Color, 2018, 447 mins. 35 secs. (223 mins. 6 secs + 224 mins. 29 secs.)
Directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur Second Run (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Essential for years for bringing major treasures of the Czech New Wave to new English-speaking viewers thanks to their groundbreaking Blu-ray and DVD releases, British label Second Run does something a bit different with the worldwide home video debut of CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel on Blu-ray. Calling this sprawling look at the history and impact of the film movement "epic" would be an understatement as Indian filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (Celluloid Man) dives deep into the cultural ramifications and artistic importance of a wide variety of films and personalities from the era, all revolving around one of its most important practitioners, Jiří Menzel.
Best known internationally for his Oscar-winning classic, Closely Watched Trains, Menzel serves as the linchpin for this collage of new interviews, film clips, archival coverage, and critical appraisals. Eight years in the making, the film started as an attempt to connect with Menzel, which led to a years-long stint with him in Prague that branched out into interviews with a number of other filmmakers. By now many of those legendary names (not just Czech) have since passed away, which makes the film as much a testament to them as its primary subject including the late Věra Chytilová, Miloš Forman, Miroslav Ondříček, Jan Němec, Andrzej Wajda, Raoul Coutard, Drahomíra Vihanová, Ivan Passer, Miklós Jancsó, and Juraj Herz, many of them making their last recorded appearances here. Also seen here are such names as Ken Loach, Woody Allen, Vojtěch Jasný, Juraj Jakubisko, Dušan Hanák, Agnieszka Holland, Istvan Szabo, Martin Sulik, and Štefan Uher, among the reported 85 interviews conducted over the period.
What emerges is a thorough, fascinating, and consistently uplifting portrait of a country flourishing artistically under an oppressive regime during Russian occupation, which ran through different courses after the end of World War II until 1989. A valuable research text as well as prime entertainment, the doc isn't really the "search" implied by the title (Menzel was harder to convince to participate than actually find) as much as a portrait of how one filmmaker's impact is part of a larger puzzle filled with vital, invigorating pieces. The amount of research involved pays off as well as loads of treasures from Czech film history are included here to such an extent you'll want to program a festival of your own afterwards (and lament that a few key titles are still out of reach or only out on DVD).
Given the extreme length involved, Second Run has wisely allocated two full Blu-rays to their release with the film split into two parts at a natural break point. As you'd expect for a digital production of such a recent vintage, it looks very sleek, crisp, and pristine, with archival elements also in the best shape possible with most of the film clips fully restored. A few archival TV clips are obviously confined to the original source, but it's great to have them included. (One highlight: Danny Kaye presented the Foreign Language Film Oscar for Closely Watched Trains, which includes an erroneous announcement that predates the La La Land fiasco by decades.) The Czech audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1, which is a nice touch but doesn't exactly provide a dynamic aural experience given the fact that most of this is spoken word and film clips. Also included are two fully restored Menzel shorts in immaculate condition: 1959's "Prefabricated Houses" ("Domy z panelů") (7m7s), a gorgeous full-color look at residential construction in action, and 1963's more austere "Our Dear Mister Foerster Died" ("Umřel nám pan Foerster") (15m24s). Also included is an image gallery with items from Dungarpur's collection, while the package comes with an insert booklet featuring highlights from the filmmaker's shooting diaries.