JIRI MENZEL has just ended two long decades of silence: The famed film director, Oscar winner in 1967 for ``Closely Watched Trains'' and Oscar nominee in 1987 for ``My Sweet Little Villge,'' isn't comfortable. He hesitates. Taking off his wire-framed glasses, he wipes the hot sweat off his face. ``I want to talk freely, no longer say `A' if I believe `B,''' he says in French, his soft, cultivated voice trembling with tension. ``Forty years of a government which doesn't discuss anything with its citizens - it's too much, too unjust.''
Jiri Menzel's criticism illustrates an important, if fragile, change here. When thousands of Czechs and Slovaks held rallies this January calling for democracy, police arrested dissident writer Vaclav Havel and brutally suppressed the protests, using tear gas, water cannons, and nightsticks. Artists began circulating a petition demanding Havel's release (he finally was liberated early in May). It gained several thousand signatures - including Jiri Menzel's.
Ever since Soviet tanks crushed the 1968 ``Prague Spring,'' Menzel and most of his fellow Czech intellectuals had kept their heads down, repudiating their former beliefs so that they could continue working ``officially.'' They accepted harsh censorship (some of Menzel's films never were ``released''), never criticizing, never voicing support for fellow artists who could not continue their careers. Only a few isolated dissidents like Havel dared jeopardize the security of a job and their place in society.
Like many other outstanding cultural figures, Menzel was not allowed to travel abroad or make films for several years after the invasion. It was a tough time. He says he often wondered why he didn't emigrate like famous colleague Milos Forman.
In 1974, Menzel resumed work after denouncing some of his activities during the Prague Spring. When Havel founded the human rights group Charter 77 in 1977, all artists were asked to sign an ``anti-charter'' declaring their loyalty. Menzel signed.
``Without signing, I couldn't work, and I wanted to work,'' he admits. ``I just don't have the courage of a Vaclav Havel.''
A combination of admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev and repulsion for Prague's repressive regime which refuses to march to the tune of glasnost convinced him to speak out. Thanks to Gorbachev, he says, Hungary and Poland are ``going much further than we ever went in 1968.''
`IF they are legalizing opposition parties and letting newspapers print the truth, what are we waiting for?'' he asks. The answer, to him, is that the Czech regime was put in power by Brezhnev and that ``it prefers mediocrities who want to make a career, people who express loyalty, than those who question.''
Many independent-minded intellectuals outside of the creative arts still refuse to associate themselves with the Havel petition. Their argument remains, ``it is better to criticize within than from without.''
``If I [had] signed then, I would never be able to write my report calling for reform,'' says one distinguished economist. ``To be heard, you can't cut all your ties.''
But enough well-known artists signed the Havel petition that, in the words of one dissident, if the regime ``wanted to punish those who signed, they would in practice have to switch off television, close most of Prague's theaters, and withdraw 90 percent of Czechoslovakia's film production.'' None have suffered public reprisals, though some say they have received private warnings.
``By signing, these people risked everything,'' argues Vaclav Maly, a leading dissident. ``Such courage was unimaginable before.''
In the future, the key question is whether the protest over Havel will remain a one-time event or be followed up by regular acts of defiance. Jan Krizan, leader of the petition drive, plans to organize new petitions for other political prisoners.
``The old taboos have been broken,'' Krizan says. ``I see a new kind of morality reemerging.''
Jiri Menzel is not so sure. He doesn't plan to participate in any further opposition activities. ``I can't be an optimist,'' he concludes, his soft voice still melancholy. ``We Czechs just don't have enough courage.''