel had been in poor health for several years and had brain surgery in 2017.

Mr. Menzel generally set his movies in small towns and kept them subtle and light. “Closely Watched Trains,” told of the goings-on at a sleepy station where trains passed through bringing supplies to German troops during World War II. “My Sweet Little Village” (1985), which, like “Closely Watched Trains,” was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film, is a bumpkins-versus-a-bureaucrat tale. His last movie, “The Don Juans” (2013), was about a small-town troupe’s attempt to stage the Mozart opera “Don Giovanni.”

“Humor is the most important thing,” he said when “The Don Juans” was making the festival rounds, “whether it is life or cinema. Violence is depressing.”

Jiri Menzel was born on Feb. 23, 1938, in Prague. His father, Josef Menzel, was a journalist and children’s book author; his mother, Bozena Jindrichova, was a tailor. He father was an intellectual, he said, but his mother, as he put it, was “normal.”

“I always try to make a movie that I won’t have to be ashamed of in front of my father, but also one that my mother would understand,” Mr. Menzel told Reuters in 1987.

His first interest was theater, he said, but he became interested in film while studying at the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts from 1958 to 1962 under the director Otakar Vavra. Ms. Chytilova, a classmate, provided his first film acting credit, casting him in a short, “Strop” (1962).

He directed several shorts of his own before filming “Closely Watched Trains,” which was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal. The movie seems to be proceeding as a gently humorous coming-of-age story until it ends explosively.

“What’s most clever about the movie,” Richard Schickel wrote in reassessing it for the Criterion Collection in 2001, “is the canny way Menzel and Hrabal deceive us, lead us into believing, right up to the end, that their aim is nothing more than a sort of chucklesome and offhand geniality.”

When the 1968 Soviet invasion put an end to the Czech period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring, many of Mr. Menzel’s contemporaries in filmmaking left the country. He stayed and felt again the grip of authoritarianism. Larks on a String,” a film, completed in 1969, about the re-education of several bourgeois characters under Communism, was deemed unacceptable and not released until 1990.

Mr. Menzel, though, took some theater-directing assignments and eventually found enough favor in the eyes of the authorities that he was allowed to return to filmmaking.

“Censorship is like weather,” he said. “Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s warm. You just have to know how to dress.”

If none of his later films approached the fame of “Closely Watched Trains,” they were reliably enjoyable. Mr. Menzel, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times in 1980, “observes the world with the kind of skepticism that would distrust a sunrise already in progress.”

“His movies aren’t dark enough to be called pessimistic,” Mr. Canby added. “Instead, they display a suspicion — strictly tentative, of course — that everything is not going to turn out all right. This is the center of his comedy, which is so fragile that it seems almost rude to laugh in its presence.”

Information on Mr. Menzel’s survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Menzel sometimes lamented that serious films made by his European contemporaries were often gloomy or cynical. He wasn’t afraid of a happy ending.

“People have such depressing lives that in films they should be stroked a little bit,” he told The Times in 1987 for an article about “My Sweet Little Village,” which had such an ending. “One should help them a little bit to hold their heads up high.”



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