Last Sunday saw the Barbican’s London premiere (and only the second UK screening) of Jiří Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, 2007), his sixth adaptation of the work of the great Czech writer and eccentric Bohumil Hrabal following his contribution to the anthology Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně, 1965) and the features Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966), Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti, 1969), Cutting It Short (Postřižiny, 1980) and Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek, 1983).
What made the event particularly memorable (aside from the joy of being able to see the film in a packed cinema with an audience that was clearly heavily Czech, judging from the way they laughed at the spoken dialogue rather than the subtitles) was that Menzel himself was there to introduce it and discuss both it and his career after the screening with the critic and Czech cinema expert Peter Hames. Sadly, the curse of the Sunday evening rail timetable meant that I had to leave before the end, but here’s a précis of what I managed to catch.
Hames opened the discussion with a brief summary of Menzel’s career, which the director upstaged by wiggling his eyebrows at the audience, thus setting a gleefully irreverent tone that continued throughout. (Menzel clearly understood much more English than he was comfortable admitting to officially, and he and his interpreter had become something of a comedy double-act by the end).
Menzel began by discussing the writer Bohumil Hrabal and his various travails with the authorities: he was very much a cult figure at a time when the Czech authorities were relaxing the imposition of Socialist Realism. Menzel and his friends initially made a film (Pearls of the Deep) that consisted of a number of Hrabal adaptations, and Hrabal was sufficiently impressed not only to let Menzel adapt his novel Closely Observed Trains for the screen, but to agree to work on the script with the young neophyte (who wasn’t even thirty at the time).
Hrabal is often described as being essentially untranslatable, his work often consisting of seemingly random anecdotes and streams of consciousness - but Menzel pointed out that although this might be true linguistically, he’s actually much easier to adapt for film as his writing is so visual. Although the script for Closely Observed Trains was revised six times before Hrabal and Menzel were satisfied with it, that’s scarcely a problem (”Like a good spirit, it has to be distilled.”)
Hrabal died in 1997, but had several conversations with Menzel on the subject of I Served the King of England. Menzel initially turned down the project, as he thought it was too complex. Then, shortly before Hrabal’s death, he relented and wrote a first draft of the script, of which Hrabal was… constructively critical. He was nicer about the second draft, though Menzel doubted whether he’d actually read it. Menzel said that it was ultimately good for the film that he couldn’t get it off the ground for several years (he didn’t specify why, but the project was tied up in legal red tape over a dispute over the rights).
Someone asked him whether he had any plans to film Hrabal’s masterpiece Too Loud a Solitude, but Menzel said he didn’t dare: he thought the material was too strong. Hames pointed out that he’d actually toned down quite a lot of the darker material in I Served the King of England, but Menzel defended this by pointing out that the scene in the novel where Lise is decapitated would be easier to process in verbal form than it would be in visual form, where the image would be so powerful that it would unbalance everything else. (He added that it would also make the film “too contemporary”, to audience laughter).
In response to a question about whether the film was a comedy, Menzel said yes. Although it might seem that the protagonist Jan Dítě is hard to sympathise with after he turns a blind eye to the Nazi threat, this was part of Menzel’s overall portrait of what he sees as the Czech character, and its infinite capacity for blending in. Dítě is a typical Czech figure, and he’s made likeable in order to establish some point of identification. (”Dítě has to be good, even if his deeds aren’t”). He said that writing the script took a year and a half, but shooting was generally delightful as he was working with an excellent team. However, the worst bit was reading the largely negative reviews in the Czech press (”Czech critics are cleverer than the rest of us”).
The discussion about the film was interleaved with various other subjects: Menzel reminisced briefly about his time at FAMU when he studied alongside many of the leading lights of the Czech New Wave, but in response to a question about whether he was consciously evoking Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) in the film’s frequent food scenes, Menzel said a stronger role model was Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973).
Asked about how Eastern European films differ today from those made under socialism, Menzel said that it’s harder to make films today because filmmakers previously had very specific artistic aims, often dictated by external forces (technological or political restrictions). Today, you can do literally anything, and this can be limiting. Also, it was easier to get funding under socialism once the project had been approved.
Asked about the differences between adapting Hrabal and the equally distinguished novelist Vladislav Vančura (author of Capricious Summer/Rozmarné léto, which Menzel filmed in 1967), Menzel quipped that Vančura was much easier to work with, as he was dead and couldn’t defend himself.
Acknowledging that all his films can be described as comedies, Menzel explained that humour has a long tradition in Czech literature, and most classical books have some element of humour (”so it’s in my blood”). Czech humour is very close to Jewish humour, in that the Czechs often see themselves as serfs running rings around their masters, unlike Hungarians or Russians who saw themselves very much in the latter role. Unsurprisingly, Menzel is a big fan of silent comedy, and he fondly cited Chaplin and the way his films are “narrated by the image”.
And that, sadly, was all that I had time for - but I Served the King of England is opening in London on May 9th, and I’m hoping to have written about at least some of Menzel’s earlier Hrabal adaptations in more detail by then. Surprisingly, all five are out on DVD with English subtitles (a complete list of current Menzel DVDs can be found here), and while the Czech DVD of the new film isn’t English-friendly, it will doubtless appear on a British or American label at some point this year.