Larks on a String: Jiří Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal defeat totalitarianism with spirit.

What a week in film I’ve had!  What a week anyway – but I have been so lucky as to have seen some of the most incredible films this week. I watched Larks on a String today, and all I can say is thank god I own it, because it is a film that I will watch over and over again.

Larks on a String is based on a collection of short stories by Bohumil Hrabal, who worked closely with Menzel on the script also. They’d previously worked together on Closely Observed Trains and found they collaborated well “like two mirrors flashing at each other with the reflections of our poetic vision.” (Hrabal) The short stories have multiple characters and this  is translated into the film’s script. Completed after the Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it also launched an overt attack on Stalinism.  Together with other films produced in 1968-69 under the liberating influence of the Prague Spring (All my good countrymen, The Joke and The Ear) it was instantly banned.  Although completed in 1969 it was not released until 1990, over 20 years later, when it won the golden bear at the Berlin Film Festival. According to the notes by Jaromir Sofr (in the booklet that accompanies the Second Run DVD edition) the film was literally saved by being kept and passed around through underground channels. Scenes were cut from the original film (along with other attempts to destroy it) and it has been recreated in tact from snippets saved through various means. The attempts to join these various different copies create a film true to the original script, but still with the “chopping up” of the original film evident.

Larks on a String is set in a steel re-processing works in the industrial town of Kladno.  The film opens with factory scenes and a voice over informing us of the final achievement of power by the working class in February 1948 and the need to incorporate the defeated classes into the new social framework. In other words, the steel re-processing mill is also re-processing people, the belief being they will be transformed by manual labour. Those in need of re-education include: A lawyer who believes that the accused have a right to defence, a doctor of philosophy and librarian who refused to destroy decadent literature, a saxophonist whose instrument has been banned as ‘bourgeois’, A Seventh Day Adventist who refuses to work on Saturdays, and independent dairyman who ‘closed his dairy and volunteered to work for socialism’, a barber, a carpenter, and various other misfits. They work close to a women’s prison filled with females who have been found guilty of attempts to “desert the republic”. The women work in the same steel mill, providing the film with a sexual tension that embodies the refusal of the human spirit to conform.

As in Hrablal’s other works the characters remain resolutely human and defy the simplistic ideology that they have been required to adopt. Hrabal himself stated even in these times there were human beings “who had not succumbed to the semantic confusion, but called things and events by their name.” Through this they remain honourable. Indeed much of the film is devoted to the daily events that make a man a man and separate him from an animal. They discuss the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, keep fish and retain optimism and honour around family events like love, marriage and the pleasures of family. Each character lives in the best way he or her can with a kind of internal freedom.

The men’s supervisor is played by the incredibly creepy Rudolf Hrusinky (brilliant in the starring role of The Cremator, one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen) who speaks endlessly of the pleasures of work, reminding his charges always of his own history as a workman. He is one of the films great comic foils, as to emphasize his nearness to the work, he will ‘contribute’ in the smallest way imaginable each time he is to talk to them men. In an amazing scene when they are tossing typewriters into the scrap, he grabs one, throws it and moves on, revealing more what he has left behind and the guilt around his own power rather tan any sort of affinity with his very brilliant workers. As the film continues, his dark, sleazy character is revealed as we see him lurking behind the railings to witness the arrest of a worker he has secretly implicated or in a scene (that has a slow build up throughout the film) where he is washing down naked pubescent Roma girls in the name of hygiene. I can’t think of anyone who plays a creepy villain better than Rudolf Hrusinky.

The film is dotted with references to socialism, through slogans interspersed throughout the film and several other events. Members of the communist youth movement are invited to the yard to look at the “faces soaked in imperialism”. The extremely human faces of the women are grinning from behind their fence and the grimaces on the faces of the men turn to good-natured snarls as the children try to move in for a closer look. Romantic and OPtimistic slogans in the form of half torn paper banners behind desks, or drooping cloth banners on the outside of buildings  or faded and rusted signs are constantly juxtaposed with the seedy realities of a self-seeking, absurd and cruel police state.

As the film progresses, several of the protagonists ‘disappear’ for various reasons. Dairyman disappears because he organizes a strike against the imposition of un-negotiated work norms. The philosopher disappears for asking what happened to him and at the end of the film, the Adventist for asking what happened to both of them  and for asking what happened to the “good old days when people respected and loved each other.”  In an incredibly beautiful scene the prisoners descend in a mineshaft together, the light receding behind them and the words “they stole our truth” resonating.

Given the dark and brooding background, romance is treated in a lyrical and beautiful way. Two main romances occur. One between Andel (the women’s guard) and his Roma wife. The development of this relationship is a subplot with strong political overtones. The first scene is their wedding, when Andel becomes jealous when Roma (Gypsies) men flirt with his new wife and pour red wine over her white wedding dress. Andel hits them and a scuffle ensues in which he wins and takes his new bride back to their new home. She is silent through all the episodes – representing the voicelessness of her people. Next we have three sequences where the couple are in the new flat  – first an extended scene where they playfully switch lights on and off in a kind of perpetual ballet, then a more romantic scene where she is sitting on the toilet and discovers its flush, and finally she disappears only to be found sleeping on the top of the cupboard (by her husband). He covers her and goes to sleep in the bed. He becomes consumed with jealousy as she wont let him touch her yet. Finally he runs away in the middle of the day to spy on her (convinced by the barber that she must be having an affair) only to find her singing in the middle of their bathroom with a small camp fire.  he is relieved and deeply in love. The final scene shows them asleep together on the floor in their lounge – he has conformed to her ways. While he runs from the prison to watch over his wife, the women walk over and join the men in a hauntingly beautiful scene when all stand around the camp fire and warm their hands. When Andel returns, filled with the love of his strange but faithful wife, he warms his hands without reprimanding any of them.

The other main love story is that between Pavel (the hero of Closely Observed Trains) and one of the women detainees. With many obstacles between them they marry – including sneaking glances, grabbing moments where they can and finally is a hugely comic scene, a marriage by proxy which the bride can’t attend due to her incarceration, therefore stand-ins are required for each of the ceremonies. Just as they are about to be united, Paval is incarcerated for asking where the missing men have gone, and so the film ends with the couple still sending signals and not yet together.  In the film, the men are loveable and comic and the women serene and magical, but this is typical of Menzel. The comedy is delicately timed and the narrative complex with unobtrusive variation and repetition used to considerable effect.

I must add a little about the conversations that go on between the characters. A great deal of the beauty of Menzel and Heabal is brought to life in the conversations between the very intellectually talented workers. The philosopher and the lawyer have a beautiful conversation about the future of Christian Europe deciding the four pillars of genius ( Christ, Marx, Freud and Einstein) are all Jews therefore there is no hope for Christians. When the lawyer asks the philosopher if this is true (flawed by his arguments) the philosopher claims, “no – it is just what I fear.” They then decide god Speaks Czech as well as Hebrew because he is everywhere. Later when the men are out at night watching the women throug the cracks in the fence, the philosopher falls into an outdoor latrine and claims “This is man’s glory: his head is full of ideals and his feet stuck in shit.”

To say I adored this film is an understatement. I have so many absolute favourites of the Czech new Wave, and now I have another to add to that growing list.