The Politics of Washed Bodies:
Roma Women in Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String (1969)
B. Dalia Hatalova
Jiří Menzel’s Skřivánci na niti (Larks on a String) was filmed in 1969 in Czechoslovakia, but due to its critique of the limited ideological freedom and agency in socialist Czechoslovakia, the film was banned by the socialist government, and its release was only made possible by the Velvet Revolution in 1989 (Bluestone 1990, 24). Menzel’s film is based on several stories from Bohumil Hrabal’s 1965 book, Inzerát na dům, ve kterém už nechci bydlet (Advertisement for a House I Do Not Want to Live in Anymore). Both are situated in a scrapyard on the edge of a metropolitan area in the 1950s, offering evidence that a “Hrabal story typically resembles a feast of scraps, an assemblage of weightless follies in which effects seldom follow causes” (Owen 2011, 84). Following the author’s usual structural style, Advertisement for a House I Do Not Want to Live in Anymore focuses on several vignettes in the lives of male workmen deemed “bourgeois elements” and female political prisoners forced to complete manual labor for their ideological re-education. Hrabal’s setting is reflective of the historical period, which was rife with incarceration for political reasons as the socialist government sought to stabilize its power following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948 (Polisenska 2015, 271). Purges of the broader population and within the Communist Party itself were conducted to identify “enemies of the state” (Lóži 2021, 112). The 1968 Prague Spring brought about brief freedom of expression, which made room for Hrabal’s more politically critical work.
As a liberation movement, the Prague Spring uprising sought to reform the existing communist system and emancipate the Czechoslovak government from Soviet influence (Gorbachev 2002, 60; Sommer 2019, 54). The period also merged with a national rejuvenation of art and cinema, which came to be known as the Czech New Wave. While artists utilized different approaches, the movement was unified by an experimental utilization of aesthetics that often approached surrealism (Frank 2011, 6). Simultaneously, there was “a commitment to represent the experience of ordinary Czechoslovak citizens” to indirectly critique the restrictive socialist government (Girelli 2011, 51). As a result, Larks on a String—an adaptation of Hrabal’s timely political critique and a work that emphasizes day-to-day life—is emblematic of artistic movements in the country.
However, the political situation, in which people in Czechoslovakia sought greater independence from external influences, culminated in the Soviet Union invading the country in August 1968 (Valenta 1979, 75). Films that presented critical views of the socialist government were banned under the Soviet occupation, replicating the heavy censorship of Stalinist Soviet film production, when a significant number of the films produced were deemed unsuitable for public viewing (Belodubrovskaya 2017, 4). The period between 1969 and 1989, known as “normalization,” continued the heavy governmental censorship of music, books, and films, all controlled internally by the Czechoslovak government (Husak 2017, 315; Šmejkalova 2001, 90). Consequently, Larks on a String, along with masterpieces such as Karel Kachyňa’s Ucho (The Ear, 1970) and Miloš Forman’s Hoří, Má Panenko (The Fireman’s Ball, 1967), was not released until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 ended socialism in Czechoslovakia (Bluestone 1990, 24).
Often eclipsed by Menzel’s earlier film Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, 1966)—which won the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film and which takes place in the more familiar era of the Nazi-occupied Czech Republic—Larks on a String directs viewers to the more overlooked era of 1950s socialism that followed World War II. The film’s protagonists are male, formerly white-collar workers who are forced to perform manual labor; they include a professor who refused to throw out subversive books, a lawyer who believed people have a right to defense, a business owner who had four employees, and a musician who plays the saxophone, which is deemed a Western instrument. Among the group of workers, the only person of proletarian origin is a trustee (Rudolf Hrušínský) overseeing the laborers. In parallel with the male laborers, a group of young political women have been arrested for attempting to illegally cross the border; as prisoners, they are supervised in the scrapyard by a prison guard named Anděl (Jaroslav Satoranský). The plot centers on the innocent romance between one of the workmen, Pavel (Václav Neckář), and a female prisoner, Jitka (Jitka Zelenohorská), which eventually leads to their marriage. A series of vignettes in the scrapyard is connected by Pavel’s process of gaining Jitka’s attention and, eventually, her affection. After overcoming bureaucratic formalities and getting married towards the end of the film, Pavel is snatched away by police for having contested the disappearance of his fellow workers (who had been taken away earlier in the film after speaking out against the government). Despite prolonging their separation further, the tale nevertheless ends on an optimistic note as Jitka, having finished serving her sentence, anticipates Pavel will eventually be free as well. However, the Slavic characters’ partial acceptance of their political realities is undermined by the darker tone of two subplots that center on the trustee’s and prison guard’s respective relationships with Romani women.
The struggles experienced by the two Romani women included in Larks on String are notably absent from Hrabal’s short stories, and they add a racialized dimension to Menzel’s critique of the socialist state. One of the two Roma women, Terezka (Tereza Galiová), is the bride of the women prisoners’ supervisor, Anděl. Upon Anděl and Terezka’s marriage, the newlyweds struggle to communicate and negotiate their cultural differences. The second Roma woman in the film is present only near the end of the narrative, when the young girl is revealed as the reason for the proletarian trustee’s visits to a Romani slum, where he goes to preach the socialist state’s doctrine of good hygiene. In this case, the enactment of “good hygiene” involves the trustee bathing a naked pubescent Roma girl in an ongoing ritual that purportedly assimilates her into the cultural norms of the dominant regime. Despite not being directly connected to the central Pavel/Jitka plot, the two Roma women are united by the scrapyard, where Anděl and the trustee are employed as upholders of socialist governmental infrastructure. While these subplots are presented only in a few scenes, such representation is nevertheless noteworthy given the general absence of the Romani minority in Czechoslovak cinema. However, because these vignettes lack a direct narrative connection to the central plot line with Pavel and Jitka, existing scholarship has overlooked the significance of including Romani people in the film and the way these storylines sharpen Menzel’s critique of the socialist state (Brennan 2019; Owen 2009; Mazierska 2010). By incorporating Romani women, Larks on a String draws connections between the social dynamics of race in the European setting and the role of ethnic otherness in ideology.
In socialist Czechoslovakia, class structures and racial differences faced a similar struggle to remain visible in the face of a socialist ideology that privileged uniformity. The Romani or Roma people, previously known as Gypsies (now considered a racial slur), settled in several parts of Europe after arriving from Northern India during the Middle Ages, resulting in their being a “pan-European ethnic minority” (Vašečka 2001, 31). In the twentieth century, the community became increasingly stationary within national borders, causing their deeper involvement in the national politics of their respective countries (Malvinni 2004, 64). Czechoslovakia was one of the places Romani people found a permanent home, but not without social and cultural tensions ensuing. After World War II, the Romani were targeted by socialist governments that came to power across Eastern Europe because they were culturally and ethnically different from the Slavic majority. Describing the situation in socialist Hungary, Aniko Imre writes that “the ‘caring’ communist state masqueraded as the benefactor of backward and unwilling Roma groups” (Imre 2009, 102). Forced assimilation measures had a long-term detrimental effect on the cultural and economic well-being of Romani people within the Eastern bloc (Vašečka 2001, 30). Simultaneously, the way that the socialist government’s policies attempted to obliterate racial difference raised questions about socialist ideals of cultural homogeny (Hancock 1992, 13).
Larks on a String provides a generative ground for using textual analysis, feminist perspective, and political philosophy to interrogate the relations between the socialist regime in Czechoslovakia and the Romani community in the 1950s. The next section considers scholarship on Larks on a String and gender relations between the male laborers and female prisoners. The reciprocal gazes between the Slavic political subversives indicate a balance in which the female “other” is dissolved, to a degree, through the political/sexual impotence of imprisonment, whereby Menzel leaves open the possibility of the laborer’s and prisoner’s future assimilation into socialism. This section establishes a point of comparison for the next section, which examines the film’s representation of the trustee’s and Anděl’s respective relations with Roma women. It provides a close analysis of the cinematic and editing choices employed to represent these two narratives and reveals how the racial dimension dislodges the central gendered paradigm from a two-dimensional binary. The subsequent section builds on this textual analysis to investigate Menzel’s utilization of Romani portraits and their broader political implications. This essay argues that Romani representations in Larks on a String prove a symbolic—yet tangible—manifestation of otherness that poses a challenge to the socialist government’s self-professed ideals of producing an economically and culturally homogenous society.
Women, Men, and Politics
Larks on a String begins with a vigorous fanfare that dissolves into the dreary industrialization of a scrapyard. The sequence is followed by a lingering shot of a group of slovenly workmen. While these images appear to be purely political, Menzel breaks the illusion of a sterile critique after the first few minutes of the film. The young cook, Pavel (Václav Neckář), who has been sent to political re-education for refusing to work on Saturdays, traverses the upper reaches of the junk piles and looks below at Jitka (Jitka Zelenohorská), who is unloading metal into the yard. The film suggests that Jitka, like the other female prisoners, has attempted to leave the country because of the socialist regime. Pavel’s amorous desire for the pretty female prisoner is immediately interrupted by a shot of the trustee (Rudolf Hrušínský), who provides a tour of the yard to a member of the local socialist television station. This disruption seems to disconnect Pavel’s frivolous flirtations from the serious political narrative.
However, as Jonathan L. Owen (2009) argues in his analysis of Larks on a String, Menzel’s representation of sex and gender is significantly more nuanced. For Owen, sex is inherently anti-political in Menzel’s films, as it forms an unrestrained heterogeneous opposition to organized homogenous political structures. In this context, social homogeneity involves “the reduction of individuals to their exchange value,” while “‘heterogenous’ refers to those social activities and experiences that defy the homogenous criteria of functionality or usefulness” (Owen 2009, 505). The libidinal impulses present in the scrapyard exist in opposition to socialist ideals, transcending socialist sobriety: in other words, romance provides a surplus beyond functionality. But in Owen’s framework, the sexual exploits between Pavel and Jitka are subject to gendered paradigms that can exist in parallel with the transgressive political implications.
According to Owen, Menzel’s female characters fall within traditional gender representations, with women being gazed at and men doing the gazing. He writes, “Pavel and Jitka’s ‘natural’ behavior … reaffirms patriarchal stereotypes of male activity and initiation, female passivity and reticence” (2009, 501). The first sequence wherein Pavel gazes at Jitka, as well as his later pursuit of her, seemingly affirms this assumption. Indeed, as Pavel gazes at Jitka, she becomes what Teresa de Lauretis describes as a “woman as scene, rather than subject, of sexuality” (1984, 27). The later subtle interactions between the workmen and female prisoners, however, call into question Owen’s analysis of gender relations due to the reciprocity established by performance and editing. Ewa Mazierska argues that the sexual exploits in Larks on a String “do not signify man’s sexist attitude to a woman but rather the difficulty of both sexes to lead a normal erotic life under communism” (2010, 148). Menzel emphasizes the alteration of the gazes to elicit both a political and comical commentary that critiques the gaze while acknowledging its traditionally gendered framework (Mulvey 1989, 19).
At points when the male workers and female prisoners are brought together, not only do the men realize they are likewise the objects of female desire, they are also intimidated by the women’s advances. The interactions evoke the description by Hélène Cixous et al. of Medusa: a woman whose gaze is to be feared; if the male gazer perceives her wholly, he would realize she is not castrated but instead defiantly gazes back (1976, 885). Larks on a String’s alternation of gazes establishes a transgression that reflects the men’s horror when faced by the women’s assertion of desire. Their shock about female sexuality is apparent in a scene in which the female prisoners finish their work early and assist the men with their load. The less worldly Pavel takes pleasure in briefly caressing Jitka’s hand, which she allows him to do in a bashful fashion. However, another female prisoner pretends that a male worker has a speck of dust in his eye and obtains permission for the two to leave the group in order to remove it. Once the two are alone, she embraces him, much to the man’s bewilderment. In yet another scene, it is mentioned that a female prisoner got impregnated by a man in the labor camp as a result of a forbidden tryst. As such, the risk taken by women to fulfill their sexual desire signals a mutual gaze, even if Menzel primarily aligns the spectator’s gaze with that of the male figures. So, while the women in Menzel’s film are unable to “transform the codes” of being gazed at, as Tereza de Lauretis describes, the female prisoners do find ways to “transgress [the codes], make trouble, provoke, pervert” through looking (1984, 35). These sensual pleasures become a democratic means to elude the dark political repression that surrounds both the men and women. However, Larks on a String is primarily able to convey the desires of both men and women because the political constraints equalize gender Because women’s commodity value as “bearer of economic, positive value” is nonexistent in a state in which biological reproduction is stymied, their “semiotic, negative value, of difference” is simultaneously undone by their political sameness (de Lauretis 1984, 19). Consequently, Mazierska’s assertion is insightful in pointing out how political subversion creates both a social and sexual “symmetry in the situation of men and women in Menzel’s film” (Mazierska 2010, 148–149).
Tangible sexual contact remains limited between Pavel and Jitka. While Pavel manages to arrange a marriage with Jitka by proxy at the end of the film, the proposed wedding night in a shack on the scrapyard is intercepted. After the disappearance of some of the laborers from their work group, Pavel had questioned a politician about the arrests, which lead to his own arrest as he is on the way to the wedding shack. Therefore, despite the auspicious beginning of Larks on a String—where, under Menzel’s direction, the camera “moves around [the] junkyard as if it were a field of daisies” (Kauffmann 1991)—even romance is revealed to be no bed of roses within oppressive regimes. As Daniel Brennan points out, the ending of Larks on a String invites a reevaluation of political sacrifice when it comes at the cost of personal connections. He explains that “the undoing of the protagonists … occurs precisely at the moment they deliberately make a rupture with their private life and attempt overtly political action that ignores or excludes their established responsibilities to those in their relationships of care” (2019, 210).
Menzel establishes a permeability between the political and the sensuous that simultaneously does not exclude the prospect of reciprocal relationships between men and women. As the laborers and prisoners struggle against oppression, they live out private lives, but ones ultimately unified by productive forms of collectivity based on a fundamental sameness of culture and customs, thus ironically living out a socialist ideal of homogeny. For Linda Fuller, the homogeneity of a socialist society proves false, because in Eastern European socialism, “the relationship between workers and intellectuals was marred by tension and antagonism” (2000, 605). However, Menzel’s prisoners suggest that even under circumstances of persecution, bridging divisions and finding some degree of agency were possible for the Slavic characters. Jitka, having served her sentence, is free at the end of the film and optimistically waits for Pavel to complete his term in prison so they can enjoy mutual happiness. Thus, within the world of laborers and prisoners, there is still a place for imagining a future within the socialist system, a prospect that seems more remote for Menzel’s Romani characters.
Two Roma Women, a Guard, and a Trustee
bell hooks’s highly influential book The Oppositional Gaze, which highlights the power of the gaze as a way to renegotiate the experience of viewing Black exclusionary Hollywood cinema, points to the omission of Romani in twentieth-century European cinema that produced the illusion of a “pure” white Europe. hooks comments on how European cinema enabled an escape from the racial tensions found in Hollywood mainstream media because, despite their white casts, “they did not have in their deep structure a subtext reproducing the narrative of white supremacy” (1992, 127). The assumption that there exists a lack of ethnic otherness in the European context reflects the conservative American ideology that presumes a white place of origin across the Atlantic; meanwhile, the actual composition of the European population was far from lacking in ethnic diversity. This ideological categorization puts Romani into the place of historical memory and racialized fantasy; it also negates their existence within the North American context, despite there being a sizable population in the United States and Canada (Trumpener 1992, 849). However, hooks’s perspective is understandable given the paucity of non-white representation and the tendency to exclude ethnic minorities from European media representations. Self-representation by non-white Europeans has been rare, as Dina Iordanova notes, whereas “the Romani people have routinely been depicted by others” (2003, 6). Similarly, Sudeep Dasgupta and Anikó Imre explain that even in contemporary European television, the medium “has been primarily mobilized to uphold the values of traditionally hegemonic groups within nations” (2021, 2). As such, the Romani community not only faces a history of being misrepresented by others, it is often rendered invisible on screen through complete omission.
The lack of Romani representation in European cinema is sometimes paralleled by the inattention given to the narrative significance of Romani characters in academic scholarship. Owen’s (2009) and Brennan’s (2019) respective works examine the role of sex in Larks on a String without giving attention to the two subplots portraying Roma women, both of which center around sexual relations. Brennan argues that “much of the film involves both genders attempting, and succeeding to subvert the separation and interact with each other” (2019, 217), and Owen asserts that Menzel’s romantic narratives are subversive in that they “repudiate the Leninist view of the incompatibility of revolution and sexual fulfillment, love and war” (2009, 508).
However, the film’s representations of Roma women challenge the simplified view of the sexual/political dynamic that Brennan and Owen argue for in their readings of Larks on a String. Popular reviews of Larks on a String from its belated 1990 theatrical release and subsequent video screenings also overlook the role that race plays in the film (Foundas 2011, Kemplev 1991, Pitman 1992). Stanley Kauffmann’s review simply points out that the guard’s “marital misadventures counterpoint the central romance” (1991, 32). In academic discourse, it is only Mazierska who briefly but insightfully points to the role that the Roma women play in Larks on a String, stating that the incorporation of Romani “undermines the official image of ‘socialist love’ as love between members of the working classes that involves no coercion” (2010, 149).
The paucity of Romani characters in European mid-twentieth-century cinema, combined with the highly politized context of Larks on a String’s narrative, makes the inclusion of Roma figures by no means insignificant. Instead, analyzing the narrative and stylistic choices that Menzel employs in the two subplots reveals how ethnicity is integral to Larks on a String’s critique of the Czechoslovak socialist government’s attempts to create a culturally homogenous society through racial erasure. The two men in positions of power in the film—the trustee and the guard Anděl—are each implicated romantically/sexually with a Roma in the diegetic space that exists beyond the scrapyard. Significantly, both male characters appear in Hrabal’s Advertisement for a House I Do Not Want to Live in Anymore, but the Roma women characters are nonexistent. Yet, by incorporating a racial dimension in Larks on a String, Menzel quells the more optimistic tone that Hrabal deploys in the stories about political subversives. While the Slavic characters present in both Hrabal’s and Menzel’s works long for an end to the oppressive socialist government, Menzel points to the historical realities of Romani oppression within the system to examine the foundational ideals of Eastern bloc socialist homogeny.
In Larks on a String, Anděl—the guard in charge of the female prisoners—views the women without sexual intent, unlike the workmen who express desire for them. Despite his lack of desire, on several occasions, he benevolently permits his female charges to transgress official protocols. Notably, the name “Anděl” is not a standard Czechoslovak name and translates into English as “Angel,” giving the character a prominently innocent and heavenly aura. After presenting Anděl for a long time in his sterile role as a guard, the film ruptures this distant view of the character when he gets a haircut by one of the workmen, formerly a barber, on the scrapyard. Anděl tells the barber, “Ja totiš asi musím [It seems that I will have to],” to which the barber replies, “Jo? Tak to se ožente [Really? So, get married].” This conversation is the first time the audience hears of Anděl’s impending marriage. Despite appearing to be customary banter, the dialogue takes a portentous turn when Anděl draws close to the barber, stating: “Ale ja se bojím… [But I’m afraid…].” The reason for Anděl’s compunction about his impending marriage is revealed when we see him at his wedding with a Roma bride, Terezka (Tereza Galiová). Further, a disjuncture stemming from the different cultural customs associated with marriage occurs when one of the Romani musicians pours wine over the bride’s dress, which leads Anděl to confront him violently. Soon after, Anděl carries Terezka off to their modern apartment. Upon arriving, another source of conflict arises when Terezka escapes Anděl’s advances by running around the modern apartment, playfully turning off the light switches as she goes. Anděl cannot grasp his bride—who appears distracted by the technological novelty of her surroundings, which was presumably lacking in her previous Romani home—and their union remains sexually unfulfilled.
In subsequent scenes of the newlyweds, Anděl struggles to find his wife in their home. At one point, avoiding the matrimonial bed, Terezka sleeps on the top of a closet while Anděl wistfully hands her a pillow in resignation. Her capriciousness, combined with the suggestive comments made by the workmen, prompts Anděl to suspect that Terezka might have a lover. Anděl’s fears lead him to abandon his post at the scrapyard and return to his apartment to check on his wife. After arriving furtively, Anděl finds Terezka chanting around a fire in the middle of their bathroom. Anděl smiles with relief that the source of their matrimonial discord is not caused by Terezka’s lack of affection for him, but rather by having diverse needs and expectations in cohabitation. With his new realization, Anděl is able to compromise, meeting Terezka halfway. Having seemingly bridged their differences through mutual love, in the last scene representing this subplot, we see Anděl and Terezka embracing each other on a mattress on the ground in a closet—a visual metaphor for a life of compromise.
Menzel’s representation is guilty of propagating broader Romani stereotypes. Imre describes how these caricatured images often include “uneducated musicians and dancers” (2009, 100), while Iordanova points to the common usage in fiction of the gendered imagery of “a captivating Gypsy temptress” (2003, 9). Terezka’s image is seen through Anděl’s eyes, and this perspective renders her voiceless in the film. Yet the final scene posits that aligning the viewer’s gaze with Anděl’s leads to a fruitful realization: a solution to ethnically diverse nations is not to be found in minorities’ assimilation but in a recognition that dominant standards for living are by no means natural and instead need to be continually renegotiated. Consequently, by utilizing stereotypical images of a Roma woman, Larks on a String questions existing Slavic norms through the romantic narrative trajectory. Anděl’s marital travails are further represented as having broader political implications. In parallel with the scenes with Terezka, Anděl is shown as increasingly condoning the sexual and political transgressions by the laborers and prisoners occurring in the scrapyard.
The second involvement with the Romani community presents a very different glimpse into the life of Roma women. In the film’s first departure into this subplot from the world of the scrapyard, Menzel shows viewers the (unnamed) trustee on a visit to the nearby Romani slums. Upon arrival, he takes a wet sponge and patronizingly wipes the faces of Roma children while smiling and instructing them on maintaining good hygiene. Then, the trustee asks an elderly Roma woman if the washtub has been prepared; she then shows him into a room. The scenario repeats over the course of the film, with little being revealed about what transpires within the room itself. However, in the final minutes of Larks on a String, viewers are allowed to see what has been propelling the trustee’s humanitarian exploits. Inside the room, an underaged Roma, Ilonka (actress unknown), sits naked in a bathtub. As the trustee approaches her with a pail of water, he clarifies the official pretext governing the situation: “Tak vidíš, Ilonko, naše vláda na Vás pamatovala zákonem o hygiene [So you see, Ilonka, our government did not forget about you with our law on hygiene].”
While Menzel does not explicitly present rape in the scene, such sexual violence is implied through the stark nudity and powerlessness of the young girl. When Ilonka naively asks, “A kdo bude umejvat naši babičku? [And who will wash our grandma?],” the hypocrisy in the administration of institutional mandates is effectively accentuated. Soon, the indignant elderly Roma outside calls a local policeman to view and address the abuse of power. The policeman approaches the door and views the scene through a keyhole, eliciting associations with early cinema’s representations of pornographic and illicit sex. He sends the elderly Roma to keep watch outside as he himself enters the room. Inside, the trustee shows no sign of trepidation, and the policeman, after a momentary pause, takes off his jacket to partake in the washing (and, presumably, abuse) of the girl in the tub.
In this stark vignette of slum Romani life, Menzel points to a systematic infrastructure of racial maltreatment beyond the trustee’s and policeman’s individual transgressions. Terezka’s story is rendered in a style that is more typical of historical representations of Romani, who have been associated with an idealized otherness that seems to escape normative values. Trumpener describes how in the twentieth century, there was a tendency towards an “idealizing envy of a gypsy life seemingly outside of history and beyond the reach of the authorities” (1992, 853). Yet, these poetic images of a mute beauty that evades Anděl are countered by images of an equally silent Ilonka, whose body is now imbricated in abuse by representatives of state power. Moreover, given the insistence on sanitation by governmental authorities, both within and beyond the borders of Czechoslovakia in socialist regimes (Curp 2006, 235), Ilonka’s story is not unique, and it points to broader socialist ethnic policies.
Aesthetically, the two stories of Romani life counter the two ideological strains that Trumpener describes in European attitudes towards Romani, which see them as either cultural others that uproot civilization or as belonging to a tradition that contains the possibility of political resistance (1992, 865). In the face of the socialist state, these two associations are dropped, with cultural difference being rendered impotent and even being utilized as a pretext for sexual abuse. However, the way in which Menzel positions viewers cinematically in these scenes eschews the often statistical rendering by reports on racial abuse against the Romani and instead forces viewers into uncomfortably close proximity with the victims and perpetrators.
Cinematography and Viewer Positionality
Larks on a String presents two discrete visualizations of Romani realities in the Czechoslovak socialist context through its visuals, even as both stories highlight the disjuncture between the Slavic majority in the form of a socialist state official. Through an analysis of cinematic choices, it is possible to see the deliberate visual structures that Menzel employs to position Slavic viewers as either passive or culpable agents. The two Romani storylines represent different paths for Romani futures within the Czechoslovak socialist context while also highlighting the perils of cultural contexts dominated by one ethnic group.
Anděl’s relationship with Terezka points towards an impossibility of disregarding the cultural divergences within what seems to be an ethnically homogenous Czechoslovakia. Stylistically, the scenes of the newlyweds are captured in long shots that remain primarily static while the characters enter and exit the frame. This theatrical positioning maintains a distance between the viewers and the unfolding scene; Menzel’s camera eschews guiding the viewers into the scene, instead guiding the audience to become immobile witnesses. In this way, Larks on a Strings forms a powerful rupturing of cinematic immersion and identification as Anděl and Terezka negotiate their differences, and, as a result, the audience is encouraged to be conscious of their own positionality in relation to the marital drama. According to Teresa de Lauretis, a cinematic distance between the viewers and the object can be problematic, as it absolves them from responsibility when they “are not personally or individually implicated in the fiction and are therefore free to enjoy it” (1989, 98). However, it can also be argued that the distance places viewers’ embodied consciousness back into their own bodies, rupturing cinematic identification and thereby providing a gateway for film texts to be more politically potent.
For Kaja Silverman, both cinematic distance and immersion can be powerful in how they position viewers in relation to the fiction of the film. Describing the Brechtian theatrical tradition, Silverman states that the “only variety of spectatorial identification that [Brecht] is willing to tolerate is one with the actor as ‘observer’ of the role he or she plays” (1996, 84). In the scenes with Anděl and Terezka, Satoranský’s role as Anděl becomes more perceptible because of the lack of immersive framing. Meanwhile, this awareness gives the audience space to reflect on metatextual components of the film in ways that closer visualizations of the scene would preclude. Simultaneously, remoteness allows for a vulnerability in viewers that qualifies de Lauretis’s notion of spectatorial pleasure coming from being at a distance. Because an acute awareness of the fictive nature of the film propels viewers to be aware of their bodies in the surrounding world, this allows for a greater consciousness of the implications that their lived bodies have on the political landscape, generating a discourse between the fiction and their reality, which can be far from pleasurable.
Larks on a String’s representation of the newlyweds is potent because it simulates the distance that Slavic citizens maintained from the Romani minority, which emphasizes viewers’ real-world racialized relationships. As a result of this connection between the tangible political realities of the Romani people and cinematic representation, the scenes encompass a documentary quality. As Vivian Sobchack describes, “our engagement with and determination of film images as fictional or real may be experienced either preconsciously or consciously, idiosyncratically or conventionally, momentarily or for relatively sustained periods of time,” suggesting that “engagement and determination depend always on the viewer’s existential knowledge of and social investments in the context of a lifeworld that exceeds and frames the text” (2004, 268). Consequently, the stakes are raised in Larks on a String from being merely about fictional representations of individual stories to being about citizens’ responsibility for extant racialized governmental policies in Czechoslovakia (or, later, Czechia and Slovakia).
Meanwhile, the visualization of Anděl and Terezka’s romance in Larks on a String sits in sharp contrast to the cinematic approach Menzel employs when representing the trustee’s encounter with Ilonka. Instead of duplicating the distance applied to the newlyweds, close-ups engage the viewer in a suffocating identification with the trustee that uncomfortably places the sponge that the trustee uses to wash Ilonka’s body into the audience’s hands. Returning to Silverman’s analysis of political cinema here proves useful, as proximity can be as effective as detachment, although it achieves political power through a different trajectory. Describing Eisenstein’s assertions on political cinema, Silverman writes that the spectator can be “induced to occupy a subject-position which is antithetical to his or her psychic formation” (1996, 91). According to Silverman, cinematic identification should aim towards dismantling “the illusory unity of the body schema [to] situate the visual imago insistently outside, where it can be renegotiated” (1996, 93). The political possibilities in embodying the cinematic image are similarly explored by Laura Marks when she describes viewers’ sensation of being “painfully aware of their entanglement with the experience of others” (2018, 153).
Menzel uses the technique of placing the viewers in the scene rather atypically, positioning the viewer as the perpetrator instead of as the victim. When the sponge touches Ilonka’s body, we are not the ones touched but touching, embroiling us within the illicit events. Consequently, the visuals suggest viewers’ culpability in the political treatment of Romani people by affectively placing them into the trustee’s shoes. However, while in pornographic films, “the close-up is its operation of truth, the camera constantly closing in on the woman’s sex” (de Lauretis 1984, 26), Menzel withholds such imagery in favor of the horrifically quotidian. The film embodies Sobchack’s description of “as if real,” which produces an uncomfortable sensational movement by directing viewers beyond the narrative world (2004, 259).
Larks on a String makes viewers feel that they touch not as a way to encounter racialized fantasies; rather, the film draws viewers into the everydayness of abuse that Roma women have experienced. The way that Ilonka’s naked body garners such reflection is effectively revealed when the scene is viewed through the lens of the work of Black scholars in the United States. Saidiya Hartman’s (2019) work on a late nineteenth-century nude photograph of a young Black child taken by Thomas Eakins provides insights for reading the bathing ritual in Larks on a String as an event that forces viewers to renegotiate their real-world relations by pointing beyond the screen. For Hartman, the image taken by Eakins testifies to the semblance of the scientific that often cloaked the violence perpetrated against Black women and children, as nude images were taken under the subterfuge of studying anatomy, covering up for these images’ pornographic nature (2019, 25). Whether Ilonka in Larks on a String believes in the men’s ostensible desire to improve her hygiene or not, her lack of agency by being classified as a “social cause” is apparent. Similarly, Hartman describes how the images of slums were “marshaled as evidence in the case made against [Black girls] by the social workers and sociologists” (2019, 19). Hence, Hartman’s comments point to the imbrication of abuse as part of policies that speciously attempt to better those who are ethnically other and economically disadvantaged.
As such, Larks on a String’s portrayal exposes the similar duplicity in the social policies regarding Romani in the Czechoslovak region. After a period of expulsion of the Romani in European history, programs in the Austrian Hungarian empire focused on assimilation and sanitation measures (Trumpener 1992, 862). However, despite their auspicious humanistic premises, the empire’s policies eventually evolved into the sterilization and extermination of Romani in the Nazi regime (Schuch 2017, 610). The Romani Holocaust is still poorly recognized in Czechia, even after the horrific murder during the Nazi occupation of “6000 Czech Roma, that is, 90% of the Romani population” (van Baar 2008, 373). As van Baar describes, the invisibility of Romani suffering was particularly the case during the socialist period, when the government focused on communist martyrdom during World War II for propagandistic purposes. Yet, under socialist rule, the very same programs around health and hygiene continued, providing justification for the persecution of the Romani. In his study of ethnic cleansing in Poland, T. David Curp describes how the “Stalinist state’s heavy-handed paternalism … listed as its first priority in working among the Roma, the creation of a sanitary commission” (2006, 235). According to Victoria Shmidt, in Czechoslovakia, these racialized stereotypes served to maintain an “internal colonialism” (2018, 367). As Brennan describes, for the Slavic women prisoners, the political can be “an outside oppressive force” that still allows for “love to blossom” (2019, 210, 218); however, for Ilonka, it is instead a lived reality intertwined with sexual abuse as a result of oppressive and racialized governmental policies.
In Larks on a String, political subjugation experienced by female prisoners through imprisonment is represented as offering a degree of emancipation by disrupting patriarchal and politically restrictive value relations. As men and women work in the scrapyard, the inherent symmetry of their relations permits dual libidinal impulses. In contrast to these two-directional exchanges, the speciously free Roma women are denied such sexual reciprocity, as they remain racialized subjects. While the cinematic choices employed in these two subplots depends on different principles, with Terezka being seen at a distance and Ilonka in intense proximity, they both generate audience discomfort and propel political awareness. The egregious misuse of power demonstrated by the trustee who washes Ilonka as a part of socialist sanitation practices finds a counterbalance in the hapless Anděl, who ends up on the floor with his beloved Terezka. In Anděl and Terezka’s story, mutual fulfillment appears possible; however, Ilonka’s abuse indicates the deeper institutional problems that must be resolved for Romani people to thrive. Therefore, the balance between the romantic and horrific in these two extremes of Slavic–Romani relations makes the subplots integral to understanding the neglected racial relations in 1950s Czechoslovakia. Menzel’s film provides a powerful argument for understanding that assimilation into the socialist system of politically undesirable Slavic laborers and prisoners was of a different order than that of the Romani, whose personal lives were disrupted and targeted by Czechoslovakia’s socialist integration policies. Crucially, these policies led to the prevalent sexual abuse of Roma women, enabled by the unequal power relations between government officials and ethnic minorities.
Consequently, Larks on a String shines some light on the historical treatment of Romani in Czechoslovakia; however, the film itself requires scrutiny as an artistic work on Romani people made by a Slavic filmmaker. Menzel’s indictment of the socialist oppression of the Romani people risks misrepresentation in a similar way to anthropologists who attempt to elicit sympathy from a white audience while utilizing the same stereotypical images that lead to discrimination (Trinh 1989, 61). The affective portrayal of Ilonka’s pubescent body being washed brings to mind ethical concerns over representing female nudity and the treatment of the actress (notably unnamed in the credits). Particularly given the racialized context, the representation of female nudity bears different implications due to it falling within the historical “grammar of exploitation and alienation” (Wilderson 2010, 324). The result of having been routinely represented by others in exploitative ways that perpetuate stereotypes is that “racism and media vilification often dominate public perceptions of Romanies” (Iordanova 2003 5). These issues continue into the twenty-first century, prompting documentary filmmaker Jasmine Dellal to argue that—even when filming seemingly stereotypical scenes of musicians—seeing a complete picture “is not necessarily a question of looking at different people, it’s more a question of looking through another [conceptual] lens” (2003, 98). A valid critique of Larks on a String is that it fails to reveal “the true condition of the Romani people” (Schiff 2019, 1030). The two Roma women remain silent throughout the film, implying that Larks on a String situates itself less as a representation of Romani than as a critique of socialist bureaucracy that utilizes Romani images for its own ideological ends. This positioning of Romani as symbols is problematic, as it ties into an ample history of reducing Romani to textual effects that exclude present-day realities (Trumpener 1992, 869). However, Larks on a String nevertheless provides a rare depiction that interrogates Czechoslovakia’s treatment of ethnic minorities in the 1950s, which is pertinent to understanding the era.
In addition to Larks on a String’s culturally specific critique of the Czechoslovak socialist government, Menzel’s work can also be taken more broadly to pose questions about the treatment of gender, sex, and ethnicity within other oppressive bureaucratic regimes. Despite socialism’s seeming separation from a bourgeois capitalistic world, Debord proposes that the USSR (and countries in the Eastern bloc like Czechoslovakia) never attained a society that was truly governed by the proletariat. Instead, a hierarchical model was maintained in the form of a state ruled by bureaucracy, where “the economy has come to dominate society so completely that it has proved capable of recreating the class domination it needs for its own continued operation” (Debord 2005, 57). Similarly, Althusser explains that even following the Russian Revolution of 1917, “a large part of the State apparatus survived after the seizure of State power” (2001, 94). Hence, in Larks on a String, Menzel’s critique of socialism can be found as an admonition of the entrenched hierarchical systems rather than subsequent socialist systems, which were built on similar foundations to those found in the capitalist world, bringing to mind ongoing questions about the racialized aspects of redistribution (Fraser and Honneth 2003, 89). Trumpener’s research on the persecution of Romani traces the beginning of communities being forced to end their nomadic lifestyle to the establishment of modern governmental systems; discussing the eighteenth century, he observes that “the Gypsies’ perennial ‘homelessness’ … became at once an innate failing and a virtual irreparable state” (1992, 864). Comprehending the infrastructural basis of Romani persecution and the historical implementation of forced assimilation is thus crucial for understanding the enduring struggles that Romani people have experienced since the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
In 1992, Czechoslovakia separated into two countries, the Czech Republic (now Czechia) and Slovakia. However, as Michaela Grobbel describes, newly defined national boundaries and freer political regimes led to a continuation of Roma oppression as “struggles to reclaim or define identities that now [depended] on populations that are constituted differently in ethnic and cultural terms” (2003, 147). Describing the situation after the Velvet Revolution, Michal Vašečka states that “the Roma in Slovakia witnessed an obvious regression in their social status”; yet he blames this regression on “past measures implemented by the majority before 1989, which were designed to assimilate the Roma into the majority society” (2001, 30). The 1990s in the Czech Republic saw proposals to build concrete walls around Roma housing projects and the involuntary sterilization of Roma women, which both demonstrate that racism and oppressive policies continued to be an issue beyond the socialist regime (Loshitzky 2003, 66; Malvinni 2004, 64; Schiff 2019, 1028). Since the formation of the European Union, attempts have been made to reconcile the situation between Roma and nation-states’ ethnic majorities, but these continue to face problems (Cahn 2002). In the discussion by Ioana Szeman et al. of Romanies in EU Romania, they write, “Roma have not gained a legitimate place as a culture in the national imaginary, and … continue to be denied cultural citizenship” (2017, 20). As these struggles continue, returning to cinematic representations that examine mid-twentieth-century socialist social integration regimes remains relevant for understanding the current economic and cultural position occupied by the Romani people.
Althusser, Louis. 2001. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation).” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 85–126. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Belodubrovskaya, Maria. 2017. Not According to Plan: Filmmaking Under Stalin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Bluestone, George. 1990. “Jiří Menzel and the Second Prague Spring.” Film Quarterly 44, no. 1 (1990): 23–31.
Brennan, Daniel. 2019. “Jiri Menzel’s Treatment of Sacrifice.” Ethics & Bioethics (in Central Europe) 9, no. 3–4 (2019): 208–20.
Cahn, Claude. 2002. “Fortress Europe.” European Roma Rights Centre. July 10, 2002. http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=904.
Curp, T. David. 2006. A Clean Sweep?: The Politics of Ethnic Cleansing in Western Poland, 1945–1960. Suffolk, UK: Boydell & Brewer.
Dasgupta, Sudeep, and Anikó Imre. 2021. “Editorial: Race and TV in Europe. An Overdue Conversation.” VIEW Journal of European Television History and Culture 10, no. 20 (2021): 1–6. http://doi.org/10.18146/view.284.
de Lauretis, Teresa. 1989. “Fellini’s 9 1/2.” In Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction, 95–106. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.
de Lauretis, Teresa. 1984. “Through the Looking Glass.” In Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, 12–36. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Debord, Guy. 2005. The Society of the Spectacle. London, UK: Rebel Press.
Dellal, Jasmine. 2003. “Romani Images: A Film Director’s Diary.” Framework 44, no. 2 (2003): 94–102.
Foundas, Scott. 2011. “Home Movies: Eastern Bloc Pick: Larks on a String.” Film Comment 47, no. 3 (2011): 72.
Fraser, Nancy, and Axel Honneth. 2003. Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange. Translated by Joel Golb, James Ingram, and Christiane Wilke. London: Verso.
Fuller, Linda. 2000. “Socialism and the Transition in East and Central Europe: The Homogeneity Paradigm, Class, and Economic Inefficiency.” Annual Review of Sociology 26, no. 1 (2000): 585–609.
Girelli, Elisabetta. 2011. “Subverting Space: Private, Public and Power in Three Czechoslovak Films from the 1960s and ’70s.” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 2, no. 1 (2011): 49–59.
Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeevich, Zdeněk Mlynář, and George H. Shriver. 2002. Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, the Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism. Translated by George H. Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press.
Grobbel, Michaela. 2003. “Contemporary Romany Autobiography as Performance.” The German Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2003): 140–54.
Hancock, Ian. 1992. “The Roots of Inequity: Romani Cultural Rights in Their Historical and Social Context.” Immigrants & Minorities 11, no. 1 (1992): 3–20.
Hartman, Saidiya. 2019. “A Minor Figure.” In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 13–35. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
hooks, bell. 1992. “The Oppositional Gaze.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, 115–31. Boston: South End Press.
Husak, Martin. 2017. “Rock Music Censorship in Czechoslovakia Between 1969 and 1989.” Popular Music and Society 40, no. 3 (2017): 310–29.
Imre, Anikó. 2009. Identity Games: Globalization and the Transformation of Media Cultures in the New Europe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Iordanova, Dina. 2003. “Images of Romanies in Cinema: A Rough Sketch?” Framework 44, no. 2 (2003): 5–14.
Kauffmann, Stanley. 1991. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: High Spirits and Low.” The New Republic 18 (March 1991): 32–33.
Kemplev, Rita. 1991. “From Czechoslovakia, the Belated Flight of ‘Larks.’” The Washington Post, 19 Apr 1991, D7.
Loshitzky, Yosefa. 2003. “Quintessential Strangers: The Representation of Romanies and Jews in Some Holocaust Films.” Framework 44, no. 2 (2003): 57–71.
Lóži, Marián. 2021. “Exposing Enemies in the Regional Leaderships of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia 1950–1951.” Securitas Imperii 39, no. 2 (2021): 111–46.
Malvinni, David. 2004. The Gypsy Caravan: From Real Roma to Imaginary Gypsies in Western Music and Film. New York: Routledge.
Marks, Laura U. 2018. “I Feel like an Abstract Line.” In Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia: Thresholds of Empathy with Art, edited by Daria Martin, 151–76. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mazierska, Ewa. 2010. “Larks on a String, or Men in Love.” In Masculinities in Polish, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Black Peters and Men of Marble, 131–76. New York: Berghahn Books.
Mulvey, Laura. 1989. Visual and Other Pleasures. New York: Palgrave.
Owen, Jonathan L. 2011. Avant-Garde to New Wave: Czechoslovak Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties. New edition, New York: Berghahn Books.
Owen, Jonathan L. 2009. “Closely Observed Bodies: Corporeality, Totalitarianism and Subversion in Jiri Menzel’s 1960s Adaptations of Bohumil Hrabal.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 51, no. 4 (2009): 495–511.
Pitman, Randy. 1992. “Video Movies – Closely Watched Trains Directed by Jiri Menzel / Larks on a String Directed by Jiri Menzel.” Library Journal 117, no. 1 (1992): 192.
Polisenska, Milada. 2015. Czechoslovak Diplomacy and the Gulag: Deportation of Czechoslovak Citizens to the USSR and the Negotiation for Their Repatriation, 1945–1953. New edition, Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press.
Schiff, Rebecca Adler. 2019. “The Roma and Documentary Film: Considerations for Collection Development.” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 51, no. 4 (2019): 1022–32.
Schuch, Jane. 2017. “Negotiating the Limits of Upbringing, Education, and Racial Hygiene in Nazi Germany as Exemplified in the Study and Treatment of Sinti and Roma.” Race Ethnicity and Education 20, no. 5 (2017): 609–23.
Shmidt, Victoria. 2018. “Public Health as an Agent of Internal Colonialism in Interwar Czechoslovakia: Shaping the Discourse About the Nation’s Children.” Patterns of Prejudice 52, no. 4 (2018): 355–87.
Silverman, Kaja. 1996. “Political Ecstasy.” In The Threshold of the Visible World, 83–121. New York: Routledge.
Šmejkalova, Jirina. 2001. “Censors and Their Readers: Selling, Silencing, and Reading Czech Books.” Libraries & Culture 36, no. 1 (2001): 87–103.
Sobchack, Vivian. 2004. Carnal Thoughts Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Sommer, Vítězslav. 2019. “The Economics of Everyday Life in ‘New’ Socialism: Czechoslovak Public Economics and Economic Reform in the Prague Spring Era.” History of Political Economy 51, no. S1 (2019): 52–72.
Szeman, Ioana, Helena Wulff, and Jonathan Skinner. 2017. Staging Citizenship: Roma, Performance, and Belonging in EU Romania. New York: Berghahn Books.
Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. 1989. “The Language of Nativism: Anthropology as a Scientific Conversation of Man with Man.” In Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, 47–76. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Trumpener, Katie. 1992. “The Time of the Gypsies: A ‘People without History’ in the Narratives of the West.” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 4 (1992): 843–84.
Valenta, Jiri. 1979. “The Bureaucratic Politics Paradigm and the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia.” Political Science Quarterly 94, no. 1 (1979): 55–76.
van Baar, Huub. 2008. “The Way Out of Amnesia?: Europeanisation and the Recognition of the Roma’s Past and Present.” Third Text 22, no. 3 (2008): 373–85.
Wilderson, Frank B. 2010. “Make Me Feel Good.” In Red, White & Black Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, 317–36. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.