CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (31st July 2020).
The Film

Despite its title, CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel is not the physical search for the the Czech New Wave director of the Academy Award-winning Closely Watched Trains, the film that so inspired director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (Celluloid Man) years previously in film school; indeed, the quest to find and interview Menzel took a year out of this entire seven-years-in-the-making enterprise. The real search of this eight hour documentary is the contextualization of that influential film within the career of its director, within the phenomenon of the Czech New Wave as defined by insiders and outsiders – among the latter Woody Allen, Emir Kusturica, Ken Loach, István Szabó, Agnieszka Holland who describes the Czech New Wave as embodying Milan Kundera's "unbearable lightness of being" in ways that satisfy and frustrate, and Andrzej Wajda whose Ashes and Diamonds has parallels with Closely Watched Trains including the directors' handling of the fate of their protagonists and how they differed from the literary sources), among his colleagues (Ivan Passer describes it as a "perfect film"), historians of the source novel's source author Bohumil Hrabal (some accuse the film to being too sentimental, others think Menzel improved the source), and Dungarpur's understanding of the filmmaker and the disconnect between his own "film is the artistic culmination of it all" worldview and Menzel's "it's just a job" viewpoint. The length of the documentary is indulgent but Dungarpur describes it as his own "personal yellow brick road," and that each interview with an artist "opened the door to another." Besides Menzel (who lounges about his apartment on the floor and even in the bathtub), Dangarpur interviews Passer and Milos Forman in Hollywood, Vera Chytilová at home, actor Josef Somr and Menzel's cinematographer Jaromír Sofr on location at the film's train station, Forman cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek and his director son David Ondrícek, Menzel's lead Václav Neckár who was still recovering from a 2002 stroke and getting back into performing as a singer, Eduard Grecner whose was not allowed to direct another 1968's Dragon's Return until 1993, and Juraj Jakubisko (Birds, Orphans, and Fools) among others. Most of the filmmakers did not think of their films as being part of a wave – Forman's Audition started as a documentary and was expanded into a narrative feature when Barrandov opened its doors to the many film school graduates who were unable to find work until the early sixties, a number of the filmmakers discuss the French New Wave being as influential as Italian Neorealism but also surrealist film movements and filmmakers, and cinematographer Sofr both coincidence in the development of lighter handheld camera equipment as well as the French New Wave's use of sync-sound in the look and feel of Closely Watched Trains, and contemporary Czech and international critics note that the series of films constituting a movement as such was at the time referred to as the "Czech film miracle" (which included the international recognition of Menzel's film as well as Ján Kadár's and Elmar Klos's The Shop on the High Street). Even during this period of fresh air, they were not entirely free from scrutiny on their films once they were finished, with Menzel noting on Closely Watched Trains and Forman on The Fireman's Ball that scenes the studio and the censors found objectionable were saved by screenings held for the participants and residents of the location shoots (in spite of audiences plants meant to disparage the contestable bits).

The historical context of communism and socialism in Czechoslovakia is not presented in a didactic manner – apart from a couple English-narrated clips from Jan Nemec's Oratorio for Prague which started as a documentary on the liberalization of Czechoslovakia but was shooting just as Russian tanks rolled into the city – but through the memories of the participants surprised that they were suddenly able to laugh at their leaders and make films that depicted the absurdity and stupidity of the regime, a guarded optimism that was snatched away too quickly, with some filmmakers like Juraj Herz (The Cremator) Menzel deciding to adapt to circumstances (even as his and Hrabal's follow-up feature Larks on a String was withheld and not screened until 1990), others were "transferred" to the documentary unit, offered unfilmable scripts and other maneuvers as excuses for Filmové studio Barrandov to fire them, and others simply would not make another film under such constraints after a taste of freedom. Chytilová, who had just filmed Daisies in 1966, claims that her dream film was shut down by the Soviet occupation (she would not get to direct another film until 1970 with Fruit of Paradise) seems to feel that the decision to continue working under such such compromise rested with each individual, and it is not entirely clear if others felt the pressure to follow the examples of others at the time or in retrospect (Menzel looks at Larks on a String as his mistaken belief that the communists could reform themselves while an associate describes the 1990 screening as the an opportunity to "look back truthfully on the recent past"). The opinions of the filmmakers interviewed on how their careers were derailed or rerouted by the Soviet occupation and their work and recognition in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution are quite varied. Passer describes himself as a Hollywood filmmaker as replaceable – he was even brought onto Cannon's Haunted Summer to replace the great John Huston who went over to Vestron to make his swan song The Dead – but that only he could have made Intimate Lighting (which the studio head regarded as boring but allowed to be shown at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival because they did not have enough films to submit). CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel may have started as an interview project with Menzel, and an eight hour behemoth was likely not its conception as it expanded; but the resulting film comes across not as undisciplined – or a possible frantic attempt to document the experiences of filmmakers who may not be with us much longer (sixteen of the people interviewed have passed on since the start and finish of the project) – but an exploration by a filmmaker possessed of an "endless curiosity" who wants to know everything about a subject when presented with the opportunity. The film does indeed show us that, as much as we know of the Czech New Wave – including the multitude of published information, visual essays, podcasts, and commentaries showcased on releases from label Second Run – that there is still plenty more to discover (enough that one almost wishes for some sort of encyclopedic reference navigation feature on this Blu-ray).


Quality is understandably variable in this 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen presentation in which video shot over seven years, archival video, archival documentary film, and some film clips (which look like they would make excellent Blu-ray releases with even some damaged films still managing to look ravishingly beautiful in HD here) create a patchwork viewing experience that is never jarring.


The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is just as variable with differing clip quality, location audio recording, and even some of the usual tinny, echoey Skype/Zoom video for a few short interview segments. Optional English subtitles are presented for virtually all of the non-English dialogue including film excerpts.


With roughly eight hours of a documentary split between two BD-50s, it is understandable that there is not a lot in the way of video extras - the fact that the film has not yet been widely screened and reviewed may also be another reason the disc has no critics or historians ready to give their full assessment of it - but the first disc does include two remastered short films by Menzel that predate his feature debut: 1963's "Our Dear Mister Foerster Died [Um el nám pan Foerster]" (15:24) and 1959's "Prefabricated Houses [Domy z panel]" (7:07). An image gallery is also included.


House with the disc is a 24-page booklet featuring extracts from the director’s shooting-diaries that is not so much a reference guide to the documentary but gives a sense of chronology to the interviews and conveys the director's impressions of the meetings and the labors of getting some of them.


CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel does indeed show us that, as much as we know of the Czech New Wave – including the multitude of published information, visual essays, podcasts, and commentaries showcased on releases from label Second Run – there is still plenty more to discover.


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