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Obituaries

Jiri Weiss, 91; Czech Filmmaker, Author and Playwright

May 26, 2004|From a Times Staff Writer

Jiri Weiss, a leading figure in postwar Czech cinema who for most of the last two decades lived in Southern California, has died. He was 91.

Weiss died April 9 at a nursing home in Santa Monica. The cause of death was not announced.

A native of Prague, Weiss was born into the German-speaking Jewish community. He attended Charles University with the intent of practicing law, but gave that up for journalism and eventually documentary filmmaking.

In 1936, his debut work, "People in the Sun," earned an award for amateur documentary at the Venice Film Festival.

When the Nazis invaded in 1939, Weiss fled Prague, going first to London, where he worked with the Crown Film Unit covering the war. He documented the war years in films such as "The Rape of Czechoslovakia" and "Before the Raid."

After the war, he returned to Czechoslovakia, where he made several highly regarded feature films, including "The Wolf Trap," which won the critics prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1957, and "Romeo, Juliet and Darkness," (1960) for which he won the Grand Prix at the San Sebastian and Taormina film festivals.

Among his other major works are "Ninety Degrees in the Shade" (1965), an English-language film; "The Golden Fern" (1963); and "Murder Czech Style" (1967), his only comedy.

With the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Weiss again fled his homeland, living in Rome and England before settling in the United States. He lived in New York until 1982 and then moved to Los Angeles. He taught film courses at Hunter College in New York City and at UC Santa Barbara. He also wrote screenplays, plays, fiction and memoirs.

He did not direct again until 1989, when he returned to Prague to film "Martha and I," a love story, which proved to be a favorite with audiences and critics. It was voted most popular at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1991.

In reviewing the movie, Kevin Thomas of The Times said: "Every frame of his film is suffused with love and respect of Martha and Ernest [the main characters], bespeaking Weiss' assured, unfussy mastery of screen storytelling."

In the last few years, he had two plays produced -- "The Jewish War" and "Berenice." He also wrote a book of memoirs, "The White Mercedes," and was working on a collection of short stories.

He is survived by his wife, Katerina Weiss; a daughter, Jirina Bila of Prague; a son, Jiri Weiss Jr., of San Francisco; and three grandchildren.

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