Director: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Screenplay: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Starring: Jirí Menzel, Ivan Passer, Vera Chytilová, Juraj Jakubisko, Peter Hames
Running Time: 448 min
BBFC Certificate: E
The filmmaker and film preservationist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (who, according to his IMDB page, also belongs to the former royal family of Dungarpur State in Rajasthan, India) fell in love with Jirí Menzel’s Czech new wave classic Closely Observed Trains (a.k.a. Closely Followed Trains) back when he was a film student. He longed to meet the man behind this wonderful film and many years later his dream came true.
In October 2010, after being warned Jirí wasn’t very patient with interviews, Shivendra headed over to Prague to meet the director, actor and writer. The pair hit it off and Shivendra was invited back to Jirí’s house the next day to continue the interview. During these initial chats, Jirí mentioned so many different films and filmmakers from and influenced by the golden age of Czech cinema that Shivendra was swallowed up by the world and the off-the-cuff interview developed into an 8-year project that involved multiple visits to Prague over that time, as well as trips elsewhere around the world to interview a vast range of filmmakers, writers and actors all tied into the world of the Czech new wave.
This epic project was eventually edited into the 7-hour long documentary CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel. Long being advocates of Czech cinema, as well as distributing Dungarpur’s 2012 documentary Celluloid Man in the UK, Second Run have released Czechmate on Blu-ray. Being a fairly recent convert to the Czech new wave, I eagerly gave the film a watch and my thoughts follow.
As hinted at in my introduction, though subtitled In Search of Jirí Menzel, Czechmate explores Czech cinema in general, from the birth of the new wave, through to the modern-day. We always return to Jirí though, delving into his life and career. This works very well, as he was one of the key figures in the new wave but continued to work in Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic) after many of his contemporaries fled the country or had their work suppressed after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. This makes him a particularly interesting filmmaker to explore too, due to some detractors claiming he was towing the party line. The way he puts it though, was that he just wanted to carry on making films. Plus, he did release a few quietly subversive films during the period of Soviet control.
The documentary has quite a free-flowing style. It doesn’t stick closely to any sort of chronological order. Instead, though key turning points in Czech history are spread out sequentially, there’s an almost stream-of-consciousness approach where the film regularly goes off on a tangent about a particular film or filmmaker that crops up during the core discussion.
This loose style, matched with the vast number of contributors and unwieldy length of the film means it can be easy to get a little lost at times, particularly with who is who on screen. There are name captions to begin with but not when people return, so it can be hard to remember several hours (or days if you break it up as I did) down the line who they are. Due to this style, it’s probably better to be at least a little knowledgable about the Czech new wave before approaching the film, even though a great amount of ground is covered in the film itself.
The grand scale and sheer breadth of interviewees in the film must be applauded and if a film about the subject could ever be called definitive, this is it. Shivendra seems to have been deeply dedicated, passionate and even a little ruthless at times in putting the film together. Reportedly, the notoriously fiery Jan Nemec didn’t want to speak to Shivendra, even after he made the long trip over to see him, so Shivendra tricked Nemec, lying about bringing a crew to film an interview. He managed to grab a few questions with Nemec though and talked him into a later interview, though Nemec took this opportunity to get his own back for the deception with an icy reception. The dogged Shivendra managed to get some gold though before Nemec died, part-way through production.
Also impressive is the warmth and playfulness that is evident in the film. This is no cold, clinic study of cinematic history. It’s an affectionate tribute that lets its subjects open up and be honest about their life and work. There’s plenty of footage of Jirí goofing around for the camera too and I loved the anecdote Ivan Passer regales about how he and Milos Forman got past the border guards to flee the country in 1968.
Like Mark Cousins’ Story of Film and Women Make Film, Czechmate also helps stoke up an appreciation of Czech cinema through a huge collection of clips from the films being discussed. It made me desperate to further explore the new wave and Jirí’s work, as well as reminding me how wonderful many of the titles are that I’ve already seen.
So, though its length will seem overwhelming, and indeed it will probably be best served in 3 or 4 smaller chunks, Czechmate is a wonderful, affectionate and of course thorough journey through a unique movement in cinema history and one of its key figures. I’d highly recommend it to any lovers of film.
CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel is out now on region-free Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Run. It looks and sounds sharp and clear, as you’d expect from a modern documentary on Blu-ray.
A few special features are included too:
– Two-disc Blu-ray Special Edition.
– Presented from a new director-approved HD transfer of the complete film.
– Two of Jirí Menzel’s early and rarely-seen short films, available for the first time in HD: Prefabricated Houses (Domy z panel, 1959) & Our Dear Mister Foerster Died (Um el nám pan Foerster, 1963)
– Image gallery featuring photographs and posters from the personal archives of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.
– 24-page booklet featuring extracts from the director’s shooting-diaries.
– 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
– World premiere release on home video.
– Region-free (A/B/C) Blu-ray.
It’s not a lot of extra material but you don’t really require further analysis when you’ve got a 7-hour documentary on Czech cinema as your main feature. The shorts are great though, particularly Our Dear Mister Foerster Died, which is a beautiful ode to life.
As always, the booklet included is required reading. It features extracts of Dungarpur’s shooting diaries, which help you appreciate what went into making the epic film and his passion for the project shines through in his writing.