Jiri Menzel, leading figure of Czech New Wave Cinema dies

Jiri Menzel

Jiri Menzel, leading figure of Czech New Wave Cinema dies

One of the leading figures of Czech New Wave Cinema and the Oscar-winning director Jiri Menzel passed away on Saturday after a long illness. He was 82. He succumbed to his bad health after a brain surgery.

Confirming his death, his wife Olga Menzelova wrote on Facebook: “Dearest Jirka, I thank you for each and single day I could spend with you. Each was extraordinary. I am also grateful to you for the last three years, as hard as they were”.

Menzel, one of the leading figures in the Czech New Wave cinema during the 1960s won an Academy Award in 1968 for best foreign language film for World War Two drama ‘Closely Watched Trains’. He led the New Wave Cinema movement in Czechoslovakia alongside ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ director Milos Forman.

The Czechoslovak New Wave (also Czech New Wave) is a term used for the Czechoslovak filmmakers who started making movies in the 1960s. The other leading directors, apart from Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman, are Vera Chytilova, Ivan Passer, Pavel Juracek, Jan Nemec, Jaromil Jires, Evald Schorm, Hynek Bocan, Jurai Herz, Jurai Jakubisko, and Stefan Uher.  The movement was sometimes called the Czechoslovak film miracle. After undergoing a brain surgery in 2017, Menzel rarely appeared in public functions. At the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers Union in 1967, Milan Kundera himself described this wave of national cinema as an important part of the history of Czechoslovak literature.

Born on 23 February 1938, Menzel studied film direction in Prague, graduating in 1962. His first feature film Closely Watched Trains, which made him internationally reputed filmmaker, was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal. Later, Hrabal became an endless source of inspiration for Menzel, who shot the bittersweet film Larks on a String in 1969, based on Hrabal’s novel. The film depicted the life of people sidelined by the communist regime ruling in then-Czechoslovakia. Menzel’s other films based on Hrabal’s books include Shortcuts (1981) and The Snowdrop Festival (1984). Sweet Little Village from 1985 earned him an Oscar nomination.

As he became a rebel in the eyes of the Communist government which banned his film ‘Larks on a String’, which was made based on a Hrabal novel. The film told the story of characters forced to work in a re-education camp. Menzel shot the film in the wake of a political meltdown known as the Prague Spring, a loosening of communist influence that was crushed by Soviet-led armies in August 1968.

It was finally released in 1990 after communism was toppled in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The film won the Golden Bear at the 40th Berlin International Film Festival.

In 1987, Menzel received a second Oscar nomination for his film My Sweet Little Village. Aside from his directing work, Menzel also acted in some 80 films and worked as a theatre director. His last film was ‘The Interpreter’ that was made in 2018 and this film has a touching story of a man who seeks revenge on the former SS soldier who killed his parents.

His international awards include the French Order of Arts and Literature and the Czech Lion for lifetime artistic contribution. Jiří Menzel was a multifaceted talent and worked successfully as a film director, theatre director, actor, and screenwriter. Menzel was also a prolific theatre director and was awarded the French title of Knight of Arts and Letters.

His films often combine a humanistic view of the world with sarcasm and provocative cinematography.

Menzel was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film again in 1986 with his dark comedy ‘My Sweet Little Village’. In 1987, he was a member of the jury at the 37th Berlin International Film Festival. In 1989 he was a member of the jury at the 16th Moscow International Film Festival. In 1995 he was a member of the jury at the 19th Moscow International Film Festival. He was awarded an IIFA Lifetime Achievement Award in November 2013.