by George Bluestone
He is wearing a white sweat shirt with VIDEOWORKS-CLASS OF '90 in red letters pressed on the front. A light green parka. A workman's leather cap. He tells me his crew gave him the sweat shirt after they finished shooting Audience, his collaboration with PBS and Actors Studio, based on a play by Vaclav Havel. He talks about the rough edit being done in New York even as we speak, and of his plans to do a final edit of the Czech version when he returns to Prague in April. The television play, his first English-language production, is scheduled for broadcast on PBS. JiPi Menzel has come down to the London Hilton coffee shop from his flat in Hyde Park Square where he has been living while teaching at the National Film School in Beaconsfield.
I first heard from Jan Brychta, the eminent Czech emigre painter, illustrator and animator, and an old friend of Menzel's, that David Puttnam had helped Menzel find the teaching job in order to perfect his English. Puttnam is eager to produce a film with Menzel, and he has in fact already commissioned a screenplay by Aida Bortnik, the Argentinian writer who is best known for her script of The Official Story. Later, Puttnam tells me, "Menzel is one of a half dozen world-class directors I am eager to work with. I admire the whimsical complication of his characters. A Menzel character is like a diamond. Every time you think he or she is 'set,' you turn the diamond in the light and-poof! -there's another facet. He's some kind of quiet magician... My interest in Menzel goes back to 1969. I was tremendously excited after seeing Closely Watched Trains. The first time we met in Prague, he pointed to the fixtures in my hotel room, indicating they might be bugged. We went for a walk outside to talk. Menzel was on my menu when I was at Columbia Pictures. Istvin Szab6 was another. If Jifi and I can begin shooting Fade Out in the fall, it will be the culmination of twenty years of effort…”
Menzel examines the cloth napkin on the table. He asks the waitress to bring him a paper napkin. He seems agitated until the waitress brings him his paper napkin. It seems to be a talisman of simplicity; he has refused to order anything more than an espresso. There is about him an aura of monkish charm that comes from years of frugality.
Menzel tells me that he is going to the States where he will be screening his "lost film," Larks on a String (Skrivanci na Niti, 1969), based on stories by Bohumil Hrabal. Menzel began the film in 1968 during the "Prague Spring," finished it after the Russian invasion and the installation of the hard-line government. The film deals with a situation in 1948-1949 when Party policy put capitalists to work doing manual labor, and workers were elevated to bureaucratic posts. Since the film pokes fun at Party bureaucrats, the new regime put Larks on a String on a shelf and refused to release it. Now, twenty years later, with the upheave1 in Eastern Europe, and the coming of the Second Prague Spring, Menzel for the first time has permission to exhibit the film, and he will be attending screenings in Los Angeles, Washington, and Cleveland. The film has already won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Everyone who has seen it has commented on how lucky we are that the film was not destroyed. Larks on a String is another Menzel masterpiece.
How did he like teaching? Menzel says he did one course on scriptwriting, and one on his own very personal favorite films. He has shown, among others, Stagecoach, Intimate Lighting, Pickpocket, Loves of a Blonde. He says regretfully, "How do you explain to students why Intimate Lighting is a better film than Blue Velvet?" He seems much younger than his fifty-two years. Very little gray in his hair. Few wrinkles in his face, as though humor has kept him ageless. There is about him something of the eternal student. He still looks much like the high wire performer he played in Capricious Summer. His vaunted shyness and diffidence, his reputation for self-deprecation, have given way to the self-confidence of someone at the height of his powers, to an exhilaration at the fresh winds blowing through his country.
Suddenly the Czechs seem to be everywhere. Viclav Have1 is in London getting the red carpet treatment, visiting Margaret Thatcher, the Queen, and giving a talk at the ICA. Havel's "Vanek" plays are being performed at the Lyric in Hammersmith. Havel's To Live in Truth and Letters to Olga, published by Penguin and Faber, are in all the bookshops. The BBC exhumes two earlier productions of Audience and Private View, starring Michael Crawford. The newsmen pick up Havel's discomfort at formal dress and ceremony. The camera catches him shyly shaking a diplomat's hand, then rubbing his palm on his trousers like a kid. Or the gesture of plumbing his index finger inside his tight shirt collar. He is like a character in a Menzel film. The bohemian, the prisoner, the playwright used to turtlenecks, open collars, corduroys, has trouble standing on ceremony, being confined. Havel seems irresistible to marginalized artists who dream of utterance and power. The press eats it up.
George Konrad, the Hungarian novelist, publishes a major article in The Guardian, recounting impressions of Prague. Michael Ignatieff returns from Prague, writes a searching column in The Observer asking whether the Velvet Revolution will survive if Havel is not tough enough to prosecute some of the 2,000 secret police who are staying home, out of sight, drawing their salaries. Newsweek runs a cover story on Havel asking a similar question: "Vaclav Havel Is a Genuine Hero. But Is He a Good President?'' The Playwright/President is one of the most charismatic and humane leaders on the world stage, but does he have what it takes to guide his country through the difficult transition to democratization and a market economy? This is the language of people who think Havel is too good to be true. Memories of Dubcek's fall are etched painfully in collective memory. One of the most poignant images on television shows Julian Glover in Prague screening a docudrama for Alexander DubEek. The program had been produced years ago, with Glover playing DubEek, but it had never been broadcast in Czechoslovakia. As the two men watch, we hear DubEek saying, "Yes, that is just the way it was... Yes, it was so... " At the end, both men embrace, tears in their eyes, as though they thought this day would never come. The BBC is running a two-week homage to the liberation, leading up to the June election, called "Tales from Prague." The first program in the series is called "Absurdistan." Philip Roth publishes a major article, "A Conversation in Prague," in The New York Review of Books, based on his first visit in fourteen years, centering on the work of his old samizdat friend, Ivan Klima, whose latest novel, Love and Garbage, is prominently displayed in London bookstores. The day after I return from Prague, I notice signs in the Underground announcing yet another Havel play, Temptation, directed by James Roose-Evans, at the Westminster Theatre. There is an influence here, a steely hope laced with ineradicable caution (so many bitter disappointments over the years), far beyond the size and numbers of the country. And Menzel's work and situation are at the heart of it.
In the West we had the impression that when Menzel chose to remain in Prague after the Russian invasion he was without work for nearly twenty years, that there was a huge gap between Closely Watched Trains (Ostre' Sledovane Vlaky , 1966) and Capricious Summer (Rozmarne Leto, 1967), and My Sweet Little Village (VesniEko Ma Stfediskova, 1985). The truth is a little different. In fact, Menzel was without a film for only five of those years, and even then he worked steadily as actor and director at his theater, the Cinoherni Klub. He kept his association with Barrandov Studios where, besides Larks on a String, he completed seven films which have yet to be distributed in the West. If Larks on a String is representative, we are in for a treat, for a major resurrection of an extraordinary body of work: Crime in the Night-Club (ZloCin v gantanu, 1968), from a novel by Josef Skvoreckjr. Who Looks for Gold (Kdo Hleda Zlate, 1974). Seclusion Near the Forest (Na Samote' u Lesa, 1975). Those Wonderful Men with Their Cranks, also known as Magicians of the Silver Screen (Bajec'ni Muii s Klikou, 1978). Cutting It Short (Postfifiny, 1980), from a story by Bohumil Hrabal. Snow Drop Festival (Slavnosti Sne'ienek, 1982), from a story by Hrabal. The End of Old Times (Konec Stary'ch caszi, 1988) from a novel by Vladislav VanEura. The End of Old Times has been shown at the Montreal Film Festival where Menzel won Best Director.
Menzel makes a rueful connection between two of his film titles and their political context. "In 1967 I finished Capricious Summer, and in 1988 we had our capricious summer... In 1988 I finished The End of Old Times, and in 1989 we indeed saw the end of old times." "Then you must be a prophet." He smiles dryly, with some pleasure, and does not dispute the description.
In Philip Roth's searching piece (New York Review of Books, April 12 1990) centering on his extended interview with Ivan Klima, the description of the felt difference in Czech attitudes toward Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera is similar to the difference in feeling toward Jifi Menzel and Milos Forman. Klima responds to Roth's question about the obsession with Kundera:
Kundera's picture, his critics will tell you, is the sort of picture which you would see from a very capable foreign newspaperman who'd spent a few days in the country. Such a picture is acceptable to the Western reader because it confirms his expectations; it reinforces the fairy tale about good and evil, which a good boy likes to hear again and again. But for these Czech readers our reality is no fairy tale. They expect a much more comprehensive and complex picture, a deeper insight into our lives from a writer of Kundera's stature...
The natural pride in one of their own "making it" in the West is tempered by the sense among many Prague artists and intellectuals that Forman and Kundera "ran out" on their country, left their roots behind and lost some essential indigenous Czech spirit. Forman returned to Czechoslovakia to shoot Amadeus (before the revolution) in a partial gesture of rediscovery and restoration, but what came out was a gaudy pageant that was straight Hollywood. All one has to do is compare the shooting of Loves of a Blonde and Firemen's Ball to Amadeus to immediately sense the difference. I ask Menzel if there is truth to the rumor that he did not leave Prague in 1968 because he was attached to his aging and ailing father. It was the only time in our talks I could feel him bristling: "I had my father. I had my mother. I had my country." Clearly he was feeling that he had been one of "those who stayed the course."
Jan Brychta says, "I don't think there's much of that kind of negative feeling between Forman and Menzel. They have never been close friends, and in any event each respects what the other has done. I think they felt they were fighting the same battle on two different fronts."
Jan Brychta had told me the joke that was going around expatriate circles: "How does a smart Czech Jew talk to a dumb Czech Jew?" Answer: "By phone from London to Prague." After the laughter subsides, it occurs to me: "Wait a minute. Does this make Menzel a dumb Czech?" The diamond turns and suddenly there's another facet. It appeals to Menzel's sense of irony and sympathetic sadness that he is planning his first English film - abroad at the precise moment there is no longer any need to. In one of his earlier interviews Menzel said, "I am Czech to the bone." That was given as a reason for not leaving with Jan Kadar, Milo5 Forman, Ivan Passer, Frank Daniel, Antonin and Mira Liehm. His decision to stay has about it the aura of Brechtian cunning. He learned to maneuver his way through the bureaucracy. When the Party zigged, he knew how to zag.
"I think the authorities were very reluctant to mess with Czechoslovakia's first Oscar winner," Jan Brychta explains. David Puttnam concurs, "I think Jifi's international reputation protected him." The story is told that when the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, most writers and artists were extremely apprehensive about how and when the apparatchiks would crack down. Menzel remembers one screening of Crime in the Nightclub shortly after the Russians came in. The film ends with the main characters, who must be sacrificed by the authorities because they have been too successful, having their heads in nooses and singing (echoes of Beggar's Opera). Menzel thought this ending was a perfect metaphor for Czechoslovakia: "still singing with a noose around its neck-and the end just a little in doubt." The Russians in the audience let the political satire roll right by them. Instead, characteristically, they objected to the accompanying newsreel and documentary. Menzel found the bureaucracy porous.
Although he did not make a film for five years, from 1969 to 1974, he worked steadily in the theater, at Cinoherni Klub and the Semafor, mounting productions of Machiavelli's Mandragola, collaborating with Jifi Suchy and Jifi Slitr on The Last Hospital and The Devil from Vinohrady. The slogan above the portal at FAMU, the Prague Film School-"We Must Err on the Side of Freedom''- never came down. Menzel continued to act, most notably in Vha Chytilova's The Apple Game. It may have been his gentle humor, or the fact that his films are more interested in Chekhovian epiphanies than in broad political gestures, or his frugal style of shooting, or his persona as a shy and diffident clown. But the fact remains that he was able to get his projects accepted by the managers at Barrandov Studios. Have1 stayed and went to jail. Klima stayed and had his driver's license lifted. Menzel stayed and poked breathing holes in the system. They all went on singing with the noose around their necks, and the outcome just a little in doubt.
Later, in Prague, we meet again. This time I pick him up at the Cinoherni Klub. I see that his old collaborator, Jifi Suchy, is still producing satirical reviews at the Semafor. At the new national theatre on Nardoni Street an early Havel play, The Garden Fete, is in repertory. There is a curious air in the city of expectation and caution, of euphoria and skepticism. The first free Czech election in more than forty years is coming up in early June. There are twenty-three parties on the ballot; there is some fear that if the vote is fragmented, Havel may have trouble forming a strong Civic Forum government. (On June 9, Civic Forum in fact won a comfortable majority and was able to form a government.) There are frequent political marches and rallies. At a memorial plaque reading simply, "17 November 1989," candles still burn. New party newspapers proliferate. At the St. Wenceslas statue there is a hunger strike in protest against the Czech Communist Party. At the Jan Hus monument there is another hunger strike in support of democratization in mainland China. On Na Pfikope the kiosks are alive with exhibits of Prague's past, with chilling photographs and news stories recounting the tragedies of Nazi and Russian occupations. In store windows there are TV monitors running documentaries on the historic occupations and liberations. The lines are almost as long as those for books and ice-cream. Crowds gather at the windows bearing silent witness to images that had been forbidden as recently as November 1989.
Menzel has been meeting in darkened rooms all morning, and he is eager to walk. We go to a cafe off Wenceslas Square and order abstemious orangeades. I have still not seen Menzel eat solid food. He has been working at the theater until eleven o'clock each evening. His schedule is packed, but he seems if anything more exhilarated than he was in London. He is preparing a production of Vaclav Havel's version of Three-Penny Opera, which has never been properly performed in Prague. Menzel has returned from a triumphal tour of the United States where his films have been well received at showings in Los Angeles, Washington, and Cleveland. He has been reading the Aida Bortnik script for his possible collaboration with David Puttnam. He is planning to begin yet another adaptation of a Bohumil Hrabal story. He is about to go off to Film Export to pick up tapes of Audience, his adaptation of the Havel play, so that he can start editing the Czech version. And on top of all this, he has accepted Barrandov Studio's invitation to begin producing a series of films by young Czech directors, an attempt to revive the renaissance that blossomed briefly under DubEek. He is very aware that Hrabal is appearing at the Brighton Film Festival along with other East European writers and directors. He had intended to go, but now thinks he must send regrets.
I go to an exhibition of banned books at Strahov Monastery, now the national library, housing beautiful collections of illuminated manuscripts in the elegantly appointed Hall of Theology and Hall of Philosophy. Sixty-Eight Publishers, under the doughty editorship of Josef Skvoreckg and his wife Zdena during and since the Russian occupation, working out of their office in Toronto, had published 200 titles by banned Czech writers. The books are now proudly on display, burning brightly in the spotlights. On the cases are photographs of the writers, and complete bibliographies. Ivan Klima is there, and Milan Kundera, Skvoreck-j himself with more than a dozen titles. Bohumil Hrabal, Nobel Prize-winning poet Jaroslav Seifert, Antonin Liehm, Vladislav VanEura, in short the best of Czech literature, and all the writers Menzel has adapted during the last twenty-five years. I am reminded of the devastating power of the book burning in Fahrenheit 451 (see my "The Fire and the Future," Film Quarterly, July, 1967), and am deeply moved by the resurrection of these books, like tender shoots of love and comradeship taking root in the scrapheaps of Larks on a String.
Over our orangeades, I ask some questions about Larks on a String, which I have seen since our last meeting. Menzel says, "We used bits and pieces of several Hrabal stories, so we knew we would need a frame, some way of focusing the film so it would not become too diffuse. We remembered a story going around Prague. A commissar is addressing a meeting of workers of the subject of the transition from socialism to communism. A worker jumps up and interrupts: 'It is all very well to talk about the transition from socialism to communism, but let's talk facts. Where is the meat? Where is the milk? Where are the eggs?' The commissar answers, 'These things take time. You must be patient. We must all be patient.' A year later the same commissar is addressing the same group of workers, and again someone in the audience jumps up to interrupt. 'It is all very well to be theoretical, but there is something we want to know. Where is the meat? Where is the milk? Where are the eggs? And where is the worker who asked the same question last time we met?' When we had the joke, we knew we had the focus."
I saw Larks on a String at a press screening at the Cannon Cinema, in London. In the leisurely prologue, we meet six characters who have been assigned to a gigantic scrap metal yard to correct their bourgeois tendencies. The time is shortly after the communist regime was installed under Klement Gottwald in 1948-49. We see the Dairyman, the Professor, the Inventor, the Judge, the Saxophonist and the Cook, played by Vaclav Neckaf, the young pop star and actor Menzel used for Milos Hrma, the assistant station master in Closely Watched Trains. The grounds for their assignments, it is gradually revealed, are as comically absurd as they are arbitrary and cruel. The saxophone has been declared a bourgeois instrument. The authorities have cut back from five functioning dairies to three, so the redundant Dairyman has been assigned to the scrap metal detail. The Professor has uttered a forbidden thought. The Cook is a Baptist who refuses to work on Sundays, etc. The men are surrounded with hortatory banners and slogans like, "We are not afraid of work to surpass our norms." The men are told that the scrap metal, like huge forsaken dung heaps which they are ordered to collect and transfer to trundles and box cars, is being shipped to factories to be melted down and converted into tractors and other machine tools to build a glorious future of socialist prosperity. But since we never see the outcome of their labor, the endless gathering of scraps comes to resemble the pointless human labor in the myth of Sisyphus or the carrying of rocks in Martin Sherman's Bent.
In an adjoining yard is the prison dorm for a group of women who have been incarcerated for trying to escape to the west. The men seem to live in a low-security bungalow, the women in a highsecurity prison. A callow guard in uniform sits all day on a chair atop the scrap heap-his sole function, apparently, to keep the men and women apart. The pace of the work, in contrast to hard Siberian labor, is leisurely and inefficient. The men seem to have plenty of time to sit around playing cards and games; the women to giggle, gossip, and cavort. The system is as porous as the policies of Menzel's studio censors. The men talk about Dreiser, Chaplin, Picasso, tell a long teasing story about Zatopek, the famous long-distance runner, apply the myth of Anteus to their own situation. Gradually, these apparently unrelated anecdotes, witty aphorisms, build up a communal network. Deprived of freedom, condemned to absurd work, they will nevertheless value the experience. The scrap hill brigade will find love among the ruins.
After the prologue, the film develops three intertwining subplots: Neckar courts, pursues, and eventually marries one of the young women. The timid guard marries a gypsy girl, but for a long time she playfully postpones a consummation. Woven into the personal stories are the periodic appearances of Party functionaries who come and go, both commanding and ingratiating themselves with the men in the penal colony. In one scene, a functionary arrives by car wearing a dressy fedora. He goes into the back seat and emerges with a worker's cap which he switches for the fedora. By the time he is haranguing the men, he has removed his tie as well, and stands there comically trying to endear himself to his listeners. The incorrigibles blink in the sun, failing to be impressed.
A delegation of school children arrive, shepherded by an attractive teacher who with her lacquered hair turns out to be the most rigid ideologue in the film. After the children perform a ritual of tying red scarves around the necks of our scrap metal workers, in a managed gesture of solidarity, the teacher points to the cluster of women prisoners and warns her charges to treat them as pariahs. They are dangerous enemies of the revolution who deserve what has happened to them. They are contaminated and must be put away. The women we have come to know-sensual, easy, light-heartedcontravene this judgment.
It is an unpromising purgatory, and yet eros devises a way to take root and grow. NeckaP9s young cook approaches Jitka Zelenohorska at least five times, offering to buy chocolates and other blackmarket gifts for the women. Each time he asks, "Isn't there anything I can do for you?" Each time she smiles and shakes her head. Finally he asks, "Will you marry me?" This time she nods yes as if she has all the while been waiting for this moment. NeckaP does a back somersault to show his joy. From the scrap heap it is possible for love to grow.
Near the end, a higher-ranking official appears, myopic, blinking blandly in the light. Jan Brychta tells me this sinisterly comic figure is loosely based on Dr. Zdenek Nejedljr, a former Minister of Culture. The official wears a beatific smile, spouts party slogans, seems uplifted by the sight of the scrap metal heap destined for proletarian conversion. As the official passes among his flock, NeckaP manages to position himself in the receiving line, and when he gets close enough, seizes the opportunity. Instead of a ritual piety, he asks pointedly: what has happened to the Professor, to the Dairyman? Both have mysteriously disappeared. The official has a wonderful moment of filmed epiphany. The beatific expression does not change, but through some magical osmosis we realize the question has registered, the name is recorded, the decision already made to deal with this upstart swiftly. We are not surprised at the scene that follows. We have had two unconsummated marriages. In Menzel's world sexual deprivation becomes a kind of minor comic tragedy. Characters are blocked until the channels are clear. The bride's community of women have ingeniously prepared a bridal chamber in a small shack in the junkyard, and in an improvised fertility rite with flowers and garlands they escort her there to await her betrothed. As NeckaP climbs over mounds of junk to meet his love, the same black car we saw whisk away the Professor and the Dairyman pulls up and forces the young groom in. We will not see this marriage consummated. Just when we begin to fear that NeckaP's young cook is off to prison, or even worse, death, he reappears in a quasi-military uniform, along with the Dairyman and Professor, as a member of a forced labor brigade assigned to work in a nearby mine. The Professor says that he is content, that he existentially accepts his fate, but the last image tells us otherwise: the men descend by lift into a shaft, a bleak netherworld, leaving behind and above a diminishing patch of light. The censors who shelved the film must have understood it clearly. Precisely because of Menzel's light touch, his rendering of the human comedy which against all odds blossoms into new life in the dung heap, the film is one of the most incisive indictments of communist bureaucracy ever made.
The guard's wedding is a similarly sustained piece of gentle whimsy. His bride is all silence, dance and movement. She leaves her groom to dance with one of the musicians, a graceful fiddler. On the wedding night she holds off her husband's heavy insistent body, leads him a merry chase around their rooms, flicking lights off and on. The shots outside their building, showing the windows flicking on and off to Jifi Sust's tinkly music, are magical, haunting, like a mid-summer night's dream. Another night, he finds the bed empty, discovers his bride asleep atop the armoire, like an alien creature unaccustomed to the comforts of a civilized bed. On another afternoon, the barber tells the guard a story about a man who comes home from work early to find his wife in bed with a stranger. The guard hurries home, afraid he will find his wife in flagrante. Instead he discovers her in the bathroom, burning a chair to sustain a fire, humming and chanting a gypsy song. Finally, we see him sleeping on the floor, his wife in his arms. Consummation can take place, and gratification too, when the husband enters her world. It is a tribute to Menzel's refusal to accept cliches and stereotypes that he goes to great pains to show the human side of the penal guard. By showing the vulnerable guard "learning the message of his love," and paralleling the unconsummated marriage of NeckaP and Zelenohorska, Menzel has rendered their common humanity. The scene prepares us for the shot where the guard enters the circle of communal fire.
Menzel's sure technique makes it clear that the mountains of waste can deliver redeeming surprises as well as oppression. On his mound the guard retrieves from an abandoned headboard a metallic picture of a guardian angel. Later we see it up on a wall decorating his apartment. In another scene, rusty phallus-like objects are passed hand to hand among the men and women, and-as in "A Squeeze of the Hand" in Moby Dick-fingers touch in sen- - sual communion. Again, the men and women are warming their hands around a fire. The guard, sensing the comradeship of the barrel fire, joins in to warm his hands as well. He has abandoned his role as policeman.
In Menzel's world sexual love has a kind of guileless assertion. It is more pagan than puritan. Separated by a wire fence, monitored by the guard, the men and women will nevertheless find a way to achieve communion of the flesh. At night the men line up behind the fence and watch the women disrobing as they prepare for bed. One of them remarks, "Did God ever create something more beautiful than a woman's body?" With a look of playful seduction, Zelenohorska waves at NeckaP. The women are disporting themselves to arouse the men. Later, out in the yard, one of the women pretends to be getting something out of a man's eye. They improvise a retreat amidst the junk, touch, begin to make love. Later Neckaf uses the same trick to get Zelenohorska aside. In another scene, we see the barber in his apartment flirting with his middle-aged wife. Their grown daughter reads a book and chides them for their playfulness. Are they thinking of having more children? Sometimes it seems as though the world is divided, to borrow Harry Levin's distinction, into Playboys and Killjoys. And in the long run the Playboys will win out.
Even the Communist foreman, played with maladroit consciousness by Rudolf HruSinskjr, one of Menzel's favorite actors (in Prague I see that he is preparing to play Falstaff in Henry I V at the National), is a sexual being. Early on, he boasts that he is the only man in the yard who comes from a working-class background. Every once in awhile he picks up a piece of scrap metal and throws it clumsily on the transport cars, as though this iconic gesture certifies his solidarity with the victims. At first he seems to have avuncular feelings for a group of children whom he instructs in cleanliness. He produces a sponge and wipes the children's eager faces while he indulges in a pattern of affectionate play. Each time he is done with this ritual, he asks the local woman, "Is the water ready, on the boil?" He enters an inner room, but we do not see what he does. Is he indulging himself in a hot bath? Near the end of the film, we see what the hot water has been prepared for. The foreman removes his jacket and proceeds to bathe a nubile young girl. In the scene where the absurd perversion is revealed, he is joined by one of the local functionaries, who robustly enters into the spirit of the sponging. The innocent sponging of faces has turned into something more sinister, but it is an index of Menzel's world view that HruSinsky's character remains comically human, if not humane. Menzel points out that the ritual washing is an exorcism of guilt. Each time one of the men disappears, the foreman is seen washing. In Menzel's films danger comes from war, bureaucracy, officialdom, not from human sexuality. To keep the bride and groom apart because of NeckgP's question to the party official is to doom Menzel's characters to a kind of hell.
All this is rendered with Menzel's wry humor and indirection. Antonin Liehm has described it well: "Not a showy sense of humor, it is sneaky rather than brash, catching you unawares, always on the brink of tears... Menzel is a master of deflating anything that makes too much of itself, that is too serious, too tragic, anything conceited, anything pushy, or full of hot air. It isn't satire. Menzel just sticks his foot out a little, looking the other way, whistling a tune of utter innocence, and pompousness falls flat on its face, or scrambles out of the mud puddle, looking around helplessly to see who tripped it up." Menzel himself has shown a good deal of insight into his technique of indirection: "Look, when you water your flowers, you've got to have that thingamajig with holes in the spout of your watering can, for dispersion. If you just poured the water straight out of the spout, the concentrated stream of water would dig up your soil, and where would you be?" Again, "As soon as you strive too hard for anything, you destroy it." Menzel is fond of quoting an old Buddhist proverb: "You don't arrive at truth by dissection." The ultimate art of acting "is to be able to say, 'Go stick your head in the mud' the way you say, 'I love you,' and vice versa..." In a quirky low-keyed way, Menzel has become a prankster of comic paradox: "A dream fulfilled is the grave of creative activity." If this sounds like a justification of the artist's difficulty, it may be because Menzel has lived through, and survived, the suppression of dreams. He has gone down the mine shaft and emerged, still laughing, a little shy, a little sly, still performing his light-fingered magic, under that square canopy of receding light. That Larks on a String was made at all is a minor miracle of a porous tyranny. That it is now free to be shown at home and abroad is an incidental blessing of The Second Prague Spring.