Czech film world focuses on traumatic life of Lída Baarová
Power, sex, and film world glamour, against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the Nazi regime. The story of Czechoslovak film actress, Lída Baarová, has it all. And it’s therefore not surprising that the Czech film world has returned yet again to Baarová this month, first with a documentary film about the actress and then with a full length feature film.
An anecdote here, on leaving for Nazi Germany, the actress later said that she thought Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party was more or less the same as the similar sounding party headed in Czechoslovakia by Edvard Beneš, the long time foreign minister of Czechoslovakia and later president of the country. Unfortunately for Baarová, the same sort of name shrouded a totally different politics and vision for her homeland.
But that is jumping ahead, Baarová began life as Ludmila Babka in September 1914, the daughter of a high-placed official at Prague city hall who had just been called up the Austro-Hungarian army at the start of WWI. Her mother was an opera singer who had been in the chorus of the National Theatre. It was clearly a musical family with trips to the theatre and opera a fairly regular occurrence
The young Ludmila showed early musical talent on the piano. She dropped her early aspirations to being a ballet dancer and gradually started thinking about a career in the theatre. She entered a top Prague conservatory but already in her second year at the age of 17 in 1931 her film career beckoned. From a series of small roles in 1931, she graduated to much more significant roles in a total of seven films in 1932. In one she both played the role of a mother and her daughter in the same film. And although even the best female roles of the period were often only a pale support for the main male actor, Baarová’s screen presence and beauty helped set her apart.
Baarová became a symbol of collaboration with a hated regime, albeit a rather easy target for a young woman whose beauty was not at all matched by her brains.
Lída’s break came in 1934 with her 16th Czech film already under her belt. The producers of her last films had been the Prague outpost of the giant German studio UFA, already described at the time as the European equivalent of Hollywood.
They were, literally, casting around for an actress to play the most beautiful woman in Venice, originally a Mexican but any foreign accent in German, would apparently do. Baarová took the screen test and landed the part in Barcarola.
Two problems immediately arose, she was judged to be a bit plump for the role and her diction in German left a lot to be desired. Baarová later recalled a diet of just three apples a day to deal with the first issue and six hours daily of German pronunciation to remedy the second.
The film Barcarola was a critical success. Baarová played opposite the German heartthrob actor Gustav Frölich and the partnership continued off stage. Frölich’s relationship with his partly Jewish wife had apparently cooled.
Baarová recalls in the documentary film about her now screening in Czech cinemas by Helena Třeštíková that the off screen romance was such that Joseph Goebbels believed that the actress and Frölich had married. He apologised at one meeting for not sending flowers to the wedding and was then put right by Baarová about her marital status.
Baarová was apparently living a hectic on screen and off screen life. Her contract with Ufa committed her to making films in Berlin but also to two Czech films a year. In between the love nest meetings with Goebbels, there were also appearances at the Berlin Olympics, or the Nuremberg Nazi rally for example.
Long term though, the problem was that there were three or maybe four people in the heated relationship between Baarová and Goebbels. The third party was obviously the wife, Magda Goebbels, a fanatical Nazi who had been obsessed with Hitler and perhaps settled on Joseph Goebbels as the next best thing.
And there was the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, himself. Baarová recounts that Hitler was astounded when he met her for the first time. Hitler told Baarová that he had a photograph of her on his bedside table. More likely though is that the photograph was of Hitler’s half niece Geli Raubal whom Hitler had been obsessed with. She committed suicide in Munich in 1931. Raubal bore more than a passing similarity to Baarová.
But the documentary film also recounts how Baarová’s Czech nationality obviously grated on the Führer. He asked her why she didn’t swap her Czech car for a German one or switch her Czech name to a German one. Documentary filmmaker Třeštíková has been reported as saying she believes Baarová had a relationship with Hitler as well but there is no proof for it.
He forced Goebbels to promise he would never see Baarová again.
In 1937, Baarová has the chance to escape from the increasingly obsessive and demanding relationship with Goebbels. Talent spotters from Hollywood’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer asked the 23-year-old to take some screen tests in London. The result was an offer of a seven year contract to make four films a year in the United States for wages that European stars could not even dream of. The Czech actress asked for time to think about the offer, but finally declined it. She said she finally understood that she was in love with Goebbels as well.
A year later, Goebbels’ infatuation pushed matters to a head. While Magda Goebbels had appeared willing to accept Baarová as a mistress, one of a series of Goebbels’ actress flings, he was now asking for divorce and was apparently willing to give up his top Nazi post and leave Germany to be with his lover. He apparently suggested a post as ambassador to far away Japan.
Goebbels’ bid for a divorce and offer of resignation prompted a furious intervention from Hitler. He rejected both requests and told his minister that those who made history did not have the right to a private life. He forced Goebbels to promise he would never see Baarová again– a promise he kept. In a final telephone call Goebbels told Baarová that he loved her.
The Czech actress recalls how soon after the break-up, in November 1938, came the violent Nazi organized attacks on German Jews, their property, and synagogues, Kristallnacht. It was, she says, as if Goebbels, one of the main organisers of the pogrom, was now determined to prove to Hitler that he was committed to the cause however far it went.
The German occupation of Bohemia in March 1939 raised the question of whether the ban on Baarová’s film and stage appearances now applied in her homeland. Sometimes it appeared possible for her to appear in films, sometimes not. In any case, many Czech and German filmmakers shunned her.
Baarová had close relations with many Protectorate politicians, including the hated Karl Hermann Frank. On the other hand she was also said to have been involved with the super German spy of the exiled Czech government, Paul Thümmel, and is credited by some reports with helping the Czech Jewish actor Hugo Haas emigrate to safety.
With her prospects in Prague at best uncertain, Baarová was quick in 1942 to accept the offer from the Italian film company Gines in mid 1942 to make films there. She appeared in several film and worked with directors such as Vittorio de Sica. The allied invasion of Italy forced her to flee back to Prague in the fall of 1944. At the end of the war, she fled to Germany, but was eventually captured by the Americans and returned to Prague.
Some of her old friends, such as Barrandov Studios boss Miloš Havel, remained loyal.
She eventually spent 18 months in Prague’s Pankrác prison before being released. Her mother had died being questioned by the police. Her younger sister committed suicide. She married in secret Jan Kopecký, the nephew of the then Communist Minister of Information, Václav Kopecký.
The two succeeded in escaping to Austria a few months after the Communist takeover in February 1948. The two grew apart and separated, eventually divorcing. Baarová, found film and theatre roles, mostly small parts, in Italy, and Austria again. She said she enjoyed two decades of happiness after meeting an Austrian doctor who offered her a place in her sanatorium after her collapse. That happiness ended with his death in 1972. She died in Salzburg in 2000, largely accompanied in her last year by her memories.