The Austin Chronicle

Larks on a String

90 min. Directed by Jiri Menzel. Starring Vaclav Neckar, Rudolf Hrusinky.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 7, 1991

“We'll pour our peaceful steel down the imperialist war-monger's throat,” is a phrase that more than adequately reflects the darkly humorous tone of this disarming Czech film from director Menzel (Closely Watched Trains). That declaration appears on a propaganda banner held by some of the film's principal characters, residents of a state-run junkyard/labor camp for those whose actions have been deemed “counter-revolutionary.” On one side of the yard live the men, most of whom have been sent here for “re-education” into the communist party. On the other side, behind a grungy mesh fence, are a group of women interned for the crime of attempted defection. Separately, the two groups lazily toil beneath a filthy Czech sky, sorting out piles of scrap metal (one huge pile is nothing less than a veritable mountain of crucifixes and religious icons) and tossing things about; together, they flirt, philosophize, and occasionally sneak off behind the hillocks of slag to make love. When one of the men -- a young cook named Pavel -- falls in love with Jitka, a female prisoner, the stage is set for a wry tale of love among the ruins. Menzel's film, shot during Czechoslovakia's “Prague Spring” in 1968-69 was unfortunately pulled from circulation upon its release by the increasingly paranoid Czech government. Since then, until the recent rise of Vaclav Havel finally allowed the movie to be seen once more. That is as it should be. Larks on a String is at once a stinging indictment of the repressive politics of Czechoslovakia's past and an endearing comedy/love story. Menzel's cameraman keeps the tone light and rarely allows the film to cross over into cynicism; his compositions highlight the darkly humorous situations the characters find themselves in, from the prison guard who is having romantic troubles with his new gypsy wife, to the cautious romantic liaisons of the men and women in the scrapyard. Larks on a String looks totalitarianism straight in the eye and, instead of spitting, laughs. Bird on a Wire this isn't.

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