Pohadkovy svet: A guide to Czech Christimas fairytale viewing

St. Stephen's Day - better known as 'Boxing Day' -- became known as such because that was when churches opened their alms boxes to hand out money to the poor, in the spirit of Christmas. In the Czech Republic, the day (in fact, the whole week) is one for feasting with family and settling down to watch 'pohadky' -- fairy tales -- on the telly. In that spirit, and as part of our holiday series, We now treat you to a look at some of the most beloved Czech fairytales on film.

"Byl jednou jeden kral" — Once upon a time, there was a king — the opening line for many a classic fairytale. While all peoples have their folk tales and legends, from the Arabian Nights to the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney, in few cultures have fairytales won such an honored and beloved a place as they have in the hearts of the Czech people, certainly at Christmas time.

Over the past half century fairytales on film — or pohadky — have become even more of an essential part of a Czech Christmas than is, say, the ritual carving of the goose or turkey and The Nutcracker ballet for much of the English-speaking world.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the genre in Czech culture. A case in point is the 1950s classic film "Pysna Princezna", the story of an uppity young royal sorely in need of a dash of humility. It still holds the record as the most visited film ever to screen in Czech and Slovak cinemas. Well over 8 million people saw it at least once on the silver screen; millions more watch it at home, Christmas after Christmas.

In fact so popular are fairytales like "Pysna Princezna" and "Tri Orisky pro Popelku" — the Czechs' take on Cinderella — that many families plan their holiday meals around them — meals at which, by the way, a freshly killed carp with a side of potato salad is far more likely to play the starring role as dinner than any kind of plucked bird.

To this day, in parts of Moravia and Slovakia, people say with a wink that domestic animals are able to speak on Christmas Day and even predict the future, though legend has it that if you repeat what you've heard you won't live out the following year. In pohadky, of course, all manner of enchanted creatures can come to life on screen. In modern productions — and a good half-dozen new fairytale series and films come out each year — state-of-the-art special effects are employed to do just that. Digital wizardry allows witches and devils to transform themselves — and others — into all manner of talking beast.

In today's programme, though, we'll be giving you a taste of the Christmas viewing fare that the Czechs love best — the classic old fairytales in which the human comedy — along with elaborate set designs and fanciful songs — take centre stage.

The first fairytale film we feature today is "Pysna Princezna", or "The Proud Princess". Shot in black and white in 1952, it is the most popular pohadka of all time, and, as mentioned earlier, the most screened film in Czechoslovak cinematic history.

That merry little fellow you've just heard singing is a cobbler who each day crosses the border between his homeland, the Kingdom of Midnight, into the neighbouring kingdom and bursts forth into song.

Why make the journey?

Because in the humble shoemaker's own land, incredibly, it is forbidden to sing, or even whistle a tune, as it is seen as a distraction from work..

The peasants there also live in fear of the king's tax collectors. Based on a story by the early 19th century writer Bozena Nemcova — known as the "mother of Czech literature" — "Pysna Princezna" is the tale of a good king, Miroslav, who sets out to win the heart of the beautiful - but uppity - Princess Krasomila, heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Midnight.

The Proud Princess
King Miroslav is beloved in his own land where his royal subjects know that an honest day's work means an honest day's pay — and singing is encouraged.

Now, by their very nature, fairytales are morality tales, with a message to impart. With the Czechoslovak directors working under the watchful eyes of Communist censors, the propaganda was often very thinly veiled. King Miroslav peppers his speech and song with gems like "first work, then play," "he who works well must prosper," and "there is honour in every kind of work."

Of course, in any fairytale worth its salt, love conquers all. Early in the film Pysna Princezna, matchmakers arrange for the two young royals to exchange portraits of themselves. King Miroslav likes what he sees — a tall blonde with wavy hair and delicate features — but Princess Krasomila snubs her suitor sight unseen; she doesn't even bother to unveil his portrait, yet deigns him "unfit to tie her shoelaces." Ouch.

The Proud Princess
In classic fairytale style, King Miroslav goes under cover, disguising himself as a gardener, to get close to Princess Krasomila and see what makes her heart tick. Ironically, when they do meet, she demands that the lowly "gardener" Miroslav lace up her shoe, insisting that kings would consider it an honour to do so.

"Kings might find it an honour, maybe: I am a gardener," fibs Miroslav.

It's been said that music calms the savage beast and it soon proves to be the fastest way to melting Krasomila's frozen heart. The kindly old nurse tells Miroslav that the princesses' favourite song from childhood is "blossom, little bud, blossom." Somehow — call it magic — Miroslav grows an enchanted singing flower, which wilts in Krasomila's presence due to her hubris.

Well, before long, Krasomila falls for the "gardener," who teaches her humility and manners, as well as how to play the guitar. Remember, singing is forbidden in the Kingdom of Midnight, so this is an act of rebellion. But when Krasomila's father, the king, can't resist but to join them in song, he has to ask himself, "Why is it that I ever banned music in the first place?"

After a few minor plot twists good chase scenes, the kindly old fool of a king admits he's made a mess of things. He lowers taxes, rescinds the order to ban singing, and turns over his crown to Miroslav, his future son-in-law.

"In the crown itself there is no wisdom; it is through his head that a king must rule," says King Miroslav. Presumably, they all live happily ever after.

Now, the cast of characters in any proper fairytale must include at least one bumbling but good-hearted king, a lovesick prince or virtuous pauper, an evil stepmother or kindly nurse, and of course, a beautiful princess, or princess-to-be.

Once Upon a Time,  There Was a King
The 1954 classic "Byl jednou jeden kral" - or, "Once Upon a Time, There Was a King," a far looser adaptation of a Nemcova tale with a healthy nod to Shakespeare's "King Lear" - is no exception. In this story, a conceited and inept king, fishing for compliments, asks his three daughters - all unmarried, of course -- how much they love him. When one replies, "as much as salt," he foolishly banishes her -- and the "worthless mineral" -- from his kingdom. Needless to say, the king learns the error of his ways and his daughters find husbands from good peasant stock.

The king is played by actor and satirist Jan Werich, known to generations as Czechoslovakia's "wise clown" with the equally beloved comedian Vlasta Burian playing his sidekick Counsellor Atakdale - Czech for "and so on." "Byl jednou jeden kral" is a Czech favourite due to the rapid-fire word play between the famous comedic actors, dialogue which, unfortunately, translates rather poorly into English, and so we quickly move on now to a far simpler story - an adaptation by the Czech poet Karel Jaromir Erben of a Brothers Grimm fairytale.

"Obusku, z pytle ven!" - or, "Stick, Start Beating" premiered in 1955. It tells the story of a simple country musician having a rough time of it singing for his supper. When a dishonest innkeeper cheats him out of a sausage meal, the unflappable musician sets off with his meagre portion of bread for greener pastures. In this scene, the musician offers to share his bread with an old pauper - who is, in fact, his "fairy godfather" in disguise.

The musician is given three magic gifts - a table cloth that fills with food, a donkey that dispenses gold coins on demand, and a small club (obusek), that will beats its master's foes on command. The kind musician refuses the club, saying he has no quarrel with anyone, only to learn later that he'll need it to teach a lesson to the scheming innkeeper, who cheats him out of the magic tablecloth and donkey.

One cannot be on good terms with everyone, says the fairy godfather, and while some can see reason through a kind or wise word, "with others only a club does the trick." And there you have the moral of the story - that and that innkeepers and other petty bourgeoisie are not to be trusted.

Indeed, the screenwriters of the day undoubtedly felt they had to walk something of a fine line in the pohadky of promoting socialist ideals without encouraging nostalgia for the days when kings and queens and not the politburo ruled the Czech lands.

The Princess with a Gold Star
Perhaps the ideal mix from that point of view can be found in the 1959 classic "Princezna se zlatou hvezdou", or "The Princess with a Gold Star" — on her forehead. The presence of the unusual birthmark — a useful plot device — is never explained in the film, the third-most popular in the history of Czech cinema.

This princess, Lada is an avid gardener with a common touch. We first meet her singing as she waters the royal gardens. Her father the king wants to marry her off and has invited King Kazisvet — whose name translates as "the breaker of worlds" — to come for a visit.

Why, I'll never know.

Anyway, Kazisvet arrives with his army of soldiers and hangers on, bearing exotic gifts from faraway lands. Oh, and he's ugly. But that's not why the princess isn't keen to become his queen, oh no. "I couldn't abide to marry such a boastful king," she confides to her kindly nurse.

Hoping to brush off the boastful suitor, she refuses the treasures, much to Kazisvet's dismay, and demands something she thinks he won't be able to deliver — three dresses — "each lovelier than a dream."

Princess Lad'a asks for three of "the most beautiful dresses on Earth" before she'll even consider Kazisvet's proposal of marriage. The first, she says, should be "like rays of sunlight playing upon the bosom of a forest lake at dawn;" the second, like the "azure of the southern sky and as delicate as a leaf falling in water;" and the third — as if that wasn't enough — "as deep blue as midnight before the stars come out."

"I will give you the dresses that you wish for — and then you must be my bride for evermore," Kazisvet says [maniacal, evil laughter ensues].

He tells his tailors to get this monumental task done by sunrise - and earn their weight in gold - or "be a head shorter" the next day. They deliver, but she still refuses him, flees the kingdom disguised in a coat of mouse fur with a hood to cover her golden star and goes into hiding.

In the neighbouring kingdom, which, not by accident, lies to the East, and not to the West — she finds work as an assistant to the chief cook of the castle belonging to one Prince Radovan. Of course, she can't resist attending his ball, and decks out in full glory. Prince Radovan falls for her immediately.

"You seem to me like some kind of fairytale nymph - so wise, kind and noble." Prince Radovan proposes then and there, but Princess Lad'a refuses, afraid of Kazisvet, and saying she can't bring misfortune upon his kingdom.

Well, speak of the devil, and soon he shall appear" the most unwelcome King Kazisvet soon is at Radovan's door, demanding "his" princess back. Another fairytale staple — a swordfight — ensures. Radovan wins, of course, but that's not the end of it. Kazisvet threatens to return and "lay waste" to the kingdom.

He ends up getting a major dressing down from a kindly old nurse.

The nurse says that Kazisvet, this good-for-nothing from the West, tried once before to "lay waste" to their land — but was driven out by the people. "The people?" asks the princess. "You mean all the people?" asks Radovan. "Yes, the people," says the nurse, "those with weapons and without, peasants and labourers armed with pitchforks, scythes -- tossed him out on his backside."

Asked what he has to say for himself, Kazisvet, salutes.... then heads for the hills. And, to paraphrase Monty Python, there was much rejoicing.

Now, the fairytales on film we've presented thus far were adaptations of traditional folk tales and made during the 1950s, a troublesome time for Czechoslovakia, and perhaps not by coincidence, the undisputed golden age of the film pohadka genre - as people yearned for a bit of escapism.

The Terribly Sad Princess
Now, while in the films of the 1950s communist censors sought to lay claim to these traditional stories and the values imparted therein, the 1960s ushered in a far more relaxed and experimental period of filmmaking, known as the Czech New Wave. The filmed pohadky of the decade tended to play down moralising and focused more on humour, romance, and song.

The best-known film pohadka from the time is, "Silene smutna princezna", or "The Terribly Sad Princess," with came out near the close of decade, in 1968 - another turbulent year in Czech history. It's the tale of star-crossed, would-be lovers - a kind of psychedelic Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, and abundant comic relief from the scheming royal ministers Iks and Ypsion.

The Terribly Sad Princess
Iks: "How do you escape from a jail cell?"

Ypsilon: "Well?"

Iks: "With a will, all's well."

Ypsilon: "Have you read the Count of Monte Christo?"

With the ever-popular singer Helena Vondrackova in the title role, it's remembered less for its artistry as for its music - by the legendary Czech composer Jan Hammer (of "Miami Vice" theme song fame).

Still among the most popular of the fairytales shown on Czech television at Christmas every year, the "Terribly Sad Princess" plays second fiddle to the 1973 film "Tri orisky pro Popelku," or "Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella," and another adaptation of a work by Nemcova, who, of course, herself drew heavily on tale by the Brother's Grimm.

In this version of the famous story, the fairy godmother is dispensed with; a farm hand (played by Vladimir Mensik) wishes he could grant Cinderella (the stunningly beautiful twenty-year old model Libuse Safrankova) with everything her pure heart desires.

Popelka: "Ah, well... Just bring me the first thing that falls on your nose."

That turns out to be a twig with three hazelnuts - a gift derided as "fit for a squirrel" by the evil stepmother. But each hazelnut, as it turns out, grants a wish, and, well, you know the rest. No one but she can wear the shoe left behind at the royal ball.

A co-production with East Germany, "Tri orisky pro Popelku" had a budget far exceeding all purely Czechoslovak fairytale films. The costumes were designed by Teodor Pistek, who later got an Oscar for Milos Forman's "Amadeus," the music - sung by the 'Czech Elvis,' Karel Gott, and composed by the prolific Karel Svoboda. There can be little wonder as to its enduring popularity.

Well, we certainly hope you've enjoyed this brief history of the history of the pohadka, the Czech fairytales on film, and hope you can enjoy a nice helping of carp and potato salad as you settle in to watch your favourite tales this Christmas. Happy viewing!