CZECH filmmaker Jiri Menzel made his first movie as a young man just out of film school. ``Closely Watched Trains'' (1966) delighted American audiences with its modest story of a young apprentice train dispatcher working in the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It was one of the rare films to make it out of the Eastern Bloc in the 1960s and into Western theaters. Americans didn't hear from Menzel again, however, until ``My Sweet Little Village'' swept across Europe and the United States in 1986. And this fall Menzel's new film - ``End of Old Times,'' a nostalgic, understated comedy - delighted audiences at last month's Denver International Film Festival.
In a wide-ranging Monitor interview here, Menzel discussed the reasons he sank into obscurity for a while. It started with a film he made in 1969 called ``Larks on a String,'' a scathing indictment of communism in his country just after the Soviet invasion of 1968. The film so incensed local officials that he was labeled anti-communist and forbidden to make more films for many years. Menzel says that when he had begun making films under Alexander Dubcek, the political atmosphere was more liberal. After the invasion, however, the climate changed and over a nine-month period became repressive.
``It was possible to start `Larks on a String,' but by the time it was ended,'' he says, ``the new cultural minister banned it. It was not just me who was not allowed to make films. All the younger generation of filmmakers who before had been successful [Milos Foreman, among them] were without work.''
When Menzel and colleagues were eventually allowed to make films again, the conditions were stringent. ``I could not make what I wanted. I had always to show the relationship to the working class.
``Now I'm free,'' he adds ironically, ``but there's no money for my films.'' Government funding continues only through the end of this year, and then new laws will go into effect. Distribution, which used to lie in the hands of the government, will now be apportioned out to small enterprises, Menzel says. Funding may have to come from US investors and, to a lesser extent, investors in Europe.
In many ways the most exciting cinema going on today in Czechoslovakia takes place on the nightly news. ``No movie you can make right now is as interesting as what you see on TV. There are so many changes going on. But there is no better time to study human nature than during a time of great change, because in this changing you can see who has courage and who has no courage, who has morality and who has no morality.''
Menzel tells me of a neighbor who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp during the World War II. The man became a communist after the war and, because of the in-fighting in the party, was again incarcerated in the '50s. In the early '60s he was rehabilitated. After the Soviet invasion in '68, he was reduced to washing windows. He still washes windows for a living. ``This is the way life goes there - up and down. Under such conditions, behavior becomes more extreme, exaggerated, and you can see it more clearly.''
Menzel's best films focus attention on the subtleties and exaggerations in human behavior. ``Larks on a String,'' shelved in 1969, was released for the first time this year. It received a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The ensemble piece lampoons the criminal-political justice system that disgraced and incarcerated people for attempting to ``desert'' the country. An angry remark about living conditions could - and did - land a person in prison for years. But, then, prison life and the ordinary laborer's life are shown to be rather similar, anyway.
Most of the film takes place in a junkyard, where female prisoners and male laborers work side by side. Among the laborers is a professor, a dairyman, a businessman, a cook, and a barber - all of whom have been dismissed from their professions in an effort to ``re-educate'' them. The men and women begin eyeing each other, forming attachments, and one couple falls in love and are married by proxy. The professor and the bridegroom end up in jail before the bride's release.
Another character in the story, the policeman who guards the women, marries and begins a mysteriously miserable life - which affects his work. The communist bosses turn out to be unspeakable lechers, whose incompetence and stupidity is only matched by their malice and arrogance. ``Larks on a String'' is a comedy. Occasionally the humor dips down into the darkest wit, but most of the time the parodistic elements bob along comfortably with romantic comedy and Laural-and-Hardy goofiness.
Menzel believes that it's very important to handle serious subject matter with humor. ``If you want to touch something deeply, humor is the easiest way for the audience to accept it. It is the best way to get to the heart. If your viewer ... is not of your opinion, he closes his eyes and ears to what you have to say. But with humor - which is attractive - he has to listen to you, and you have a possibility to influence. If you speak with humor, it means you are sure of your opinion. Also, Without humor most things are boring.''
Menzel's ``End of Old Times'' blatantly scorns a materialistic culture in which the grace and charm of the past is no longer at home. Set shortly after World War I, in a magnificent country estate, the story concerns a wealthy businessman who tries to behave like an aristocrat but doesn't know how. One day a dashing prince arrives, penniless, cavalier, and noble. Is he a con-artist or a true romantic? He upsets the household, charming the women, engaging the children in all kinds of imaginative play, and befuddling the men.
In a country taken over by vulgarians, there is no place for the gentlmanly form of the prince. He is no con-man, thief, or beggar. His presence is something he bestows as a gift, and we feel that everyone would be the better for having known him, if they could but realize it.
``Something was good about those times that we have lost,'' Menzel says. ``I'm no hypocrit. I'm no better myself than those vulgar people. I like comfort - hot water in the bathroom. Things were not ideal in those times socially, either. But something was good that we have forgotten. The prince is no materialist, and the others can't stand that.''
In all Menzel's films there is a pervasive affection that surfaces - despite human faults, even malice - like flowers in a weed-infested field. Ingenuously Menzel comments on the presence of love in his films:
``Love is what people need. It is the best basis for relationships. Not only the love between men and women, which can be egoistic, but the love that is understanding. It wants knowledge about the other - you know, insight.
``Love tries to identify with the other, tries to understand his thinking. It is something you do naturally and doesn't expect anything in return. The best love is like that between mother and child.''