tue 09/08/2022

Blu-ray: Larks on a String | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Larks on a String

Blu-ray: Larks on a String

Jiří Menzel's bittersweet Czech New Wave classic returns, with enticing extras

'Larks on a String': ripe for re-education

Jiří Menzel's Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) was in production while Soviet tanks rumbled into Prague in August 1968. Predictably, the film was banned by the new Czechoslovak regime and it remained unreleased until 1990, though illicit video copies were circulating for several years before.

Like Menzel’s Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains, Larks on a String took inspiration from the writings of Bohumil Hrabal, Menzel and Hrabal’s screenplay here based on a collection of short stories written in the 1950s. Set in the industrial town of Kladno, Hrabal’s characters are dissident members of the post-war Czech middle classes, sent to a scrap yard for "re-education" through manual labour. There’s a philosopher, a librarian and a saxophonist whose instrument has been abolished by the communist authorities. “Catch Up and Surpass!” proclaims a propaganda poster, and there’s much talk of smelting, the assorted “remnants of defeated classes” in need of a metaphorical meltdown and recasting.

Rudolf Hrušínský’s union foreman, creepily obsessed with bodily cleanliness, tries to supervise proceedings, banging on about his working-class origins despite being immaculately dressed in a suit. A nervy, officious guard (Jaroslav Satoranský) watches, impassively. The prisoners are segregated by sex, the friendships and flirting between them giving Larks much of its warmth. Baker Pavel (Václav Neckář) falls for Jitka Zelenohorská, their eventual marriage a proxy-ridden sham. Whereas the Guard does wed his Romany bride but struggles to consummate the marriage, his wife repeatedly hiding from him in their new flat. At one point she’s perched atop a wardrobe.

Larks on a StringThere’s a wonderful moment when the captives take off their thick gloves while shifting scrap metal in a human chain, delighting in their ability to physically touch each other. Menzel’s sight gags suggest a fondness for Keaton and Tati, my favourites being when an electromagnet dumps a load of rusty steel just feet away from a cast member, and a hysterical moment when two minor characters sit outside a building façade being spray-painted, their silhouettes visible when they shuffle offscreen. The totalitarian backdrop may be bleak but Menzel’s light touch suggests that individuality and eccentricity will eventually win out, despite the dark closing sequence.

Second Run’s HD restoration includes a handful of deleted sequences and looks terrific, Menzel’s cinematographer Jaromír Šofr capturing the full gamut of rusty browns and beiges in the scrapyard scenes. The extras are self-recommending, including a commentary from the hosts of The Projection Booth podcast and a restored early short film. 2011’s 7 Questions and a 2018 interview with Menzel are delightful, the elderly director opining on topics including modern cinema (“films of the present generally lack compassion”) and film direction (“keep the excitement greater than the fear”). Essential viewing.

@GrahamRickson

Menzel’s sight gags suggest a fondness for Keaton and Tati

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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