Larks on a String AKA Skrivánci na niti
R0 - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Samuel Scott (20th March 2011).
The Film

Before I start this review I think it would be fair to say that my knowledge of director Jirí Menzel is minimal having previously only seen his debut feature film "Closely Observed Trains" for which he won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. This viewing was seven or eight years ago and despite finding the film a great watch and wanting to check out more of Menzel's filmography I just haven't got around to it... until today. Originally filmed in 1969 "Larks on a String" (AKA Skrivánci na niti) was quickly banned by the (then) communist regime and until 1990 was only available in the 'underground' market. After the fall of the communist regime in 1990 the film was released and won the Golden Bear Award at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival. Forty two years after it was originally filmed, and twenty one years after the cinema release, "Larks on a String" has been released for the first time in the UK on a home entertainment format, courtesy of Second Run DVD.

The synopsis from the case reads:
"Filmed in 1968 whilst Czechoslovakia enjoyed a brief moment of political liberalization, Larks on a String is a searing political comedy from director Jirí Menzel and writer Bohumil Hrabal. Like their earlier Oscar-winning triumph Closely Observed Trains, it audaciously combines black humour with grim reality. Set in a scrap metal yard where political dissidents are interned to be re-educated, the film is both a powerful critique of totalitarianism and a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. By the time Larks on a String was completed, the Soviet invasion had restored a repressive Communist regime. The film was promptly banned and remained unseen until 1990, when it was finally released to great acclaim winning the grand prize at the Berlin Film Festival".



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Larks on a String is a bleak and tragic story right from the outset. As the film progresses you see how the oppressive regime affects different people, from the imprisoned female scrapyard workers who tried to defect to the west, to the workers who are there 'voluntarily' to pay for their 'crimes' (such as the chef who refuses to work on the Sabbatical). More importantly, at least in my opinion, you also see how it affects the guards who may be as oppressed as the prisoners themselves. One part romantic comedy, one part political satire, the film manages to move between the two with ease with rapore between the male and female prisoners and although the characters make light of their situation, the way the story is told also manages to show how tragic all their lives are.

Video

Although the case states the disc is in the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, it is actually 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Despite not being in the OAR, the transfer has been approved by director Jiri Menzel and cinematographer Jaromír Sofr. Quality wise, it's a mixed bag. For the majority of the film, the transfer is quite clean and outside of some grain and the occasional (but noticeable) large black blotches in the top right corner there are no real worries. A couple of the scenes towards the end the film are of obvious poorer quality, looking washed out and carrying more damage. This is explained in the booklet by cinematographer Sofr who explains this footage was cut to try and get past the censors. Unfortunately the cuts were made from the original negative and both the original negative and the cut scenes were carefully hidden. Unfortunately, in 1989, they were unable to find the cut footage and found it only existed in a workprint and so the difference between the footage is obvious. Optional English subtitles are also provided and they are white, clear and easy to read.

Audio

The audio included is a Czech Dolby Digital 2.0 Dual Mono track and it is mediocre but certainly serviceable. Slight background hiss can be heard reasonably often and the dubbing is a little off at times.

Extras

Somebody understand the phrase "quality over quantity". Second Run may not have provided hours of additional extras but what is here is excellent. First up is a small featurette called "Jiří Menzel: 7 Questions" which runs for nine minutes 33 seconds. Shot by Menzel himself specifically for this release, he talks about this film (and film in general), his working relationship with writer Hrabel and communism. Open and honest, this is essential viewing.

The other extra is a booklet which contains text about the transfer by cinematographer Sofr and an in-depth and informative essay by Peter Hames which is among the best I have had the pleasure to read.

Packaging

Standard keep case with the usual design we have come to expect from Second Run. The artwork of the case speaks volumes about the film.

Overall

Second Run continue to release excellent films that may never see the light of day otherwise. Despite the mediocre video and audio quality, the low retail price and quality of the film and extras make this a worthy purchase.

The Film: A- Video: C- Audio: C Extras: B+ Overall: B

 


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