In between making gently prickly films that occasionally travel westward (“Closely Watched Trains,” “My Sweet Little Village” and, most recently, “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin”), Jiri Menzel can be found unobtrusively directing for the stage. His latest venture is “Jacobowski and the Colonel,” by Prague-born Franz Werfel (its several incarnations include S.N. Behrman’s 1944 Broadway adaptation, the 1958 Danny Kaye screen version, “Me and the Colonel,” and Jerry Herman’s 1979 musicalization, “The Grand Tour”).
Jacobowski (Tomas Topfer) is a literary cousin to that Czech arche-type, the good soldier Schweik. In the play’s World War II setting, Jacobowski, seemingly a bumbler with a name no one can remember, manages the impossible.
When the Colonel (Viktor Preiss) drafts him for a journey across occupied France with paramour Mariana (Marta Vaneurova), Jacobowski procures a car and gasoline coupons. The swaggering Colonel, though midly surprised by his unimposing aide, still can’t quite get his name right. When the hungry travelers’ car stalls, Jacobowski manages to gather (in this time of strict rationing) a picnic basket full of delicacies, diverts patrolling soldiers from opening Mariana’s incriminating luggage, talks them into lending a can of gas, and saves the Colonel’s life while making him look a fool. And when civilians are rounded up at a pub, Jacobowski avoids detention by slipping into the ladies’ toilet.
Jacobowski is a deferential man who somehow quietly accomplishes what his blustery superior cannot, and he could serve as an analogue for the director himself: Menzel doesn’t stamp his imprint on the production, but artfully lends his signature. It’s not new or astonishing, but for that broad segment of the educated middle class who want something more than farce and less than avantgarde, why not? We’re in the hands of a solid craftsman doing what he’s been best at for 30 years: showing a nostalgic slice of life, delicately dissecting small, personal stories seeped in reminiscence and sprinkled with human comedy.
Strains of old-fashioned popular period music let us know early on that we’re in for an easy evening. In the opening scene, families hiding while air raid sirens blare are photogenically grouped from proscenium arch to proscenium arch with text book precision. Scenes change smoothly and cinematically, helped by the amber glow of directional lighting and scrims, and by the judicious use of background music.
Best of all is Topfer’s understated performance; his Jacobowski grows incrementally from forget table fifth wheel to an honorable hero of sorts. A soft-spoken gentleman with slow, deliberate movements, Jacobowski maintains a humble dignity throughout, making his transformation a natural one. He proves every bit as genteel as the production itself.