I Served the King of England: Interview With Jiri Menzel

Interview With Jiri Menzel

Author Bohumil Hrabal was Born March 28, 1914, in Brno Austro-Hungary; he died February 3, 1997, in Prague, Czech Republic.

Bohumil Hrabal is one of the greatest contemporary European writers, but for me his work also resonates with the very best traditions of Czech literature. Back in the mid-1960s Hrabals vision of the world, and his way of interpreting that vision, fascinated my entire generation. As a token of their admiration, seven young filmmakers decided to join forces on Pearls on the Bottom, a film based on several of his short stories. I was lucky enough to be one of those seven, and
although I was a virtual beginner compared to my older colleagues, I was given the chance, thanks to the success of my short feature Mr. Balthazars Death, to film Hrabals novella “Closely Watched Trains.”

In the course of making that film, Mr. Hrabal and I became close friends, which led to our collaborating on further screen adaptations of his stories. After Closely Watched Trains, which won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1968 as well as several other awards, we worked together on an adaptation of several stories from his Advertising the Sale of the House I no Longer Wish to Live in. This was during the Prague Spring. In the summer of 1969 we somehow managed to finish shooting Larks on a String, also based on Hrabal stories, which was immediately banned. Twenty years later, in November 1989, it was shown at last in the cinemas and shortly afterwards, the film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

In the first years of the Soviet occupation we were prevented from working together, so it was not until 1980 that we were able to make Cutting it Short based on the story of the same name, which won a prize in Venice and attracted record audiences in Czechoslovakia. This, my last personal collaboration with Hrabal, was followed by yet another adaptation from his volume of short stories The Snowdrop Festival. This film remained somewhat overshadowed by the better-known titles, although I believe it captures the essential spirit of Hrabal best of all.

I loved and admired Bohumil Hrabals writing from the moment I discovered it. But it was never my wish to bring to the screen a mere illustration of his epic stories. Instead, I attempted to express and preserve, as best I could, the spirit of Hrabals narrative style and interpret his voice through the language of film. I wanted to serve a great author by bringing his work to as many people as possible–that is, to cinema audiences. For over thirty years my work has been interwoven with that of Bohumil Hrabal. The novel I Served the King of
England is one of his greatest achievements a view of the modern world and a segment of 20th century history as reflected in the life of one man.

Turning Hrabal’s Novel into a Film

“I Served the King of England” is one of Bohumil Hrabals finest books. It tells the story of a little Czech waiter (he is in fact a short man) in 20th century Czechoslovakia, starting in the inter-war years and ending up in the 1960s. From the author himself we know the novel was written in a very short amount of time as a reaction to the constant pressure, emotional and social, under which the writer was forced to live in the period of normaLzation (i.e. the post-1968 years) when he was not allowed to publish. Hrabal packs his long novel with a lot of situations, scenes, stories and anecdotes through which he guides his hero.

In creating a screenplay from such an extensive narrative I had to make a selection of the most essential elements. The screenplay focuses on two parallel stories. The first follows the youthful exploits and gradual maturing of an
ambitious little man before the War and during the German occupation when, in love and guided by stupidity rather than opportunism, he finds himself on the side of the occupying power. The second story, concerns only a short period in
his later life when, after years in prison, he seeks peace and solitude in an abandoned German village whose inhabitants were expelled after the war. His peace is only briefly disturbed by the arrival of a young working class woman whose youth and vitality bring back memories of his romantic adventures as a young man.