Jiri Menzel, Czech director who won an Oscar for his quirky film Closely Observed Trains – obituary

Though his comedies were gentle, his depictions of life under a repressive regime brought him a seven-year ban from film-making

Vaclav Neckar as MIlos with Jitka Bendova as Masa in Closely Observed Trains
Vaclav Neckar as MIlos with Jitka Bendova as Masa in Closely Observed Trains Credit: Connoisseur Video 

Jiri Menzel, the Czech film director, who has died aged 82, specialised in gentle black comedies about ordinary people living life under repressive political systems, and was a leading figure in what became known as the Czech new wave of the 1960s that was brutally snuffed out when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968.

Menzel won the 1968 Oscar for best foreign language film with his first movie, Closely Observed Trains (1966), made when he was just 28. The film, based on a 1965 novel by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, concerned the latter stages of the Second World War as they impinge on the young, idle, apprentice signalman Milos (a Keatonesque Vaclav Neckar) at Kostomlaty station, a backwater in the Czech countryside.

The “close observation” comes from the instructions of a Nazi bureaucrat who orders the young man to “pay special attention to these closely observed trains” – the “close observation” being a defence against Resistance saboteurs.

The repressive official world of epaulettes and rubber stamps comes off a poor second, for the gauche Milos, to his quest to lose his virginity – crudely encouraged by a lecherous train dispatcher whom on one occasion he observes rubber-stamping the naked backside of a peasant girl. Later, however, Milos wanders into a bleakly heroic involvement with the Resistance.

The film’s triumph was to show how petty destinies are inextricably and inevitably linked to bigger events. “Good comedy should be about serious things,” Menzel once explained. “If you start to talk about serious things too seriously, you end up being ridiculous.”

With Closely Observed Trains under his belt, and artistic repression thawing with the advent of the Prague Spring, Menzel started work on another Hrabal adaptation, Larks on a String, a story of “bourgeois” Czechs consigned for “reeducation” to work at a scrapyard in the 1950s. They while away the time with cards and gossip, and lusting after the female prisoners nearby. But by the time Menzel had finished shooting, the liberal climate had evaporated.

Vaclav Neckar as Milos, the apprentice railwayman and hero of Closely Observed Trains Credit: Ceskoslovensky Film/Kobal/Shutterstock

Some Czech directors, most notably Milos Forman, fled the country. But Menzel stayed put, partly out of loyalty to his fellow countrymen, but also because he felt the repression could not last: “I did not realise we would have to wait 20 years for the change,” he said in 1995. “In 1969 I thought it would be over in six months; and in that period I lost my passport and I could not cross the border.”

In the meantime he had so offended the authorities with lines like “We’ll pour our peaceful steel down the imperialist warmongers’ throats – hands off Korea!” that Larks was “banned forever” as the new Czechoslovak First Secretary Gustav Husak sought to reassure Moscow that the Prague Spring was well and truly over. Its director was barred from working for seven years.

Jiri Menzel in 2013 Credit: Michal Dolezal/CTK via AP

Menzel, however, had the last laugh, as Larks on a String shared the Golden Bear at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival with Costa-Gavras’s Music Box when it was finally released the year after the Velvet Revolution.

Jiri Menzel was born in Prague on February 23 1938, the son of Josef Menzel, a writer and translator, and Bozena (née Jindrichova), and grew up during the German occupation.

He originally wanted to be a theatre director but was rejected from drama school for “lack of talent”. Instead he enrolled at the Czechoslovak Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts, though in later years, during periods when he was unable to make films, he worked extensively in theatre.

At film school he met the director Vera Chytilova, who enlisted him to direct a segment of Pearls of the Deep (1966), an adaptation of short stories by Hrabal. The two men became friends, and Menzel went on to become the chief interpreter of Hrabal’s works.

I Served the King of England (2006) Credit: Barrandov/Kobal/Shutterstock

Menzel’s last film to be shown in Czechoslovakia before his seven-year ban was Capricious Summer (1968), a nostalgic, whimsical story of three men having fun in the countryside during rainy summer days.

After the ban was lifted, Menzel continued to make films exhibiting a similar gently comic nostalgia for country life, in which, nevertheless, he often found himself probing the limits of official tolerance.

My Sweet Little Village (1985), in which a young man with learning difficulties is employed as a truck driver but finds himself being transferred from his village to Prague so that a scheming government apparatchik can get his hands on the large country house he has inherited, was nominated for a best foreign language Oscar.

Capricious Summer (1968), Menzel's last film before his seven-year ban imposed in the wake of the crushing of the Prague Spring Credit: Barrandov/Kobal/Shutterstock

Menzel’s first film to attract international attention after the Velvet Revolution was The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1994), a gentle satire based on the novel by Vladimir Voinovich (which caused its author to be stripped of his Russian citizenship in 1980), about an innocent who somehow manages to remain uncorrupted by Stalinism.

While its occasional outbreaks of slapstick displayed Menzel’s love for silent cinema, some critics found it slackly directed, one noting that “Menzel has remained largely unaffected by the currents of international cinema in the intervening years.”

He fared better with I Served the King of England (2006), a picaresque tale based on another novel by Hrabal, centred round a provincial waiter in 1940s Czechoslovakia whose only aims in life are to become a millionaire and to own a hotel.

Menzel in 1967 with his Oscar for Closely Observed Trains Credit: Kobal/Shutterstock

In opulently staged comic episodes, featuring a lot of beer, food, money, powerful men and unclothed women, he progresses toward these goals, shedding principles and loyalties along the way – only to be put behind bars by the Communists for 15 years, one for each of his millions.

Menzel made only one more film, The Don Juans (2013), but was the subject in 2018 of a documentary, CzechMate: In Search of Jiri Menzel, by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. This highlighted not only his modesty and charm, but explored his influence on directors such as Ken Loach, who has described how Menzel and others of the Czech new wave “just allowed something to unfold and had a quality of observation: the sense of timing, the unhurried rhythm, the framing of the shots, and the relaxed humour.”

Jiri Menzel is survived by his wife, the producer Olga Menzelova, whom he married in 2004, and their two daughters.

Jiri Menzel, born February 23 1938, died September 5 2020