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‘Larks on a String’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 19, 1991

Filmed during Prague Spring in 1968-69, Jiri Menzel's "Larks on a String" was a movie before its time. But alas, that time seems to have more or less come and gone, like "1984's." An open critique of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the suppressed "Larks" finally premiered at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival.

Set in a scrap yard in Kladno in the '50s, this whimsically dismal tract foretells the collapse of socialism. A sort of lyric Orwellian burlesque, it predicts that a society founded on the ruins of individual endeavor will not rise above the heap, only rust away.

A group of bourgeois dissidents -- a weary, mostly middle-aged band of "class enemies" -- is learning the error of its ways at the Kladno dump. A dairyman, a barber, a cook, a philosopher, a lawyer and a saxophonist waste their time and abilities heaving the detritus of the past -- crucifixes, typewriters and baby cribs mostly -- into the people's smelter. Of course, the steel is weak.

Across the scrap heap, a group of would-be defectors cheerfully labor away their prison terms. All women, they are mostly as spirited and young as the men are tired and worn. They also wear eyeliner. When the sexual tension mounts, as it tends to in your Slavic romps, the women manage to enlist their prison guard's help in occasional rendezvous with the men. A romance between the Chaplinesque cook (Vaclav Neckar) and a luminous prisoner (Jitka Zelenohorska) flourishes, and, with the help of a zealous party official (Rudolf Hrusinsky), a proxy marriage is arranged with her granny standing in for her.

Foolish bureaucrats and addlepated party leaders are razzed almost tenderly, as if they were sad clowns in ill-made suits. A humanist, not a politician, Menzel is full of mirth and pity. He has as much sympathy for the oppressors as for those they oppress. Best known for his Oscar-winning 1966 film, "Closely Watched Trains," Menzel works in that place where tragedy merges with comedy. "Larks on a String" sings a bittersweet melody, but it's less resonant now that the cage is broken.

"Larks on a String" is in Czech with English subtitles. It is not rated, but is equivalent to a PG.

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