“Communist” history of own prominent family not black and white, says documentarian Stan Neumann
Among the guests at East Doc Platform, a parallel industry event to Prague’s One World festival of human rights documentaries, is director Stan Neumann, a man with a captivating personal history. Born in Prague, he left with his American mother for France in 1959. His father’s family had been prominent to say the least.
“My father was… it’s very difficult to define, because he was supposed to be a writer, in fact. His mother, my grandmother, wanted him to be absolutely a replica of S.K. Neumann.
“In a certain way, I think he was not completely fit for that. I may say that from my point of view, it destroyed his life.
“These things with the generations, when somebody in the family thinks that the next generation must emulate the preceding generation, sometimes leads to catastrophes.”
He was a Communist poet, essentially?
“He had a very moving… path in life. Before the war he was in this kind of bourgeois, intellectual French gymnazium [grammar school], and so on.
“When he was 16, at the end of the war, he was arrested by the Nazis with a group of something like 50 gymnazium students and sent to the Small Fortress in Terezín.
“On May 2 the whole group was shot – it was May 2, the war was over – and he was the only survivor from this group, because he was dying from typhus.
“From then on he had a kind of fidelity pact with the [Communist] Party, from which he didn’t want to deviate. This created a strange situation, because he was very young but when destalinisation came, he behaved like an old Stalinist.
“He was one of the few who didn’t accept destalinisation. It broke his literary career. Then he became a small functionary, a cultural attaché, and finally he broke with the party only after the [1968 Soviet-led] invasion.
“And he committed suicide the day before he had to answer to a special commission and he was about to be expelled from the party. So it’s very sad – a broken life, broken by I would say politics, war, family, thing like that.”
You were telling me your mother [Claudia Ancelot] worked for Radio Prague.
“Then the political situation became such that my father realised that it was a big political mistake to have married an American Jew from German origins. In these times, it was the worst combination possible.
“So there a quick divorce, and the grounds were the political immaturity of my mother [laughs]. Then she found herself here with two children and had to find a job. She found one at the international section of the Radio.
“She made broadcasts for the States, in the middle of the night calling for American workers to rise and overthrow capitalism [laughs].”
Did you ever visit the Radio in those days?
“Yeah, I loved that. I still have very wonderful memories from the pater noster and the feeling of it and the people there. And the canteen – for a child it was fantastic.
“Later when I was eight or nine, before we left for France, I used to make false Communist programmes. I was supposed to be a young pioneer, coming back from vacation, very glad [laughs].”
I imagine it must have been a difficult experience for your mother, living here in the ‘50s?
“It was very strange, very difficult, very dangerous. At this moment, the head of the international section was Lise London and at the time of the Slánský trials my mother had the perfect profile, coming from the States, so it was very difficult [London was the wife of Artur London, a co-defendant in the anti-Semitic show trial of Rudolf Slánský, who was also found guilty but not executed].
“But my mother was always very curious and she was very happy to see what was going on. She learned Czech. She became one of the best translators from Czech to French. Later when she went to France, she was the translator of Hrabal. She interpreted for Havel, and so on.
“I think the situation was so tense but also so interesting that she enjoyed it [laughs].”
I often get the impression when I hear about women like your mother, who here from the West came after the war, that they were quite isolated. People were perhaps wary of speaking to foreigners.
“Yes. But there was a small group of people with very strange destinies. For example at the American section [at Radio Prague] there was an American soldier who came here after the war because of a love story which collapsed.
“My mother had a very close friend who was a British doctor, a woman, who came for political reasons. So there was a small group. Then there was the French section, where she met her second husband.
“But it was not lonely, at least for her. Because she had experience of emigration. She had left Germany when she was 12 years old in ’33, then she to flee France. Then the States. France again. She was used to a strange life.”
So she left this country, because she met a French man, is that right?
“It was a quite difficult situation. Because my father didn’t want to her to leave with the children, and she didn’t want to leave without the children.
“So it took almost 10 years before she could obtain the permit to leave with us. At this time she met a French journalist who was working in the French section at the Radio [laughs].
“Like many people at this time, it was after Budapest, so he was completely disappointed with communism – but at the same time he loved the country.
“Many people had this story. They came here and in two, three months their eyes were opened, they saw the reality of the society, but they fell in love with Prague, with the Czech people, and so on.
“My stepfather was so much in love with Czechoslovakia that when the Prague Spring happened in 1967 and ’68, he returned here and started to work once again for the international section of the Radio. He preferred the life here to the life in France.”
You left at the end of the 1950s. Did you follow events in Czechoslovakia closely from France?
“Yes. I left on a Czech passport. My grandfather and grandmother were still alive and I was in love with my Czech family, and my aunt and the house.
“So as soon as I could do it, I used to come here. I think I spent all my holidays in Prague. I was very close to it and for a very long time I felt it was my home more than Paris.”
I know you’ve made many films, but I’d like to speak about one of them, A House in Prague. Tell us about that film.
“It was a film I made quite late. After the revolution here, the situation in France was that all the filmmakers suddenly discovered Prague and rushed here and started to make films. I found it a little bit like vultures.
“So I waited till ’95, ’96, when the wave ended, to feel able to return and to make a film about my family story and about the house.
The house is a villa in Žižkov?
“The house is a villa in Žižkov in which my great-great-grandfather created an anarchist commune at the beginning of the 20th century, and which then was the house of my grandfather and my grandmother, but divided between them and the other part of the family.
“My grandfather was red establishment, let’s say a mild Stalinist, and his sister was a kind of bohemian anarchist – and the house was a battleground between the two parts of the family. This is basically the story of the film.
“But it was a very, very moving film for me, and very difficult. I think it’s one of the most difficult things to do, at least for me, to turn the camera in the direction of my own stories.
“Because in all my films I have always the pleasure of discovering something new. And if you are with your own stories, you don’t discover anything, you just tell what you already know.”
Was there nothing you discovered in the making of A House in Prague?
“There was something, which was that when I started to make the film I had a kind of judgmental position: wrong, right, black, white.
“And as I entered into the life of this house and the life of the people in this country, I started to see that the situations were much more complex, much more difficult, much more painful in a certain way.
“But there was also much more life in it than we see when we look at it from today.
“The second thing is I did with this film as I do with all of my major films, which is that I took this part of my history and I put it in the film, so that I can be freed of it, in a certain way.”