Czech film flowered during the 1960s, before the Kremlin cracked down on creativity. Though he made Larks on a String in 1969, Jirí Menzel could not release it until 1990, after the Communists fell from power. However, his first feature film, Closely Watched Trains, shot in 1966, received wide exposure and an Oscar. The story of a young railway station apprentice more attentive to sexual initiation than to the German troops and Czech resistance fighters traveling on his tracks, it was banned after Soviet tanks put an end to the Prague Spring of 1968.
Four decades later, in a film that, like Closely Watched Trains, is adapted from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, Menzel is still depicting how history swallows little lives. A small man in a small country, Jan Díte once had big dreams. “I aspired to nothing but to be a millionaire,” he explains, before one of the extended flashbacks on which Menzel constructs his film. In the opening sequence, Jan is released from prison three months shy of the 15 years to which he was sentenced — one year for each of the millions he managed to acquire. In a simple cabin in a forest near the German border, he narrates the story of how he went from hawking frankfurters to owning a grandiose hotel whose walls he papered with cash.
Jan’s upward mobility, from peddler to busboy to head waiter to hotelier, is set against three decades of Czech history, from post-World War I independence to occupation by Nazi Germany to Communist rule. When Jan marvels at how consummate a maïtre d’ his mentor, Skrivánek (Huba) is, the older man notes: “I served the king of England.” The film offers sprightly variations on the theme of service. Self-serving tycoons stuff themselves with dainties, frolic with expensive women, and carpet their floors with currency, while the hotel staff stands dutifully at their service. Though Jan’s wife, Líza (Jentsch), is a Nazi so devoted to serving the Führer that she makes love to her husband while gazing at a portrait of Hitler, Jan learns to service hungry women by covering their naked bodies with culinary delicacies and flowers.
Using accelerated motion, period music, and silent sequences in black-and-white to suggest history as farce, Menzel makes a mocking spectacle of Czechoslovakia in the 20th century. As the younger Jan, Ivan Barnev is sweetly Chaplinesque in both his pathos and his supple athleticism, though the Prague setting is also haunted by the ghosts of two former residents — Jaroslav Hašek (creator of The Good Soldier Švejk) and Franz Kafka. Oldrich Kaiser, who plays world-weary Jan after his release from prison, conveys one of life’s fundamental lessons: If you are not big enough to stand up to those intent on acquiring wealth and power, get out of the way. Dying serves no purpose. •