My Prague – Michal Bregant
Michal Bregant is the director of the National Film Archive, which is tasked with preserving the Czech Republic’s rich cinema heritage and oversees over 150 million metres of film. Previously he headed another important institution, FAMU film school. A Praguer through and through, Bregant grew up on the city centre street Celetná. His family’s kitchen window overlooked the adjacent, narrow Kamzíkova – and there we take a short trip down memory lane at the start of our tour of “his Prague”.
“It was great. I was riding my bike. I had friends here and I was able to go up to the roofs of these buildings.
“In our apartment we would heat with coal and my mother would ask me to get potatoes from the cellar, which was a beautiful Gothic ground floor, from the early Middle Ages.
“If we move a little bit we can see the window from our kitchen. From that kitchen window I was looking at the people who worked in a bakery. Then it was a restaurant later and now it’s a chocolate something.
“From the kitchen window I could see people – especially early in the morning when I woke up and my parents were still sleeping – making rolls and bread.
“That was communism [laughs], so they would take the rolls and bread from here to other bakeries in other parts of the city instead of selling them right here. It didn’t make any sense. But that kitchen window has a special spot in my memory.
“All these passages were not open to the public. They were only opened in the early ‘90s. That was the time when the bakery was transformed into a Pizza Hut. For myself, that was a symbol of the invasion of this kind of capitalism into my city… Yeah, it [his childhood] was a great time.”
Was it a magical place to grow up?
“It was not magical at all. It was absolutely normal. I didn’t care that I was walking on sidewalks that were historical. I didn’t care about opening a Baroque door.
“I didn’t care about living in such an environment. It was totally normal to me.”
From today’s perspective, do you appreciate what you had?
“Absolutely. It really had a big influence on me, on my life and the way I can appreciate urban space. I can orient myself quite well in cities. I like it. In that respect I’m kind of an asphalt rat, or a cobblestone rat.”
How do you feel today when you come into the centre of Prague and you see how a lot of it looks? On Celetná, which is part of the famous Royal Way, there are so many shops selling pieces of glass and all kinds of tourist tat.
“I know that Prague is strong enough to survive even that. I don’t take it very dramatically. There is a market for this crap and there are people who want to buy Russian Army caps and Russian dolls or whatever.
“I don’t like it personally. And I still think this part of the city looks most beautiful in spring, summer, fall and winter at around 4 in the morning when you are coming back from a bar. Because it is empty and you can communicate with the living history.”
When I travel to other cities, often cities that are bigger than Prague, I frequently notice that in their centres there are some shops that sell tourist crap but the extent of those streets is much smaller than here.
“That’s the visible hand of the market. It’s something that simply happened here and unfortunately the people live here – because there are not so many people living here, that’s the problem – who want to have some impact on it are not powerful enough.
“It’s a challenge for the city government and I think it’s something that makes many tourists uncomfortable. Because it looks so cheap, so strange – it’s something that you don’t want to see in such a beautiful city.”
While Michal Bregant spent his formative years in the historic city centre, he hopes to spend his future working life in a rather different environment. Nákladové nádraží Žižkov, or the Žižkov freight railway station, is a grimy complex that ceased serving its original function over a decade ago. But under an ambitious plan its main building should in future house the headquarters of Bregant’s National Film Archive. Why this particular site?
“First the location is amazing. Žižkov is a very vibrant neighbourhood and I’m convinced there is big potential here.
“If we manage to transform the former train station into what we call a cultural hub, which would have institutions like the National Film Archive and other cultural institutions operating here, it can also be a very attractive place also for tourists and people who want to hang out and experience something other than the standard tourist attractions in the downtown area.”
What do you know about this building we’re in now, which is just by the main road where the trams go and is near the two cemeteries [the New Jewish Cemetery and the Olšany Cemetery]?
“It’s a Functionalist building, from a very important chapter in the modern history architecture in Prague.
“But as we can see, it’s more functional than Functionalist, if I may put it that way, because it was built for the administration of mainly food and coal coming to Prague and being distributed here in the city.
“Also I remember that the father of my wife was here as a young boy. He lived in Žižkov. His brother’s schoolmate’s father was the investor, he was the head of the construction project, and they also lived in Žižkov.
“My wife’s father was invited here in 1934, if I’m not mistaken, and those kids would stand on the rooftop of the building and you can imagine that Žižkov was so different, and especially this area.
“Then it was rather the middle of nowhere, an empty space. The First Republic was blossoming – a very different time from today.”
Ideally, how would you like this place to look in 10 years’ time? Or say 15 years’ time?
“Well I would like to see it in five years’ time, finished but not really polished. I think it’s important to maintain all the traces of the past.
“I don’t want it be glossy, beautiful and everything – I want it to look like a former freight train station.
“I want it to be quieter than now because we can hear the heavy traffic on the main street and it’s something that is really quite disturbing.
“I want it to be very open for the public, because we are going to have exhibition spaces and two cinemas, one for an archival programme and a current programme of Czech and international cinema.
“I want to see people studying in our library and doing research in our research facilities, so I think that this can really become a film centre in Prague.”
The last stop on our of “Michal Bregant’s Prague” is the bar Duende. A short distance from FAMU film school and a stone’s throw from Charles Bridge, it has been one of the best places to go in that part of the city for two decades now. And my guide has been coming here regularly from the very beginning.
“I consider this to be almost my exile home or something. In my former life, when I had more free time, I would hang out here a lot.
“I think I was even the first, unofficial but first, guest here, because the guy who opened this place, back in the mid ‘90s I suppose, used to run a tea room at the Náprstkovo muzeum, the ethnographic museum around the corner.
“Somehow they couldn’t stay there and he was walking around and discovered that this place was here. He discovered that the place was so beautiful and they started doing a little renovation.
“I just walked by and discovered they were here. It was the day before the opening.
“I would have very good coffee, excellent coffee mostly, here – at that time it was one of the best espressos you could get in Prague – and maybe a shot of Calvados.
“Then I was a regular here. I loved the atmosphere. It was really kind of international and it was not pretending anything. It was a very friendly, kind of normal place, where you could take anybody.
“Also I had some parties here. I remember my fortieth birthday here, when my guests blocked the whole street [laughs].
“Then for my fiftieth birthday I wasn’t that into having a big party but then I figured that somehow it fits in Duende, so I did it again here.”
What does the name Duende mean, do you know?
“First of all, I think it’s a great name for such a place. If you listen to this word – Duende – it’s exactly what it is. I don’t know what the meaning is, but I know it’s something like a dance or music style, connected to Spanish traditional music, if I’m not too mistaken.
“But it’s so gentle, it’s so lovable, such a name – I think it was a perfect fit for this place.”
What other places would you go in the city centre in Prague, or elsewhere in the city, for a drink or for a coffee?
“We are sitting now in Karolíny Světlé, that’s the name of the street. Karolína Světlá was a great Czech female writer in the late 19th century.
“This street is so rich. If you walk just a few steps from here you get very good vegan food. If you go more steps you get what I think is the best simple lunch in the area at Bistro.
“There is this other café across the street which is a smoky hollow crowded with FAMU film students, typically.
“So any place you go… Století, that’s a place where when I worked at FAMU I would take guests for lunch or dinner all the time. This street is super rich in cafés, restaurants and bars.”