Larks on a String DVD
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Directed by Jiri Menzel
Produced in 1969
Main Language - Czech with English subtitles
Vaclav Neckar, Rudolf Hrusinsky, Vlastimil Brodsky
Jiri Menzel's period piece finally makes it to DVD two decades after its belated 1990 world premiere. Michael Brooke admires an uncannily creative film in debt to Renoir.
Larks on a String, Jiri Menzel's third of six collaborations with the novelist Bohumil Hrabal (the best-known being Closely Observed Trains, the most recent being I Served the King of England) gets a belated British video premiere two decades after its identically belated 1990 world premiere. There's a similar gap between the film's production and setting, possibly because Menzel and Hrabal reckoned that a period piece would deflect official criticism of their most barbed political satire. It didn't work: it was immediately shelved on completion, and Menzel was banned from making films for seven years - though the so-called "normalisation" period that followed the film's suppression only served to render it more potent, as the history that it depicted repeated itself almost to the letter.
It's the early 1950s, the Communists have recently assumed power, and members of the hated bourgeois capitalist intelligentsia have been forced to work in a scrap metal yard - overseen, naturally, by a supervisor with impeccable proletarian credentials (Rudolf Hrusinsky, star of the near-contemporaneous The Cremator), and dominated by propaganda posters. None of which has much effect on this motley band of men and women, who know perfectly well what's going on and rarely miss an opportunity to mock the system - at least when they're not distracted by baser concerns. Fans of Closely Observed Trains will welcome the return of its star Vaclav Neckar in a similarly hapless role: his character's "wedding" to a co-worker banned from attending the ceremony is a tragic-comic highlight.
But this is no crude piece of anti-Communist propaganda: as in their other films, Menzel and Hrabal show an uncanny creative rapport, not least in their ability to derive humour and even eroticism from the most unlikely material. And even if Menzel hadn't already admitted that his greatest inspiration was Jean Renoir, you'd guess it from his rounded, wholly sympathetic treatment of people who'd be crude caricatures in lesser hands. Hrusinsky's character isn't so much a villain as a man who happens to be on the right side of history at that moment: he's as aware of fortune's fickleness as any of his charges.
Michael Brooke on 19th January 2011
Author of 135 reviews
Filmed in 1969, but banned by the Czech government and only seeing a release in 1990 after the fall of the Communist regime, (whereupon it was declared a lost masterpiece) Larks on a String is a hymn to humanity and nonconformity.
Menzel’s wry comic drama centres on the male and female residents of a state-run junkyard / labour camp for those whose actions have been deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’. Separately, the two groups lazily toil, sorting out piles of scrap metal; together, they flirt, philosophize, and occasionally sneak off to make love.
Larks on a String is at once a stinging indictment of the repressive politics of Czechoslovakia’s past, and an endearingly comic and affecting love story.
Publisher: Second Run
Length: 94 mins
Cat No: SECONDRUN057
Format: DVD Colour