After 20 Years on Shelf, Czech Protest Film Resurfaces

THE most noteworthy single film at this year's Berlin Film Festival might well have been a dark comedy with the unlikely title of ``Larks on a String,'' made in Czechoslovakia back in 1969. Its importance lies partly in the fact that it won the festival's top prize, sharing this honor with ``Music Box,'' an American political drama. When I was at the festival in February, ``Larks on a String'' was eagerly talked about for days before the awards were announced, because of its qualities as a film, and also because of the time and country that gave it to us.

Completed 21 years ago, it came to Berlin as a sort of time machine, reminding the movie world how the heavy hand of Eastern European censorship relaxed a bit from 1967 to 1970, only to regain its rigid grip. Now the hand has loosened again, and forbidden movies from the past are rushing to the surface once more.

Examples that came to Berlin from Czechoslovakia alone included Dusan Klein's capably filmed satire ``Dear Friends, Well...'' and two documentaries: ``The Elective Affinities,'' filmed during the Prague Spring in 1968, and ``Tender Revolution,'' about the 1989 student demonstrations that sparked massive change in the Czech political system. New short films and children's movies were also in the festival's Czech lineup, and other Czech features (including a new Jiri Menzel comedy based on a 1930s novel) were screened in the ``film market'' for distributors.

``Larks on a String'' found the most favor of them all, with its quirky story of men and women finding romance while dwelling in - of all unromantic places - a pair of adjoining prison camps. It will certainly find its way to Western screens before long.

American moviegoers have already experienced the fruits of the late '60s as they blossomed in the Soviet Union itself. One early indication that Mikhail Gorbachev might be a different kind of Soviet leader came when he personally authorized the release of ``Repentance,'' a ferocious political satire made by Georgian director Tenghiz Abuladze during the brief respite of censorship 20 years earlier. Soon after Mr. Gorbachev gave it an enthusiastic nod of approval, the movie was playing in Moscow, and then in United States theaters.

It proved to be a challenging and peculiar film, about a dictator who combines traits of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini - and whose corpse refuses to stay buried, thanks to a woman who (reversing Antigone's role) repeatedly digs him up to remind the world of his crimes. Nobody wondered that it had been banned immediately after completion and had to await Gorbachev's arrival to make its way into theaters.

Other banned movies followed, including the one most widely seen on American screens: ``Commissar,'' a subtly filmed drama about a hard-as-nails female army officer who becomes illicitly pregnant and is sent to live with a family of Jewish peasants.

``Larks on a String'' bears witness to the fact that censorship relaxed not only in the USSR during the late '60s, but elsewhere as well. It's also a key link in the career of director Jiri Menzel, who makes an interesting case study in how a filmmaker's work can develop under varying political control and coercion.

Mr. Menzel is one of Czechoslovakia's most respected directors. He worked on newsreels and short films in Prague at the beginning of his career. He directed his first feature in 1965, and a year later earned international acclaim with a bittersweet film called ``Closely Watched Trains,'' about an apprentice railroad worker who finds friendship, romance, and death during the German occupation of his country. Among other honors, it won an Oscar for best foreign-language picture in the US, and established Mr. Menzel as a major film artist.

Three years later, he brought the full force of his talent - and his political conviction - to ``Larks on a String,'' which made its way into production despite a controversial subject.

BASED on stories by Bohumil Hrabal, it takes place during Czechoslovakia's period of Stalinist rule in the 1950s, focusing on a group of intellectuals who have fallen out of favor with the Communist Party and are being ``reeducated'' by forced labor at a steel mill. Their situation would be unrelievedly awful if not for another prison right next door, holding women who have tried to escape from the country. Contact between the camps is forbidden, of course, but romance occasionally finds a way, helped by a sympathetic young guard whose name, appropriately, is Angel.

The movie's sarcastic attitude toward authoritarianism quickly indicates why ``Larks on a String'' was banned. One can't help speculating on the chilling effect its suppression must have had on Menzel's subsequent career. I have never seen a Menzel film made after ``Larks'' that has a similar sense of political spunkiness; this suggests that he muted his voice and chose projects that would be deemed releasable by the authorities.

This isn't meant as a criticism, since one can hardly blame an artist for wanting to create works the world can share. Menzel continued with respected activities, in theater and television as well as cinema. Still, one can't help speculating on the politically stimulating films he might have given us if ``Larks'' had not met with crushing disapproval.

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