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Friday, Dec. 5, 2008
Jiri's on track again
By KAORI SHOJI
Forty years after he won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture with "Closely Watched Trains," Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel proves that his trademark deadpan humor and mischievous, satirical wit are still intact with "I Served the King of England."
Set in the tragic years of Nazism and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to the visual backdrop of posh Prague hotels and the lush Czech countryside, it's a powerful work wielding an invisible iron fist. Sometimes, Menzel lets the curtain slip and the audience sees the fist raised midair, but never hears the thud of its crash. "The best movies are those whose messages are muted," the director said in an interview in Tokyo. "I never liked being preached to, and I work on the assumption that the audience doesn't like it either."
What kind of audience did you have in mind?
With this movie, I didn't think of marketing, or aiming at a worldwide audience base or anything like that. I always hope that I'll like the film, and my next-door neighbors and friends and the guy in the barbershop will like it. A good chef always makes a meal bearing in mind those who will eat it.
Why do you think the main character is so uninvolved and apathetic?
Actually, he's the embodiment of the Czech national character. It is both the bane and the strength of our country — that we are good observers but ultimately lose out when it comes to taking action. I don't say that everyone is like Jan Dite, but there is a definite preference for noninvolvement and a definite talent for adjustment and survival. On the other hand, you have to remember this movie is based on the original novel by Bohumil Hrabal and it was written in the form of a Nazi officer's diary, and his view of the Czech national temperament.
What about the young people of the Czech Republic today? In Germany, there's a major movement in the film industry to discuss Hitler and the years of the Third Reich.
Yes, there is a similar movement in my country. When I was young such things were never discussed. We couldn't, and so we didn't. When I was 5 years old and out on the street with my mother she corrected my Hitler salute because I had been doing it with my left hand. There was a Nazi standing nearby, she didn't want to take any risks.
Eastern European directors like Milos Forman and Istvan Szabo have been working in Hollywood for some time now. You've been invited, but are famed for declining. Why is that?
I'm not really sure whether I can work well in the United States. I have a terrible head for money and marketing and am not very patient with either issue. It's not from any political reason, it's just that it seems more natural for me to work at home, and to tell the stories that are there.