Larks on a String (Skrivanci na niti) Review

Second Run’s latest release, a Czech film from the director of Closely Observed Trains that was banned for 20 years

It makes sense that a mystique would build over something that was banned for over twenty years after it was made. The 1969 Czech film Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti), directed by Jiří Menzel, was stuck in limbo after the political situation in Czechoslovakia significantly changed between the time production began and ended. The Soviets invaded in the interim, reigniting a far tighter Communist regime and leaving Larks on a String to be banned. Until 1990 it was seen only through underground means. (In his booklet essay, writer Peter Hames recalls asking Menzel prior to the reemergence of the film where he could get a copy and Menzel replied that Hames should ask a waiter or a hairdresser.) When the film was finally screened and shown at festivals, it won the Golden Bear in Berlin.

Larks on a String finds Menzel once again collaborating with the writer Bohumil Hrabal, whose book had earlier formed the basis for the director’s Oscar-winning debut feature Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, known in the UK as Closely Observed Trains). Menzel previously also did a segment of Pearls of the Deep (Perlicky na dne), which gathered several prominent Czech directors to adapt Hrabal short stories, and went on to make three more films based on his writings. The lead actor from Closely Watched Trains, Václav Neckár, is again a main character, named Pavel, in Larks on a String, as is Jitka Zelenohorská who memorably appeared in Menzel’s earlier picture as the tramp-stamped telegrapher Zdenka.

It’s particularly through these two where the film impressively shows its humanity amid, literally, a scrap heap. The primary setting of a scrap metal yard is one of the least attractive imaginable. It’s like the first part of Wall-E without the cute animated robots. Our cute robots here are Pavel and Jitka, but also a cast of characters whose actions and backgrounds are steeped in such pitch black humor that laughter seems only slightly more appropriate than that anger mixed with agony feeling you get from banging an extremity against a hard surface. An opening screen of text establishes the time period as just after a 1948 revolution by the workers and tells us that members of the bourgeois class are in the process of being re-educated through manual labor. Thus, we’re introduced to people like the prosecutor who fought for the rights of all defendants to have attorneys, the saxophonist whose instrument was banned as being bourgeois, a barber, a dairyman who quit his business to work for the Socialist cause, and so on. Pavel was a Seventh-Day Adventist who refused to work on Saturdays. The girls, including, Jitka, are deserters who’ve lost their freedom and are generally separated from the male laborers. They are later identified, by a teacher no less, as having “repugnant, imperialism soaked faces.”

What initially joins Pavel and Jitka together is a camera, filming some propaganda piece against the “imperialist ploys of capitalism” where the two are quickly united as a supposed couple. Flirtations, cute and innocent, follow. Their eventual wedding is, like so much of the film, terrifically biting in its balance of humanism and critique. The resident supervisor sees to it that they can be married, of course, but missing from the actual ceremony is one of the key participants – Jitka. A much older proxy is sent in her place. It’s really not quite the same, marrying someone who won’t be your wife.

Larks on a String brings Pavel and Jitka into the fold often, and it’s the part I found to be most effective and in the same sweet tone as much of Closely Watched Trains, but the film is bursting with other layers. It feels almost too smart and dry for its own good at times. Dialogue whizzes past without always registering in full. There’s a deft exchange at one point about the “quadrille of Jewish geniuses” that seems to come from nowhere in particular but nonetheless has a brilliance and aptness about it that simply fits. Likewise, an unexpected scene at the end of the picture involving the supervisor’s obsession with cleanliness leaves the viewer unsure what exactly to make of it but still confident that a wound has just been made. Menzel based the film on seven stories by Hrabal that were published together as a collection so any sense of there being a disjointed narrative in the film might be justified. It does have a slight episodic quality where the connection is mostly set by place and condition.

The thread that weaves across the film most distinctly is the one involving the politics of the situation. Larks on a String is, though not exclusively, a very political movie. Its legacy of being immediately banned fits almost too neatly with that interest. Regardless, the issue of socialism begetting communism and the effects therein rings loudly from start to finish. One character disappears for organizing a strike while another disappears simply for asking where his fellow worker went. The one who then questions both disappearances finds himself given a two-year punishment. The cycle is painted as endless and patently unfair. What the film also does exceedingly well is emphasizing the hypocrisy of it all. This echoes from the beginning, with the workers we see having often been punished quite inconsistently with the supposed philosophical underpinnings of the regime. If there’s any actual hope instilled, and the ending is pessimism with a smile, I seem to have missed it.

The Disc

Larks on a String took over twenty years to reach cinemas and over twenty more to get an English-subtitled DVD release. Second Run, as usual, comes to the rescue with a region-free PAL disc that is dual-layered. It is spine number 057 in the boutique label’s line.

Second Run uses an approximately 1.75:1 aspect ratio for its progressive transfer, enhancing the presentation for widescreen televisions. I’d originally trusted the claimed 1.66:1 that’s listed on the back of the case before realizing my mistake and editing this review (and lowering the video rating, which had been close already). Since 1.75:1 (or 1.78:1) would never have been used either in 1969 or 1990, we seem to be dealing with a clear alteration to the original aspect ratio, director-approved or not. Some scenes in the film particularly evidence this change by seeming to be framed for a different aspect ratio (which they obviously were). I also feel comfortable stating that the video quality otherwise is rather modest at best. Some mild damage remains, including a stray reel marker or two, and the colors are faded. Sharpness is not a major issue but it also doesn’t quite register very high marks. Quality is mostly consistent until some instances of increased brightness pop up in later scenes. In contrast, earlier sections like the first wedding in the movie look somewhat darker than ideal and lose detail. Some shakiness in the frame can also be seen at times. A piece in the booklet written by the film’s cinematographer Jaromír Sofr notes that the original negative was cut for censorship reasons. Carefully hidden were both the film negative and the excised footage but the censored footage had to be taken from a work print. Sofr also states that “the original colour quality of the negative was affected over time so the image result was not entirely comparable to the way the film was intended to look in 1969.” Those brighter scenes near the end are the product of the lesser condition of the work print. Still, the strong possibility does exist that the film might look as good here as it will for the foreseeable future.

Audio is also imperfect but likely to be as clear as those who rely on subtitles will probably require. The restored Czech mono track can sound flat to the ear, has a few pops and just a touch of occasional hiss, though otherwise remains of minimal concern. Some or all of the dialogue seems to have been dubbed, and this becomes more obvious on some occasions than others. English subtitles are optional and white in color.

Rub your legs together like a cricket and dive into a great extra feature where director Jiří Menzel presents “7 Questions” (9:33) that aren’t exactly questions. Second Run calls it “an idiosyncratic reflection on the film and its history” and I can think of nothing more appropriate yet still succinct. Menzel filmed this himself and also shows the numbered papers used as points of division. The initial impression is that it’s charming but there’s also some immeasurable insight to be taken away here. Menzel’s reactions register as being very pure and honest, and it’s his actions as much as his words that prove affecting. This is oh-so-brief but it’s a major supplement.

Also offered up is a nifty little booklet that runs 16 pages. It begins with the single-page writing by cinematographer Sofr mentioned earlier and continues with a substantial essay by Peter Hames. This goes for about 8 and a half pages of text and lets Hames discuss the film at hand and the other collaborations between Menzel and Hrabal. The frequent contributions of Peter Hames to Second Run’s booklets have, time and again, confirmed my strong appreciation for his writing and this piece is no exception. It’s always clear, informative, and lacking in pretension.

clydefro jones

Updated: Mar 14, 2011

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