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Prague in the early 1950's. Bourgeois elements are being re-educated by working in a scrapyard full of the detritus of industrial society. The volunteer workers comprise a professor of literature, a public prosecutor, a dairyman, a saxophonist, a barber, and a young cook. Also working in the yard are a number of female prisoners serving a year for trying to defect... A camera crew arrives with potted plants and other props. An idyllic scene is created; the prisoners star briefly in a pro-North Korean newsreel before going back to work... The volunteers are striking because the scrapyard work quotas have risen without consultation. A union rep arrives to persuade them otherwise... The guard for the female prisoners gets married but the gypsy musicians make a mess at his reception. The cook flirts with one of the pretty prisoners and finally proposes... Written by
Before Larks on a String, Jiri Menzel had made his most famous film Closely Watched Trains (1966) which even won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Larks on a String wasn't such a big success because it was immediately banned in 1969 when it was made. The new fresh waves that came to Czechoslovakia in the 1960's made the making of the film possible and it was made in the spirit of the revolution -- The Prague Spring in 1968. Even that Menzel has always been a humanist as an artist his views were this time too much for the communist politicians and therefore he got a five-year prohibition for making movies; and Larks on a String wasn't released until the fall of communism in 1990.
I have had the privilege to see this wonderfully absurd film twice on the television. It is a warm-hearted story about an industrial scrap yard where "volunteers" produce cheap steel. In this yard a group of volunteers are being re-educated from their filthy bourgeois lives to loyal workers in the name of socialism. The group includes a musician, a philosopher, a dairyman, a barber, a prosecutor and a young chef. On the other side of the yard there is a group of female prisoners who are working for trying to defect. Without the strict rules, boundaries and supervision, romantic relationships start to build between these characters.
In Larks on a String Menzel achieves to relay his view on the poetry of life. But the lyricism of the film is characterized by bitter irony because reality, hypocrisy and cruelty of the society exhale from the director's comedy. The entire scrap yard is, of course, a sarcastic metaphor for the experimentations of the East-European countries. The former enemies are being re-educated into common workers and from the trash of the old world a new society is built. But nothing is real: people are arrested for obscure reasons, the secret police controls everything and even the qualification of the steel is poor. However, even in these conditions people are people and they try to make the most of it.
The Czechoslovakian New Wave found its inspiration from France but also from their own greatest writer Franz Kafka. In turn, they gave inspiration for many modern filmmakers. During the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, a Marxist philosopher called Georg Lukács said that "Kafka was a realist" after all. It is an important observation while reading Kafka but also works as the main thesis for the entire Czechoslovakian New Wave: because wasn't fierce, ruthless humor really the only way to deal with the absurdity of being in the Communist countries of Eastern Europe?
Therefore, we shouldn't just watch Larks on a String as an absurd tragicomedy because this was real -- and that's why we can call it realism for its goals and bases which were both social. Even though the film portrays human fates, crushed by the repressive governance, the film is also full of joy, love and mundane beauty.
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