Zlín Film Fest Review: ‘To Make a Comedy is No Fun’ Top Jiří Menzel Doc
While introducing his new documentary To Make a Comedy is No Fun at the Zlín Film Festival, filmmaker Robert Kolinsky mentioned that he had more than ten hours of footage of legendary Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel that he had to edit into this 90-minute movie.
I’d love to watch all ten hours: while almost everything on the screen here is a trove of riches, there’s too much missing from Menzel’s story to call this a definitive portrait of the director, whose story is little-known by many outside of the Czech Republic.
Even if you don't know much about the Czech Republic, you’ve probably heard of director Miloš Forman, who won Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, and made a number of other acclaimed films in Hollywood.
But you may not be familiar with Menzel, who won an Oscar ten years before Forman, for his movie Closely Observed Trains. At the Awards ceremony, Danny Kaye handed Menzel the statuette before a brief and humble speech in which he expressed surprise and gratitude that the American audience liked his Czech movie.
Later on his brief journey in L.A., Menzel was taken under the wing of Alfred Hitchcock, who told him that he was a big fan of his work; Menzel was embarrassed that he had only seen a single Hitchcock movie that made it through communist censors.
After the cultural and creative movement Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968, Forman left the country to achieve his great fame abroad. But Menzel, who had the opportunity to flee, and the ability to succeed in Hollywood, chose to stay behind.
In letters to friends abroad, Menzel describes how he saw the people of his nation suffering, and saw his calling as a filmmaker who would give them a voice.
These are among the moments recounted by Kolinsky in To Make a Comedy is No Fun, which tells Menzel’s story through both the man himself and other acclaimed directors: Forman and Věra Chytilová, who describes how she taught Menzel how to be a gentleman, Hungarian director István Szabó, the UK’s Ken Loach.
There’s genuine admiration for Menzel’s work and methods from the famous directors onscreen and the filmmakers behind the camera, and that comes through to the viewer - many of whom may not be as familiar with Menzel as they ought to be.
But there’s just one thing missing here. Menzel stayed behind to give his countrymen a voice, and delivered some of the most beloved Czechoslovak movies of all-time in the 1970s and 80s, many of which are unknown outside of the country.
But while Menzel’s Czech New Wave classics like Closely Observed Trains, Capricious Summer, Larks on a String, and his contribution to the anthology Pearls of the Deep, along with his 2006 adaptation of I Served the King of England are all given plenty of screentime, only Postřižiny - with its classic scene set atop a chimney at a factory that has been given new life as a brewery thanks to the movie - is given significant discourse from Menzel’s ‘70s-’80s period.
And yet during that period, the director made some of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved features: films like My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková), Seclusion Near a Forest (Na samotě u lesa), The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek), and The End of Old Times (Konec starých časů), considered to be among the best of Czech cinema, are absent from this documentary.
That could be down to rights issues, but it’s an unfortunate omission, particularly because those films are just as good as Menzel’s New Wave output, but generally remain unknown outside of the country.
Still, To Make a Comedy is No Fun is an excellent look into Jiří Menzel’s work - including his theater directing abroad, which was unknown to me - and his process, and will hopefully bring more recognition to the director outside of the Czech Republic.