Because Menzel’s film is explicitly set during communism, it is hard not to focus on the bitter reality of the situation.
Those who know Jiří Menzel from his Oscar-winning debut feature Closely Observed Trains (1966) may find Larks on a String (1969) disappointing. Unlike the earlier film, Larks is in colour, but this attribute only serves to accentuate the ugliness of the film’s drab and bleak setting: a scrap metal yard in 1940s Czechoslovakia. Here, hard labour is the means of re-educating opponents of the new communist regime: a group of female prisoners who attempted to defect to the West, and a collection of men who are guilty of middle-class origins. Happily, Larks is a comedy, and so not entirely as oppressive as it sounds.
There are two types of humour in the film: political satire and romantic comedy. The satire would be more enjoyable if it were not so direct. In The Party and the Guests (1966), for example, Jan Nemec created a metaphor for authoritarianism in a party where the guests were implicitly forbidden to leave. In this abstract context, it was easy to identify and condemn the hypocrisy of the host and the guests who tried to win his favour. Because Menzel’s film is explicitly set during communism, it is hard not to focus on the bitter reality of the situation: despite the prisoners’ attempts to identify and laugh at the absurdity of their situation, the ultimate power of the authorities to control their lives makes the film more tragic than comic. This is particularly so because the film focuses mainly on the prisoners: the villains in power make occasional appearances, and so can only be occasionally mocked.
The two-stranded romantic comedy is by far the most winning element of the film. Angel, the soft-hearted guard in charge of the female prisoners, marries a young Roma girl named Terezka. Her difficulties in adapting to married life, and particularly to a fixed abode, make for some enjoyably playful scenes. There is also a romance between two prisoners, Pavel and Jitka. As the male and female prisoners are supposed to be kept strictly separate, their relationship calls for ingenuity. The underlying faith in the determination of the individual spirit brings a much-needed element of optimism to the film.
Second Run’s release comes with liner notes by leading academic Peter Hames. Although his essay at times feels like a barrage of information, it usefully outlines the numerous collaborations between Menzel and writer Bohumil Hrabal: Larks was based on one of Hrabal’s short story collections of the same name. There is also a brief contribution from Jaromír Šofr, the film’s cinematographer. He explains the impact of censorship on Larks, which was ultimately banned after the Warsaw Pact invasion brought the Prague Spring to an end. Larks was not released until 1990, when it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Best of all, the DVD includes an extra feature: a short video piece by Menzel himself, specially made for this release, where the director talks about Larks, communism and film in general.