My Prague – Karel Och

Karel Och on the stairs at KVIFF headquarters, photo: Ian Willoughby

Karel Och, who hails from a small town in the Vysočina region, is artistic director of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. For most of the year, Och and his colleagues are based in a building on Panská St. in downtown Prague, directly behind the Holy Cross Church on the bustling Na příkopě. Our tour of “his Prague” begins in his cosy office, which at present overlooks a construction site on Panská.

Karel Och on the stairs at KVIFF headquarters,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It’s quite an unusual place. As you can see, it’s connected to the building of a church. Even if you look around, it looks like an old monastery – at least the rooms have this shape and kind of atmosphere.

“The reason I mention the kind of monastery look is that this place is connected to the 18th century, when the order of Piarists moved here. They actually founded the church in the mid 18th century.

“They also established a school and lyceum in the street here. For instance, the famous Czech composer Jakub Jan Ryba studied here as a 15-year-old boy. Obviously, everybody Czech person knows his Christmas mass.

“So there is a strong educational aspect to this place, which we try to incorporate in what we do in terms of the festival programme.

“The atmosphere is amazing. But we cannot really make any changes here, because it’s kind of a monument and it has this character. So forget about an air-conditioning system. Sometimes in the summer it would be great…”

The Holy Cross Church,  next door to the offices of KVIFF,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Well I was going to ask you – how is it working in a building of this age in the centre of Prague?

“It’s beautiful. Because the Prague centre has a certain atmosphere. And this one small unit of the centre of Prague perfectly reflects that historical atmosphere.

“What I always appreciate about Prague is that there is this encounter of different architectural styles or different epochs, of different places meeting in one place but always with a very strong historical vertical, or always a sensation of, I don’t know, heavyweight history…that’s what we feel in these places.

“Actually, all the reconstruction works that are being done here, and which have been done here throughout the last 12 years, which is how long I’ve spent here, need to respect its monumental character and try to preserve as much spirit as possible.”

Where we’re sitting is on Panská, which is very much what they call a dobrá adresa in Czech, a good address. Just a few doors away is the Kaunický Palace, which houses the Mucha Museum. And you’re also just a few steps away from what I consider to be Prague’s main street, if it has one: Na příkopě. How do you find working in such a location?

“From the practical point of view, it’s very convenient. Because using public transport you are in this place pretty quickly from everywhere. I live outside of town in a small village and I leave my car in the suburbs and take the metro, and it never takes more than 15 or 20 minutes.

The Prague offices of the Karlovy Vary IFF are located here,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It might look different, but it’s not really amazingly convenient in terms of, let’s say, having lunch in a nice place that doesn’t take too much of your time.

“I think in that respect there are still changes to be made. But again I’d love to go back to the sense of history and aesthetics, and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.

“Speaking of history, not far from here there is a street called Politických vězňů, Political Prisoners, which has had a really turbulent history.

“At the very end of the street, which corners with Washingtonova, there is the famous Pečkárna, the Peček Palace, which used to be the Gestapo headquarters. A lot of people were tortured and died there.

“It is an irony of history that the headquarters of the Communist Party is on Political Prisoners Street. But that’s how things are nowadays.”

Have you been there? I have, and it’s like travelling back in time.

“No, I’ve only passed by but it already feels like it a little bit. I’ve only seen it from outside.”

Perhaps five minutes walk away from the offices of the Karlovy Vary film festival is the Lucerna Palace, an early 20th century complex – actually a whole city block – built by the grandfather of Václav Havel. The site of Prague’s most magnificent cinema, Lucerna’s warren of passageways is also home to restaurants, shops and theatres. But what makes the place significant to Karel Och?

The other end of Panská from the KVIFF offices,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It’s probably one of the most fascinating buildings in the centre of Prague. I believe it has a lot of dark corners I’ve never visited. Once I saw a film by Juraj Herz called Pasáž [Passage, 1996] which was shot here and takes place here and I was amazed how many corridors and hidden places there are here.

“This is a place I’ve seen a lot of movies in, at the Lucerna cinema. I’ve met with a lot of friends here throughout the past 20 years that I’ve spent in Prague.

“Right now we are five metres from the place where my favourite café used to be. It was called Popocafepetl and actually back in 2001 it was the place where I took my future wife for the first time.

“Back then I wasn’t aware of the fact that she was with someone else. But maybe the positive atmosphere of the café got me all encouraged to step in.

“We often recall this place. It was a really nice café which closed around 11 PM. But there was another small entrance and we could stay inside and listen to loud music with the bartenders and have a lot of drinks and a lot of fun.”

Also as well as the actual cinema, this whole complex has a strong connection with film.

“Of course, with the Havel family and Miloš Havel, the former owner of Barrandov Studios, who was the uncle of the late president Václav Havel.

Entrance to Lucerna cinema,  complete with bust of Václav Havel's grandfather | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International
“Václav Havel’s brother Ivan and his wife Dagmar Havlová are the current owners of the cinema, and the building I believe as well.

“I recently met Mrs. Havlová and I know from her that she’s planning to open a small second screen, a small 50-seat cinema. She cares very much about having the film community here and having all kinds of different screenings here.

“A few weeks ago I met here with my friend Mark Cousins, a Northern Ireland-born, Edinburgh-based amazing filmmaker who had a master class related to his The Story of Film.

“So, yeah, it’s lively here and still has this artistic spirit which it used to have. All the big parties are held here after film premieres, etcetera. It’s a place I visit fairly often.”

Do you know, is the cinema here the oldest cinema in Prague?

“Actually, we touched on this subject with Mark. It might be the not only in Prague… but no, no, I don’t want to misinform you. But it’s definitely one of the oldest, and not only in Prague, of its kind.

“I recently heard about an activity, coming I believe from the UK, to create a kind of association of owner or operators of old cinemas, which are so unlike the multiplexes now, just in order to share their worries and ideas to create an alliance against the strong movement which has as a consequence the slow dying of such beautiful cinemas.”

View of exterior of the Lucerna Palace,  which is actually a city block,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Speaking of cinemas, what other cinemas in Prague do you like? And do you go to the mulitiplexes?

“I rarely go to mulitiplexes. I go every now and then if there is a screening for journalists in the morning. I really dislike the smell of the popcorn and all the carpets everywhere, and this look that I see everywhere else in the world. There is no particularity.

“There are some film festivals which I consider interesting but because of a lack of space they take place in such multiplexes, which is a major problem, I think…”

Like Febiofest?

“Yes, of course, or the Bratislava International Film Festival. It really doesn’t add much to the atmosphere.

“But I went to the multiplex a couple of days ago with my son. He seemed to like it there, and everywhere he likes, I like.”

What about the cinemas that you actually do like?

“I’m very fond of the triad of Světozor, Aero and Oko, which are operated by our good friends from Aero and Aerofilms.

“I think they’re very smart people. They don’t have much money because obviously they aim for the art house audience and avoid big blockbusters.

Inside the Adria Palace,  which was built by an Italian company in the 1920s,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“But thanks to their ideas, such as to introduce live transmissions from the Metropolitan Opera, which creates a certain income, they can organise a lot of small events and they’ve been very popular.

“I like a lot Ponrepo, which is the only screen of the National Film Archive, which is not far from here. I’ve seen a lot of good old stuff there, so I have fond memories of that place.”

Our final port of call is another grand building, the Rondo Cubist Adria Palace on the corner of Jungmannová and Národní. It turns out that long before he started working in the Karlovy Vary programme department, the Adria played a role in Karel Och’s development as a film buff.

“Back in the mid 1990s I used to spend a lot of time here, because Ponrepo – which I mentioned before, the cinema of the National Film Archive – was actually here before it moved to Bartolomějská it was here, on the second floor, if I’m not mistaken, next to a café.

“Back in those days I would frequent the law school, but by the mid 90s I realised it was not my vocation. So I kind of slowed down with my studies and decided to work on my English by watching a lot of old American films with Czech subtitles…”

So you started speaking like Humphrey Bogart or somebody like that?

“Yes, like Tony Montana [in Scarface]: ‘My father took me to the movies.’ Yeah, you can easily catch some accent…but no, it actually does help a lot.

“I often mention Italy as a place I visit often because of my wife [who is from there], and all movies are dubbed there so that is one the reasons why they don’t really speak English well.

The Rondo-Cubist Adria Palace,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Anyway, I remember that on a certain day of the month, the 15th of the month, I knew that the [Ponrepo] programme for the next month was coming out and there a really sophisticated system of reservations.

“I really enjoyed waiting in a café for the moment when the programme came out. I would immediately take it and book all my screenings.

“I always had bread and some cheese, because I really didn’t have much money to go to restaurants.

“But those were really strong and beautiful days and I met a lot of future friends who stayed in the film business. We remember many screenings together, many silent movies with live piano accompaniment, etcetera. So it’s a place filled with memories.”

This is a bit off the subject of film, but I presume that since you became the artistic director of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival a couple of years ago that you travel even more than you used to. Has travelling that much impacted how you see Prague?

“Of course. I enjoy being in Prague more, because, as you said, I spend less time here. Also I have a chance to compare. I go often to Vienna, I go to Istanbul…

Karel Och at Adria Palace,  former home of Ponrepo,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I talk often abroad with friends or colleagues from the business about Prague, so I kind of re-appreciate Prague through the opinions of my friends abroad. Because obviously Prague is a known city and most of them have been here.

“So, yeah, in a way I spend more time talking about Prague than in the past when I used to live here more, because now I spend maybe half of my time abroad travelling.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on December 14, 2013.