Skřivánci na niti (Larks on a String)
Jiří Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal's banned 1969 work-camp comedy
Writers: Jiří Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal
Starring: Rudolf Hrušínský, Vlastimil Brodský, Václav Neckár
Talk about bad timing: Filmed amid the relative liberalization of Prague Spring '68, Larks on a String emerged into post-Soviet-invasion '69 and was promptly quashed by the Communist authorities. Unreleased until 1990, Larks shares the tragicomic whimsy of Jiří Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal's prior Closely Observed Trains but is an altogether deeper, richer affair, one of Czech cinema's most direct blasts at the regime while it ruled. At an early-'50s steelworks a motley crew of bourgeoisie (professor, prosecutor, musician, barber, dairy owner, cook) undergo re-education via manual labor, sorting the metallic detritus of the old world for smelting. While their trustee boasts that the Party will "also smelt them down, into a new kind of people," they wryly tweak the new order, wax philosophic and share clandestine moments of tenderness with female co-workers.
Hard-hitting it's not; Menzel and Hrabal are humanists, not polemicists, and their depiction of Stalin-era work-camp life is on the sunny side. But the director makes astute microcosmic use of the scrap-yard setting, and the movie abounds with Hrabal's playfully metaphysical wit and earthy romanticism as it quietly picks apart the totalitarian impulse. The warmth is genuine - even the Party men are human-scaled (Rudolf Hrušínský’s performance as the true-believer trustee is beautifully judged) - but deceptive, poking fun at socialist cant but recognizing its chilly reality in the black sedans that turn up for workers who say too much. "Where are the good days when people respected and loved each other?" the winsome cook asks a dotty dignitary, prompting one such visitation. Larks on a String mourns the interruption of those days yet maintains a hopeful, good-humored vigil for their return.
Runtime: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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