Film and TV fairytales – an essential part of Czech Christmas

'Tři oříšky pro Popelku'

One of the most traditional elements of any Czech Christmas – hand in hand with Jakub Jan Ryba’s Christmas Mass, golden mistletoe, winter scenes by Josef Lada, and carp and potato salad, are Czech fairytales on film, screened every holiday season on Czech TV. Kids in the West had Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but the Czechs have many, many classics of their own - not animated - but live-action fairy tales which have been loved for generations. In this Special, we look at why film fairytales are so popular here, and look at some of the classics considered “essential” holiday viewing.

So what is it with the Czechs and their fairytales? If you grew up in North America, you would probably be used to quoting Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or E.T. – but when it comes to children’s films here, viewers most remember scenes from films like There’s No Joking with Devils or Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella. Jiří Chalupa, a script editor and specialist in children’s productions at Czech TV told me more about the fairytale tradition:

“Why Czechs love their fairytales so much is not an easy question to answer - I guess we’re just that kind of nation! There is a strong storytelling tradition here and fairytales, of course, are a part of that. They represent a certain idealism and ‘ageless’ wisdom which people continue to enjoy. Simply put, fairy tales are about finding ‘Good’. They represent the belief that everything will work out in the end.”

No decent fairy tale would be complete without the proper ingredients, such as a princess, a scoundrel, or an unlikely prince (usually a pauper, who through bravery and a good heart) who wins the keys to the kingdom. Or magic, or a mix of some of these and other elements. And that’s not all: Jiří Chalupa again:

“Successful fairytales have a timeless quality and a strong moral sense and Czech fairytales remain rooted in that tradition. Viewers want the princess and the dragon... So while new productions have undeniably been modernised – featuring contemporary language, more dynamic shooting styles and faster editing – the traditional story elements remain largely unchanged.”

Vojtěch Rynda, a film critic for the daily Lidové noviny, agrees that Czechs love their fairytales, but says in their fascination they are far from alone.

“I would say it is definitely part of the Czech tradition and also part of Czech film craftsmanship. But I wouldn’t say they were unique. In Germany you have a similar tradition. There too, you have fairytales screened weeks before Christmas. The Czechs are good at making them, but in the long run I don’t think their fairytales are that different from other European nations.”

Still, there’s no question that the fascination here with traditional fairytales runs deep. All you have to do is check the December TV listings for proof: all three of the country’s main broadcasters, from public broadcaster Czech TV to commercial station TV Nova, feature the very best of Czech fairytales in their Christmas line-up. There’s no question, “pohádky”, as fairytales are known in Czech, remain holiday favourites. For now, on TV screens they continue to eclipse even popular newer challengers: animated films such as Monsters Inc. or Finding Nemo, which have been a huge success with kids. Vojtěch Rynda again:

“Fairytales always have a happy ending and you can count on the good feelings they invoke. People who want to have a good Christmas, simply want to see those films. They don’t mind seeing them again and again.”

By now, you must be wondering which Czech fairytales are among the most popular. The most famous one goes back more than half a century. Called Pyšná princezna, The Proud Princess, it was made in 1952. The B&W film is among the most seen in Czech film history, viewed by more than 8 million people on the silver screen, and repeatedly on TV ever since. Based on a story by the 19th century Czech author Božena Němcová, the fairytale tells the story of a good king who tries to win the heart of a beautiful but snooty princess by the name of Krasomila. In the story, the king disguises himself as a gardener in the princess’s employ, to try and get close to her and change her ways, and eventually to win her heart.

Like many films made in the 1950s in Communist Czechoslovakia, Pyšná Princezna, was not without propagandistic subtext. This is an aspect of older viewers tend to ignore and which younger viewers won’t have the slightest inkling of. Film critic Vojtěch Rynda again:

“That’s a thing that not very well known. As people want to enjoy these fairytales they chose to ignore hidden meanings or hidden agendas. The Proud Princess was, on one level, a celebration of work of peasants – definitely not the aristocracy.”

That criticism, says Mr Rynda, even applies to arguably the most popular Czech fairytale of all time: Tři oříšky pro Popelku (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella), a Czech take on the Cinderella story which was made in the early 1970s.

“Even though the original Cinderella got beautiful dresses, the Czech Cinderella gets, as one of her outfits, not a dress but a hunter’s costume. She can shoot with a bow and can ride a horse. She is definitely en par with the prince she is going to get and is even more emancipated or skilled than he is. And this kind of resonated with the Communists’ ideology, as they were all for enabling women to work in traditionally male jobs.”

While that may be true, such elements do not detract from “Three Hazelnuts” much: the film was a resounding success and has not aged at all badly: shot in winter, it remains visually dynamic and exciting, making use of several great Czech actors, like Vladimír Menšík, and featuring many humorous scenes. Most of all, the film features the young Libuše Šafránková in the leading role: her Cinderella was both clever and sweet and set the standard for all future Czech princesses. Few have come close since. Vojtěch Rynda again:

“She is THE princess of the Czech fairytale tradition and her character in this film was one of the main reasons Šafránková became so popular. Basically, she became an icon. She was barely 17 at the time, so it was a combination of her youth and tenderness and her appeal was a combination of both her beauty and he ability to compete with the prince. She was both a fairytale princess and a bit of a tomboy.”

The original costumes from the film – including the ranger’s outfit Šafránková wore, recently went on exhibit in Prague, along with the costumes from other famous Czech fairytales. At the show’s opening, Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella’s director, Václav Vorlíček, described costumes as an “element of character”. And, he said he was extremely pleased the costume had survived to this day. Šafránková’s costume certainly helped set her Cinderella apart from all the others: dressed as a ranger, she taunts the prince in the woods before escaping on his horse.

'Tři oříšky pro Popelku'
Like in many successful fairytales, humour is a strong element. In many scenes, Cinderella’s tormentors are revealed as shallow and ugly, to the laughs of the audience. One of the final moments is when Cinderella’s stepsister falls into the muck of a shallow frozen pond, revealing to the prince she is not the bride he seeks.

Czech TV’s Jiří Chalupa agrees that humour in many Czech fairytales is key.

“I am a big fan of humour in fairytales, especially those made today that are made for TV. In the 1980s and early ‘90s we saw newer TV productions which introduced certain darker philosophical elements and I can tell you, it didn’t work! Nobody wants that in their fairytales: adult viewers want something that reminds them of films they saw in their childhood, and their kids want something fun which they can understand. Humour and wisdom are what make any good fairytale successful.”

TV-made productions, while closer today to film in appearance, still suffer against their cinematic counterparts: in the past many were criticised for bland studio settings and low production values. That makes humour, well-written scripts and the enlisting of good actors even more important. Film critic Vojtěch Rynda explains that Czech TV produces a new made-for-TV fairytale each Christmas – in itself a tradition.

“Czech TV shoots one new fairytale each Christmas. While all four of the broadcasters show all of the famous fairytales, Czech TV still produces a new TV film which airs on the evening of December 24. This year the project is called ‘Kouzlo králů’ – The Charm of Kings. But these TV fairytales really aren’t all that comparable to the ones that were made for the big screen.”

Jiří Chalupa says Czech TV strives to provide viewers with both the old and new: both the classics that viewers know and love, and productions with which they hope to surprise. The main new production always premieres on Christmas Eve:

“Kouzlo králů is a perfect example of a fairytale which uses classical elements but also has humour and perspective. It is typical as a TV production, but shot and edited in a more film-like manner. The story is about two kingdoms – one bad and one good - and how a baker’s son from the bad kingdom is helped by the ruler of the good. It’s romantic and a classic battle between good and evil.”

'S čerty nejsou žerty'
Speaking of “evil”, you may be interested to know that there exists a devilish subgenre in Czech filmed fairytales centring on devils – usually inefficient and bumbling characters. These are also screened around Christmas. It might strike some as an odd choice for the holidays, but the characters are loveable and very funny. One of the most celebrated films in this subgenre, and the most hilarious, is Hynek Bočan’s S čerty nejsou žerty (There’s No Joking with Devils or Give the Devil His Due), a tale about a miller’s son who is wheedled out of his inheritance by his evil stepmother.

In the end, after many unexpected twist and turns in which devils mess up one thing after another, she ends up carried off to the gates of… well, you know where.

Film critic Vojtěch Rynda again:

“The Czechs are, I believe, the second most-atheistic nation, so they are not really that afraid of devils! Often, devils are used as comedic characters or sidekicks to the hero, especially in the film S čerty nejsou žerty. This is a whole subgenre and a good one. I think, generally, among the better of Czech fairy tales.”

There is one more classic that bears mentioning although it is not a Czech but a Russian fairytale which nevertheless has a place in the Czech holiday season and something of a cult following with those who grew up in the 1970s. The film is none other than Mrazík (1964), directed by Alexander Rou. The story mixes classic Russian fairytale motifs, from the use of its hero, Ivan, to Děda Mráz (Grandfather Frost) as the personification of winter, to the innocent and good Nasťenka and evil sister Marfuša. Most of all, the film features the famous Russian witch Baba Yaga and her famous cottage which rests on a giant chicken’s feet. The film offers many memorable scenes and no Czech Christmas, paradoxically enough, would be complete without it. Jiří Chalupa from Czech TV:

“Mrazík does have a special place on Czech TV screens – I’d say it’s enjoyed especially by teens, who get the dark humour. It’s well-made and a decent fairytale and definitely has a cult following.”

Over all, there are dozens of fairytales, both film and TV, to choose from, and years before you can get to know them all, and choose which ones to return to. In recent years, of course, many titles from S čerty nejsou žerty to Tři oříšky pro Popelku have seen cheap DVD release and are probably owned by a good part of the population. But somehow screening the most famous of fairytales any other time than Christmas probably wouldn’t feel “quite right”.

But maybe that, too, will change.

As for other trends, parents who have tired of fairytales about knights and princes and devils or goblins, always have modern grown-up fairytales to turn to: there Czech broadcasters are no different than those in other parts of Europe or North America. Staples broadcast again and again each holiday season here now include Pretty Woman - with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere - and Love Actually, with Keira Knightely, to name two. Lidové noviny’s Vojtěch Rynda:

“For example in the US there is this tradition of showing populist – in a good way populist movies – of Frank Capra such as Mr Smith goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. So, even adults who don’t indulge in princesses and historic costumes can find happy endings. That wasn’t that common under the Communists, but after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 Czech TV picked up the tradition and in this respect we’re like any other Christmas-celebrating nation now.”

Thank brings our programme to an end for today. Be sure to tune in to Radio Prague’s specials throughout the holidays. And, have a wonderful Christmas.