Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

Marie Kyselková as 'Princezna se zlatou hvězdou' S L I C E   O F   L I F E:
Once Upon A Time in the Czech Republic:
No Happy Ending for the Czech pohádka?

James Partridge

Christmas in the Czech Republic this year was a little drearier than usual. True, many of the great traditions of a Czech Christmas carried on as ever: the streets ran again with the blood of thousands of slaughtered carp, enormous queues formed behind the cash desks of shops and supermarkets everywhere as people waited patiently for a free shopping basket (in the Czech Republic shopping without a basket is almost a capital offence, and shops carefully keep the number of available baskets to an absolute minimum so that only a handful of people can actually walk the aisles at any one time) and Czech housewives worked their fingers to the bone skinning the freshly slaughtered carp, preparing fish soup, buckets of potato salad, a duck or two, and mainly hundreds of tiny, delicious Christmas cookies - cukroví - so that their menfolk would have something to do as they slumped in front of the TV for the entire holiday period.

But it was precisely because of this last area - Christmas TV - that the 1999 Christmas will be remembered with a touch of sadness owing to one unforseen and unwelcome outcome of the bitter dispute between Vladimír Železný's TV Nova (or rather Nova's license holder, CET 21) and Nova's former partner ČNTS, the Czech Independent Television Company, owned by the American media group CME. The facts of the dispute have already been described in detail in CER (in articles by Jan Čulík in CER 8 and CER 12), so there is no need to go over them again, but even Jan Culik's prescient analyses did not predict that this sorry tale would result in the Czechs being deprived of a whole raft of their most beloved Christmas treats: pohádky, or filmed fairy tales.

A Brief History of the Czech pohádka.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of these pohádky in Czech culture (I'm using the Czech word pohádka because "fairy tale" is at best an unsatisfactory equivalent). I'm not sure exactly when the first pohádka in the generally understood sense was made, but the two part film Císařův pekař a pekařův císař (The Emperor's Baker and the Baker's Emperor, 1951), written by and starring the great Jan Werich, must be a hot candidate. The following year, perhaps the finest of all pohádka directors, Bořivoj Zeman, made Pyšná princezna (The Proud Princess) - the film that, according to Czech Film Heaven, still holds the record for the most visited film ever in Czech and Slovak cinemas (8,222,695 viewers since 1952). Jan Werich returned to the screen in yet another classic, also directed by Zeman, Byl jednou jeden král (Once Upon a Time there was a King, 1954). This was a particularly interesting film in that it gathered together some truly outstanding artists: two of the greatest Czech comic actors of the century, Jan Werich and Vlasta Burian (the latter already elderly and severely out of favour with the authorities), Miloš Kopecký and Miroslav Horníček, and the poet Jaroslav Seifert (still under a cloud since the publication in 1950 of his Píseň o Viktorce) (Song of Viktorka), who wrote the text for the fisherman's song. The film itself was mostly based on a reworking by Božena Němcová (author of the 19th century Czech classic Babička (Grandmother) of a traditional fairy tale, although there is also more than just a nod and a wink to the King Lear story. The film is described in more detail in Andrew Horton's accompanying article.

All the pohádky from the 1950s, up to the charming Princezna se zlatou hvězdou (The Princess with the Golden Star, 1959), are notable for their rich and colourful settings, good-humoured characters, their intriguingly ambiguous plots (giving plenty of room for interpretation by "Communists and non-Communists alike", as Horton puts it), and by the way they look back to a simpler, idealised rustic past. These early films also show how seriously the Czechs take their pohádky. From the 1950s right through to the present day the cream of Czech actors, writers, designers and technicians have worked on films that in other countries are more likely to attract B-list actors and cheap special effects (although sadly this has often been the case in Czech pohádky made since the 1989 revolution as well). What's more, these fairy tales are not just intended for children. Last year another of the Czechs' all-time favourites (and mine too), Tři oříšky pro Popelku (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella), was watched by 50% of Czech children and almost 40% of adults! [1]

The 1960s were not a particularly fertile time for pohádky, although one film that should be mentioned is the under-rated, extraordinary, expressionist (and genuinely scary) Tři zlaté vlasy Děda Vševěda (The Three Golden Hairs of Grandpa Knowall, 1963), directed by J.Valášek. Tři zlaté vlasy was made with all the daring of an experimental theatre production, and on reflection was probably too strange and frightening for children, but is certainly a fascinating film, made all the more memorable by the Macbeth-like characterisation of the evil king, played by one of the country's leading "Shakepearian" actors, Radovan Lukavský. The only other notable "Pohádka event" of the 1960s was the first showing of the Russian fairy tale Mrazík (Old Father Frost) in 1967, since when it has been shown on 28 out of the following 32 Christmases. I first saw it in 1993 in a cinema in Brno, and the atmosphere was like a late-night showing of The Rocky Horror Show here in England: the audience knew every word of the story of Ivanko and the lovely Nastěnka, and shouted and sang along to the soundtrack of the film. Statistics for the 1997 and 1998 Christmases show that it was the third most popular pohádka after Tři oříšky pro Popelku and Princ a Večernice (The Prince and the Evening Star) - on which more below - being watched by 42.2% of children and 25.5% of adults. It is also the only foreign pohádka to be regularly shown in the Czech Republic

Tři oříšky pro Popelku It may just be a coincidence, but in the same way that the pohádky of the grim, Stalinist 1950s were notable for their exuberance, wit and escapism, so the pohádky made during the 1970s show this same spirit. Perhaps the most celebrated of all pohádky from this period is Tři oříšky pro Popelku - a film graced not only by Karel Gott's splendid rendition of the unashamedly romantic and crowd-pleasing title song "Kdepak, ty ptáčku, hnízdo máš" (Where is your nest, o little bird?), but also by, in my opinion, the definitive fairy-tale princess, Libuše Šafránková, not to mention another Czech acting legend Vladimír Menšík. Šafránková, who had already won the hearts of the Czech public at the age of 18 through her performance as Barunka in the film adaptation of Němcová's Babička, seemed tailor-made for the role of Popelka (Cinderella), and for pohádky in general, and went on to make a number of much loved films, including Malá mořská vila (The Little Mermaid, 1976), and Princ a večernice (1978). [2] This last film also featured one of the finest Czech "classical" actors, Radoslav Brzobohatý, hamming it up in the role of the evil Mrakomor.

Bořivoj Zeman, the director of the great pohádky of the 1950s, returned to the genre in 1976 with Honza málem králem (Honza Almost King) - an extremely popular film that featured several actors of the older generation, including Zdeněk Dítě and Lubomír Lipský (both of whom had appeared in Byl jednou jeden král some 25 years earlier, František Filipovský (whose first outing in pohádky had been in Císařův pekař...) and Josef Kemr.

Pohádky continued to be made in the Czech Republic throughout the 1980s, although arguably they are rather more run of the mill than those of the 1970s and earlier. Of those films made in the 1990s, only Nesmrtelná teta seems to have much chance of becoming one of the classic canon of Czech pohádky. The Czech viewing public would seem to agree with this assessment too, as the whole of Christmas is planned around the classics, while the others are caught more or less by chance, or watched only by younger children. But the classic pohádky are an integral part of the Czech Christmas ritual. The TV papers are eagerly scanned to see when Tři oříšky or Pyšná princezna are showing, and on that basis lunch, supper, or visits to and from friends and family are carefully arranged. More surprisingly still for the uninitiated foreigner, the same films are watched religiously every year, come hell or high water, and all are enjoyed just as much as they were in previous years. Pohádky, in short, are as much a part of Christmas as cukroví and carp.

Yet for the last Christmas of the millennium the great tradition was broken. The rights to a number of the most popular pohádky are owned by ČNTS, and as the company has no way to broadcast its programs at present since its abrupt parting of the ways with Železný's TV Nova in August of this year, the films simply could not be shown. As with everything else to do with this affair, the recriminations are mutual and hostile. Nova's position is that ČNTS deliberately bought the films in the summer "in order to strengthen its bargaining position" [with TV Nova]. [3] ČNTS, on the other hand, argues that it has "no reason to sell its library of programs" [4], especially not to anyone working for Železný, one might add.

TV Nova's seasonal offerings

So, this year, there was no Tři oříšky pro Popelku, nor, for that matter Honza málem králem or Třetí princ (The Third Prince). We were also done out of O princezně Jasněnce a létajícím ševci (Of Princess Bright and the Flying Cobbler), watched on Nova two years ago by 36% of children and 25% of adults, Princ Bajaja (Prince Bajaja), S čerty nejsou žerty (Don't Mess with Devils), Šíleně smutná princezna (The Madly Sad Princess), and a number of other great favourites. Of course TV Nova was still able to serve up a good helping of pohádky, but mostly the second-rate ones watched only by children. Nova's major Christmas movie on the 24th was 101 Dalmatians, and on the 25th The River Wild, with Meryl Streep, and the notably festive Striptease, with Demi Moore. Granted, the choice on the public service channels ČT1 and ČT2 wasn't much more inspiring, but at least it was "Christmassy", and Železný's recent populist attacks on the big bad Americans (i.e., CME) who are trying to do him out of his honestly earned business don't seem to have prevented him from showing three mainstream Hollywood movies, and especially one with a bit of flesh on display.

There are plenty of Czech Christmas traditions that you can quickly have too much of. Carp is nice enough, but you'd only write home about it once, and this year we put a moratorium on all cukroví production as the toll on my waistline is really beginning to show. But pohádky are a lovely addition to Christmas - one that many other countries could do much worse than to follow and learn from. The Czechs understand how to transfer classic fairy tales to screen without losing any of their magic, and they treasure this fairy tale tradition even now when so many other traditions have been forgotten or obliterated. How sad, then, that this sordid squabble between Železný and his former partners at ČNTS should result in so many of these pohádky disappearing from the nation's TV screens.

James Partridge, 15 January 2000


1. All statistics in this article are taken from Lidové noviny, roč. XII, č. 299 (23.12.1999). [Referred to below just as LN 299]. ^

2. She stopped making pohádky after the rather good Třetí prince (1982), although did have a cameo role in the big budget pohádka Nesmrtelná teta (1993). Western audiences know her (although they may not realise it) from her fine performance as Klára, the singer in Svěrák's internationally famous Kolja (1996). ^

3. Ondřej Zach, directory of AQS (the company that currently buys programs for Nova), quoted in LN 299. ^

4. Dalibor Balšínek, spokeperson for ČNTS, quoted in LN 299. ^



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