Michael Radford - a British film-maker with Czech connections

Michaed Radford

Michael Radford adapted and directed the film Nineteen Eighty-four, but is perhaps best known as the director and co-writer of the Oscar-nominated Italian language film The Postman. Recently Michael Radford was the president of the grand jury at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and I met him at the town's Hotel Embassy. It wasn't Mr Radford's first visit to the Czech Republic - as he told me, his Czech connections go way back.

"My first girlfriend - my first serious girlfriend who I was with for a long, long time - was a Czech called Jana Bokova. We were very close; we still are very close, actually. She was a refugee and her mother lived in Prague and she couldn't come and visit her, so I used to come and visit her, a lot.

"And then I started writing a screenplay, of a film which has never been made, with a Czech writer called Jan Fleischer. So I came to actually live for a little bit in Prague and southern Bohemia, in Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budejovice. And I even started to learn a bit of Czech, but as soon as I started to manage to express myself we split up, so that was the end of that (laughs)!"

"But also my family, by the way - my mother is Austrian but all of her cousins and all the other members of her family are called Kominik, which is a Czech name, as you probably know."

What period are we talking about when you were coming here to visit?

Photo: CTK
"It would have been in the '70s. I came here...the last time I came really was at the time of the collapse of the East German regime and the East Germans were coming here and staying in the East German embassy, and leaving their Trabants in the street. There was a sort of atmosphere that at any minute [Czechoslovakia] was going to go but it hadn't quite gone."

What did you do when you say you helped your ex's mother? What exactly were you doing?

"I was just saying hello to her. I liked her very much; I used to come and stay with her, and talk to her and bring her news and photographs and all the rest of it, because they hadn't seen each other...And I would try and organise for her to come out, which she did a couple of times."

Karlovy Vary
What was it like for you coming here in those days?

"I have nothing to compare it with except this little visit to Karlovy Vary now, but if you can imagine I stayed at the Hotel Pariz for five bucks a night, five dollars a night. And I left and went somewhere for two weeks and it was so cheap I kept my room all the time. I'm sure it's not like that now."

What about Czech film and Czech filmmakers? Are you much interested in the Czech film world?

"Not now, but I was. Because the two real influences on cinema when I was growing up were the French New Wave and the Czech New Wave. I was fortunate to get to know and become friendly with Jiri Menzel, Ivan Passer and to a certain extent Milos Forman. I met Miroslav Ondricek and all these people...Jaromir Jires.

"It was a great influence on me. There was a certain parts of that world I wasn't so interested in, the sort of magical realism cinema. But I really loved Czech humour and particularly the films of Menzel and Forman."

What do you think was special about those films?

"You know, I'm a firm believer - and I hope that in a few of my movies that has been the case - that all human life lies in the small vicissitudes of human nature, and the comedy of small people looking for...things that are greater than themselves.

"And that really is essential to Czech humour and central European humour in general. It's kind of a way of looking at the world which I still love very much. If I find it in a movie I still appreciate it very much."

What about contemporary Czech film - do you follow it at all?

"It's difficult to get to see it. Honestly, it's harder and harder now for films from parts of the world which are not Anglo-Saxon to get distribution, any kind of distribution - even on DVD - in the Anglo-Saxon speaking world.

"Also I think that with the collapse of the old regime, if you like, the heart of Czech cinema stopped beating for a moment or two, as it did in all those places. But that also coincided with the stopping of independent cinema everywhere. As television became stronger cinema became more and more based on the teenage market. Honestly, that's even truer today, anywhere in the world.

Earlier you mentioned Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel - what impression did they make on you as individuals, as guys?

"You know, Flaubert once said you should never make an individual responsible for his own art - it's much more important than the person. But actually, they were very, very nice. I didn't really know Milos very well but I knew Jiri quite well and he's a lovely man, extremely eccentric; and he seemed to in some kind of way epitomise his films."

You knew him from England?

"I didn't know him because he'd been to England, but he was actually a friend of Jana's and when I used to go and see her mother Jiri would come, and we became friends.

"And then recently we made a movie together, a sort of collection of short movies called Ten Minutes Older. It was ten-minute films about getting older; so he made one, and I made one, and they were in the same collection."