Legendary Czech film director Jiri Menzel died on Saturday in Prague, according to his wife Olga Menzelova. He was 82, and had been battling health problems for the past few years.
“Dearest Jirka, I thank you for each and single day I could spend with you. Each was extraordinary,” Menzelova wrote on her Facebook page.
In a career that spanned more than four decades, Menzel helmed over 20 films, most of them depicting harsh social realities with dark and often absurd humor.
In 1968, Menzel won the Academy Award in the foreign language category with his debut film, Closely Watched Trains (1966). Based on the 1965 novel of the same name by Bohumil Hrabal, the film chronicles the coming-of-age journey of fresh-faced Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar), newly trained as a station guard in a small railway station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. As politically-motivated violence overlaps with Milos’s sexual awakening, the film sketches an evocative portrait of Czechoslovakia’s social realities at the time.
Menzel was only 28 when he won the Oscar, securing a place for himself as a prominent director in the Czech New Wave. Several productions that were a part of the filmmaking movement in the 1960s were thinly veiled satires that attracted censorship at home and acclaim outside the country.
Menzel’s Larks on a String (1968), made a few years after his first film, was banned by the Communist government. It was released only in 1990 after the fall of the regime. The film chronicles the lives of a group of citizens imprisoned by the government in labour camps for apparently minor infractions, among them a musician (Evzen Jegorov) and a professor (Vladimir Brodsky). Larks on a String won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1990.
Menzel’s films include Seclusion Near a Forest (1976), Those Wonderful Movie Cranks (1978) and Cutting It Short (1980). The hugely popular comedy My Sweet Little Village (1985) chronicles life in a village through the prism of the mentally challenged Otik (Janos Ban), and was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film.
Menzel received the lifetime achievement awards at the International Indian Film Academy Awards in 2013 and the International Film Festival of Kerala in 2016. His life was the subject of an documentary directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur titled CzechMate: In Search of Jiri Menzel. Menzel anchors the exhaustive exploration of the Czech and Slovak filmmaking movements.
In an interview with Scroll.in during the Kerala festival, Menzel was his mischievous best when talking about Dungarpur’s project: “I thought he was crazy, I mean, I am not really as good or intelligent as he thinks.”
Dungarpur told Scroll.in in a separate interview in 2018, “I wanted to discover everything about the period – it was like going to a library and taking every single thing down. The film is my PhD, in a way. It’s a museum piece.”