Goebbels-Baarová: more than just a German-Czech love story

Martin Pechlát as Joseph Goebbels

A play based on the short but stormy love affair between the Third Reich’s infamous propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and a young Czech film star has been causing quite a stir locally. Goebbels-Baarová has sparked controversy ― partly because of its unforgiving treatment of actress Lída Baarová and its message aimed at today’s Czechs. We investigate the play’s background and talk with its joint author and director.

Hitler’s loyal propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was increasingly the public face of the Third Reich as Adolf Hitler retreated into a world of illusions at the end of WWII.

But the play Goebbels-Baarová goes back further, dealing with the short mid-1930’s romance between Goebbels and Czech actress Lída Baarová. It has been performing to a packed theatre since it opened at the Divadlo Komedie, or Comedy Theatre, in the centre of Prague at the start of September.

Lída Baarová,  Joseph Goebbels  (right)
The play focuses on the off-screen romance between Goebbels and the young and beautiful Baarová after she went to Berlin after being signed up by the famous German film studio UFA in 1935.

The play is itself the fruit of Czech-German cooperation. A longer version of a play written by German Oliver Reese based on the diary of Joseph Goebbels has been boiled down and combined with a piece written by the current play’s director Dušan Pařízek. The result is two almost separate monologues, each of around 40 minutes, retracing Goebbels and Baarová’s separate and intertwined lives.

Goebbels committed suicide as the Red Army approached Hitler’s Berlin bunker in 1945. But his infamous career could have taken a very different turn if he had been granted his wish at the height of his Baarová infatuation to divorce his wife and leave Germany for Japan.

Baarová had longer to reflect on their relationship which helped to taint her in the eyes of many Czechoslovaks as a collaborator. She died aged 86 in 2000 in Austria with that fateful romance of six decades earlier having haunted the rest of her life.

The play’s co-author and director Dušan Pařízek says that a simple transfer of the original German play would not have worked for a Czech audience. They would have found it far too easy to judge Goebbels as the typical archetypal evil German without asking any questions about themselves and some painful episodes of Czech history.

“It would be too easy just to stage this fantastic play that is a compilation of the thoughts and memories of Joseph Goebbels. It would be too easy to do that because it would give the audience, every audience on this earth, the chance to watch what is happening on this stage with distance. For a society like Czech society of these days we had to change the point of view and had to make sure that this big career had a lot to do with Czechoslovakian society of the 1930’s too. It is interesting that one of the weaknesses of this man who represented evil — and who will represent evil for generations — was a Czech actress, Lída Baarová.”

The director says that Lída Baarová is symbolic of certain currents in Czechoslovak society in the 1930’s that flirted with the Nazis. The short-lived Czech government between the Munich agreement and final invasion of the remnants of the Czech state in March 1939 took an overtly collaborationist line with Nazi Germany. Other choices about collaboration in different circumstances came later.

For Dušan Pařízek the play is also the fruit of a personal interest in the tragic fate of the Czech actress and a study of the most revealing interviews she gave about her relationship to her biographer, the famous Czech writer Josef Škvorecký. A more recent book about Baarová was been written by her former friend Stanislav Motl.

“I was thinking about Lída Baarová since I met her once in 1995 in Salzburg. It was an interesting, very short, meeting with an old lady. When I met her I thought, here is someone who is not facing up to her own past, who is lying about the truth. When I started reading all these books written about her, I learnt that she had very different versions about her past. The older she got, the more this misalliance with Joseph Goebbels became something that was possible. After reading that material, I am sure that it was a real, real relationship and a sexual relationship that lasted a month.”

In the play, the Czech film star is played by the young Czech actress Gabriela Míčová, who as an older woman dressed in an elegant 1930’s long white gown looks back on her life. Dušan Pařízek again.

“You listen to Lída Baarová in the 1980’s talking about this relationship and you listen to a person who was just living in those 1930’s. She was for her whole life living this period of glamour, of career, of success. Stanislav Motl talked about it in a very clear way. He said she was rising for seven years and falling for another 60.”

Here Lída Baarová is told by Hitler’s secretary that she has been banned from making any more films in Germany after the German leader was told about the affair by Goebbel’s wife Magda.

If little pity is wasted on Lída Baarová, Joseph Goebbels is not treated with kid gloves either. During the play he frequently pours out his hatred of the Jews. Actor Martin Pechlát says some parts of the script made him feel uncomfortable.

“During the rehearsals there were moments when I did not feel at all well. I had to come to terms with some of this. But I said to myself that it was basically positive because we wanted to show this evil, show it in its basic, raw form. That is because evil is not some horned devil, it is people. Goebbels was a person. Evil is done by people”

But the affair inevitably shows Goebbels in a human light and also as a bit of a wit and entertainer.

While some of those who have bought tickets for the play might be attracted to the tale of a scandalous Third Reich love story — or perhaps ménage a trois or quatre, if you count wife Magda and Hitler as being on board in some way or other — the director says the play’s message is much deeper.

Joseph Goebbels
“Maybe someone comes to this theatre because he is interested in the relationship between Joseph Goebbels and Lída Baarová. But everyone who leaves it after the performance knows he saw much more and feels that we invited him to think about the past of this society, of this modern Czech society that tries to become a democratic state and is still not dealing enough with its own past. This is something we wanted to talk about. I think this is a reason why this production is now debated so much in the newspapers, on radio and on television — because we touched on something in Czech society today that is something like an open wound. People do not reflect on their past as much as they should.”

The play runs until the end of the year. Unfortunately for both director and the theatre, they are still waiting for news from Prague City Council whether their grant will be extended into next year or if the final curtain call will come in December.