Long-Repressed Tale of Repression
The junk heap to which the characters of “Larks on a String” are consigned is a kind of paradise. Here, in the early 1950’s, former members of Czechoslovakia’s banished bourgeoisie are nominally engaged in forced labor, but in fact are free to play cards, discuss philosophy, joke sardonically about their situation and languish as they choose.
The men in this group — among them a professor who refused to destroy decadent Western literature, a saxophonist whose very instrument was considered an offense against the state and a lawyer who upheld the radical idea that a defendant ought to be allowed to plead his case — also spend a lot of time trading secret smiles and sidelong glances with a group of female prisoners nearby. The women, dressed in drably functional uniforms, nonetheless manage to look nymphlike as they laugh and frolic and hum little tunes. The setting is bleak and the season unspecified, but in spirit, it might as well be spring.
This long-suppressed Czechoslovak film, made in 1969 by Jiri Menzel (best known for his 1966 “Closely Watched Trains”), offers a trenchant blend of playfulness and political satire. The film’s blithe mood manages to accommodate the most scathing thoughts of Mr. Menzel and the writer Bohumil Hrabal, who co-wrote a screenplay based on Mr. Hrabal’s stories. Visiting bureaucrats jokingly spout their rhetoric (“We’ll pour our peaceful steel down the imperialist warmongers’ throats — hands off Korea!”) while at the same time acknowledging the real restrictiveness of the climate. The efforts of friendly officials to skirt regulations in behalf of the prisoners lead to sobering yet laughable absurdities, as when a man is allowed a proxy wedding with his fiancee’s grandmother, since the fiancee herself is a prisoner.
At its considerable best, “Larks on a String,” which opens today at the Film Forum, manages to be both whimsical and dark. Mr. Menzel’s direction has a benign, anecdotal style that serenely embraces the full oppressiveness of the characters’ situation.
Among the film’s notably odd moments are the wedding scene, at which a shy young guard finds his silent wife looking much more captivated by the gypsy musicians who are playing than she is with him, and the peculiar consequences of this union. Also memorable are the glimpses of forbidden artifacts, like typewriters and crucifixes, being dumped on the junk heap as the principals almost casually look on. “We’ll also melt them down into a new kind of people,” one bureaucrat says. But the threat is so hollow it’s almost amiable and complicit, which is surely one of the many reasons “Larks on a String” was so long banned.
Janet Maslin, NY Times, February 13, 1991