In Memoriam: Milena Jelinek

April 21, 2020

Last week we lost our dear friend and colleague, Milena Jelinek, a brilliant and beloved screenwriting professor at Columbia University's School of the Arts Film Program. Milena died at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, on Wednesday, April 15 following complications from Covid-19. Milena was 84 years old.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Milena had a long rich history before coming to Columbia. She studied filmmaking at the legendary Czech film school FAMU where she was a student of Milan Kundera and where she became friends with such key figures in the Czech New Wave of the 1960's as Jiri Menzel, Ivan Passer, and most importantly, Milos Forman, who later became Chair of the Film Program and brought in Milena to teach. An early protester against the Soviet Regime, her efforts and those of friends including Vaclav Havel, eventually led to the Prague Spring protest of 1968. In 1957, Forman introduced Milena to Fred Jelinek, who later became her husband. This introduction took place at the screening of a film called An Easy Life, for which Milena served as screenwriter. At FAMU, Milena was perhaps closest of all to Frank Daniel, the great Czech screenwriting professor who was instrumental in creating our screenwriting program at Columbia.  

Milena would become a vitally important figure in the film program that Daniel created, serving as Acting Chair in the late 1980s. In 1989, when the Soviet Union was crumbling, Milena organized Columbia Film students to send cameras and equipment to their counterparts in Prague so that they could record the moment in history. She educated generations of students, not only in her Screenwriting workshops but in a “Script Analysis” class that for many years was mandatory. She was a singular figure—a European combination of old-world elegance and post-war wariness. Students and colleagues loved the sound of her voice—soft, accented—but passionate and powerful when necessary. In the classroom, she was a wonderful listener with a great capacity for delight and a real reverence for all manifestations of the creative impulse. Moved by her great kindness, warmth, and devotion to them, students opened up under her influence. Most importantly, her love of story was profound.  

As a writer of plays and screenplays, Milena's work was infused with a grace and wisdom regarding character, and was celebrated for its deep understanding of human fallibility. She is perhaps best-known for her widely acclaimed 1990’s film, Forgotten Light, though as recently as 2006 her play, Adina, was performed at the Prague theatre Divadlo na Vinohradech.

As a friend, Milena was famous for her sense of irony, her hilarious, blunt humor and her ability to pierce through slipshod thinking. Her dinners were legendary for the generosity she lavished on her friends. 

To all who knew and worked with her, Milena Jelinek will always be irreplaceable.


To read Milena's obituary in the New York Times, written by her son William Jelinek, click here.