Monday, November 28, 2011

Czeching Out the Film Scene in Prague

On my last night in Prague, sauntering through the narrow medieval streets near my hotel, I came across a movie shoot. Gaffers and grips were busy setting up lights outside the James Joyce Pub. No telling what city Prague was standing in for, this time around.

Prague is a place of spires and turrets that make it look like one enormous movie set. And, in fact, Prague has served as the backdrop for a number of major films. Most famously, it has evoked the Vienna of Mozart’s day in Amadeus. (This is not inappropriate, because Mozart himself chose to premiere Don Giovanni in Prague’s Estates Theatre, where operas are still performed today.)

While Hollywood takes advantage of the visual beauties of Prague, the Czech people continue their own love affair with films. In the historic Lucerna Building, near Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square, I was shown one of Europe’s oldest movie theatres. It first opened its doors in 1909, and today houses screenings and film festivals. And the Czechs don’t just watch movies: they make them. The first feature film shot in the historic Czech region of Bohemia dates back to 1896, and the scandalous Ecstasy, introducing Hedy Lamarr in the altogether, captured the world’s attention in 1933. By the Sixties, Czech filmmakers Jan Kadar and Jiri Menzel were recognized with Best Foreign Film Oscars (for The Shop on Main Street and Closely Watched Trains). Milos Forman, who started out making wry Czech comedies like The Firemen’s Ball, quickly made the jump to Hollywood, where he gave us (along with Amadeus) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a host of other major films.

In a somewhat jarring modern building that’s part of Prague’s National Theatre complex, the Laterna Magika stages regular performances. I first discovered this innovative dance troupe while working at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. All of its choreographies combine live performance with cinematic images, in such a way that the dancers sometimes seem to move in and out of the unspooling film. At Expo I was tickled by a slapstick extravaganza in which an androgynous figure in a red leotard is chased by various bad guys through a series of filmed Prague street scenes. The Laterna Magika of today’s Prague, however, would apparently rather be arty than whimsical. On the night I attended, a ballet called Casanova presented the life of the great lover in solemn, portentous fashion, using cinematic footage merely as a substitute for fancy sets. The imaginative fun of the Expo-era performances was, alas, missing in action. What I liked best about my Prague Laterna Magika visit was a lobby sculpture that used film projections to give fascinating life to frozen blobs of glass.

One of Prague’s main attractions is its medieval castle, which today is the official home of the Czech Republic. I’m told (by tour guide extraordinaire Ron Hoffberg) that when Vaclav Havel took office in 1993 as the republic’s first president, he created a tourist attraction at the castle by decreeing an elaborate changing of the guard. Havel, a playwright who did not lack for media savvy, called upon friends in Hollywood to come up with appropriate uniforms, and they supplied his tall, strapping guardsmen with surplus band uniforms from The Music Man. Only one problem: some of these guards turned out to be moonlighting in Prague’s highly developed porn industry, and so the Music Man uniforms were showing up in some highly questionable scenarios. But that’s Prague: where movie magic comes in all shapes and sizes.


  1. An intriguing post, Beverly. Is there any place you haven't been yet that's on your radar? I have a friend that was, or still is in Prague. Not sure if he's still there as I haven't been in touch for some time. Is the photo above one you took while you were over there? It's a heckuva shot.

  2. Actually, I dream of going to Angkor Wat. Glad you appreciate the photo. I like to think I have a pretty good eye, but I'm by no means an expert. With that bird, I got really lucky.

  3. It is a gorgeous photo. You do have a well-stamped passport, Ms. Gray. What place would you go back to in a heartbeat - and what place do you hope to never see again?

  4. I thought I'd answered this long ago, though it's a tough question. Mexico doesn't seem to agree with me, alas. My long-ago visit to India was so extraordinary that I think I probably won't return: it couldn't possibly be the same. But I've truly enjoyed most of the places I've been.