Larks on a String [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (30th July 2022).
The Film

FIPRESCI Prize - Honorable Mention (Competition): Jirí Menzel (won) and Golden Berlin Bear: Jirí Menzel (won) - Berlin International Film Festival, 1990

In the aftermath of 1948's "Victorious February", the victorious communist government sets about rehabilitating the bourgeoisie through hard labor as part of the five-year-plan towards socialism with an emphasis on steel production. In labyrinthine scrapyards throughout the country, those charged with bourgeois offences are laboring in sorting scrap for their own metaphorical "smelting" into new men. Among the workers at the Kladno plant are public prosecutor (Five Girls Around the Neck's Leos Sucharípa) who "maintained that the defendant had a right to defend himself," a milkman (All My Good Countrymen's Vladimír Ptácek) who voluntarily closed down his dairy and volunteered to work for socialism, "Tiny" (Crime in the Night Club's Ferdinand Kruta), a professor of philosophy and librarian (Capricious Summer's Frantisek Rehák) who refused to pulp his "decadent bourgeois western literature," a "patented" manufacturer of washtubs (Jakob the Liar's Vlastimil Brodský) who "satisfied his bourgeois lust by employing four workers" – it is unclear if the crime is simply employing workers to give himself more materialistic leisure time or if four workers were considered not enough for the amount of work – Jackknife the barber simply because "out five barbers, three had to go," a musician (A Night at Karlstein's Eugen Jegorov) whose saxophone was abolished as one of the "bourgeois instruments," and young chef Pavel (Closely Watched Trains' protagonist Václav Neckár) who refused to work on Saturdays for religious reasons, all under the supervision of a foreman (The Cremator's Rudolf Hrusínský) who has his position as a "worker by origin." Also laboring in the scrapyards are female defectors under the guard of Andel (The Death of a Fly's Jaroslav Satoranský) who is about to marry Roma gypsy girl Terezka (Tereza Galiová) and as much out of sympathy as timidity facilitates a burgeoning romance between Pavel and defector Jitka (The Silence of Men's Jitka Zelenohorská) that seems doomed when Pavel asks the visiting Minister of Culture (Witchhammer's Vladimír Smeral) – who promises bread, butter, and music at the end of their five year plan – about his missing colleagues and "where are the good days when people respected and loved each other?"

Based on a handful of stories about Czech socialism in the fifties by Bohumil Hrabal – who had works had previously served as the basis for director Jirí Menzel's Pearls of the Deep and international hit Closely Watched Trains – the source stories of Larks on a String were not available until the brief period of relaxed censorship in the mid-to-late sixties that also made greenlighting the film adaptation itself possible. Larks on a String was shot during the time when the Czech people were still resisting attempts of the Soviets to crush the Prague Spring reforms but banned outright upon completion in spite of attempts to assuage the censors with cuts. While the film does carry its depictions of authoritarianism into the realms of the absurd, it is still understated enough to be not only believable but even as incendiary at the same time it can be funny. We see the supposed bourgeois offenders adapting in different means to their oppression, with the prosecutor treating his rehabilitation like stress relief, the milkman applying the logic of labor relations to people who only pay lip service to it – a labor representative who arrives in a chauffeured car and changing from a hat to a cap before entering the yard – Pavel pursuing romance, and Tiny possibly having betrayed his fellow workers either because he wants to be able to make his children and wife happy by buying them presents or simply to regain their respect as a provider. They all seem to "labor" under the uncertainty as to whether their treatment really is intended to be rehabilitation or punishment, especially when young "pioneer" communist children are taken on a tour of the yard and the workers are made to stand mute while the teacher describes them to the children as "fascist beasts" whose faces are "soaked with imperialism."

If the scrapyard workers are laboring under the imposed assumption that they are otherwise the same as their oppressors – the foreman insists he is one of the workers and occasionally reminds them by rolling up his sleeves and picking up a single item to be scrapped and throwing it on the heap before moving on with his clipboard (it should not go unnoticed that the scrapyard features a multitude of typewriters, religious relics, and shiny, new ice buckets, and possibly some of Tiny's unpurchased washtubs) – the only acknowledged underclass is seemingly the Roma population who it seems can be employed as servants without their employers being accused of "bourgeois lust" (even when sexually exploiting them since the police appear to be equally complicit). If Pavel and Jitka are doomed to an uncertain future for submitting to the bureaucratic "handling" including separate ceremonies with proxy groom and bride, a family dinner with Pavel, his mother, and the mother of the bride but not the bride herself – it is not until late in the film that we learn that the male workers can go home while the female defectors live in a facility that takes on the look of a concentration camp – Angel and Terezka seem like they might be happier not because of his relative position in the hierarchy but because his compromise is one out of love that includes dereliction of his duty in attempting to understand and adapt to his wife's life experience even if he has been spurred on by suspicion of cuckoldry and possessory jealousy. While some banned films were still accessible to film clubs and film schools, Larks on a String was seen by no one until 1990 when it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival with the cuts restored; but one wonders about the trajectory of Menzel's career had Larks on a String followed upon the heels of Closely Watched Trains on the domestic and international stage.


Following its belated 1990 festival release, Larks on a String played theatrically in several countries including America through arthouse distributor IFEX International Film Exchange (Come and See, The Color of Pomegranates). During the DVD era, fans and the curious had the choice of a non-anamorphic 1.51:1 letterboxed Czech DVD which included English subtitles or an overly-cropped 1.78:1 anamorphic DVD from Second Run in the UK. Working from a new 4K restoration from the Czech National Film Archive, Second Runs' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen Blu-ray gorgeously renders the grimy and rusty settings of the scrapyard, with good to fine detail conveying a contrast between the business and formal clothing that the workers wear to denote their bourgeois status in all of its wrinkles and stains with the straight hair and pressed suit of the foreman (for whom cleanliness is revealed to be a particularly twisted fetish). The caveat about the transfer is the same as the 1990 screening and the previous video masters in that the trims for the footage cut for the censors – primarily during the third act – could not be found and had to be sourced from a dupe negative made from a 35mm workprint, the footage of which even in a 4K scan is grainier with shadows that range from gray to black crush, and highlights that also lose detail compared to similar lighting situations in other scenes. One assumes in the twenty-odd years since the 1990 premiere that at least one more search was undertaken for the footage in negative form and that it is most likely lost.


The only audio option is a Czech LPCM 1.0 mono track. There are no complaints about the post-dubbed dialogue or sparse uses of music, but one does notice how spare the effects track is in general even during the scrapyard scenes and the Minister of Culture's visit. Optional English subtitles are free of errors.


Extras start off with an audio commentary by The Projection Booth's Mike White and critic Jonathan Owen in which they suggest that the full banning of the film might have been that it was too on-the-nose without any fantastic framing or metaphor – and a specificity of physical and temporal setting lacking in even The Ear – and also point out for the rest of us the use of real Communist work slogans and pointed use of labor songs (usually with visual counterpoint). They also discuss the work of Hrabal and Menzel's other adaptations of it – including his 2006 film I Served the King of England – as well as the means that Menzel used in the script to unite the different story sources into a singular if episodic narrative.

The late Menzel himself appears in two video interviews, the first from 2011 and included on the Second Run DVD "Jiří Menzel: 7 Questions" (10:01) in which he discusses the first fifty-odd years of his life under communism, some of the persecution he observed as a child and how it was mirrored in the film, Hrabal, the film's censorship, its banning, how he was unable to entertain offers in Europe and America because the government would not grant him a passport, and the film's 1990 Berlin Film Festival release. "Jiří Menzel on Larks on a String" (9:48) is from 2018 and was conducted by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur , director of the eight-hour documentary CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel (also available on Blu-ray from Second Run). He discusses the social pressures for the regime to soften in the mid-sixties, making it possible for Hrabal to be published (and adapted), the arrival of the Russians and how initial Czech resistance was eroded by the Bolsheviks targeting working people who bore resentments against the intelligentsia, and the film's banning.

Also included on the disc is the 1963 Menzel short film "Our Dear Mister Foerster Died (Umřel nám pan Foerster)" (15:24) – previously included on the aforementioned Second Run Blu-ray of CzechMate – and the feature's theatrical trailer (1:21).


Packaged with the disc is a 20-page booklet featuring an essay by author Peter Hames and an introduction by cinematographer Jaromír Šofr (Wolf's Hole). Šofr discusses the last minute attempts to make the film acceptable for viewing with cuts and the need to make a duplicate negative of the workprint to restore the missing footage to the negative. Hames provides an overview of Menzel's career and the importance of Hrabal to his filmography up through his last works.


While some banned films were still accessible to film clubs and film schools, Larks on a String was seen by no one until 1990, and one wonders about the trajectory of Menzel's career had it followed upon the heels of Closely Watched Trains on the domestic and international stage.


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