Seventy-five years of film at Barrandov studios

Photo: Barrandov Studios

Last week Prague’s Barrandov studios celebrated 75 years of movie-making. On January 25, 1933, filming started on the thriller ‘Vrazda v Ostrovni ulici’ (Murder on Ostrovni street), a film which dazzled Czech critics and cinemagoers at the time with its state of the art sound effects. Over the years, the studios have played home to the famous Czech new-wave films of the 1960s, and in more recent years Hollywood blockbusters like James Bond and The Chronicles of Narnia. Earlier this week I paid Barrandov a visit to wish it a happy birthday and talk to Mr Vladimír Kuba, the studios’ CEO:

“Barrandov Studios are the keystone of the Czech film business, and I really mean the film business – they are not involved in the creative part of filmmaking, but in the business of making the film. The founders of Barrandov Studio - the Havel family –they were really very prominent businessmen in the Czech Republic at that time. In fact we are now sitting in the office once used by the Havels. Now it is split into three or four smaller offices, but at that time it was a really nice big open space where Mr Milos Havel sat together with his assistant.”

Mr Kuba’s office is still a lovely space, with views out over the studios, and colourful film posters from previous projects hanging on the wall.

Another family involved in Barrandov’s humble beginnings were the Auerbachs. Norbert Auerbach’s father owned a production company which made some of the first films shot at the studio, and Norbert himself grew up in Barrandov’s hallowed halls. He talks about how it has developed over the last 75 years:

“Basically, nothing has changed except that instead of having three stages, there are maybe eight stages. I don’t know exactly whether it is eight or nine. And that is about the only thing that has changed, as a matter of fact, when you look at what we call the old buildings of Barrandov, they look much more modern than the new buildings. Because a lot of the halls were built during the war by the Germans, who fully occupied the studio at that particular time, and did a lot of filming there.”

Barrandov also seemed to flourish under Communism, as Vladimír Kuba explains:

Vladimír Kuba
“Under communism, Barrandov was the one place (alongside Koliba in Bratislava) where all Czechoslovak movies were shot. But now, after the revolution, Barrandov has been privatized. Maybe something that people don’t know is that Barrandov was not just one company under communism. Barrandov hill housed several companies, which worked on movies. There was a technical company, film labs was an independent company, stages was in independent company. But after the Velvet Revolution, all of these companies were privatized. And now, after 15 years, we have only one company again on Barrandov.”

When Barrandov made its first film 75 years ago, it was rather cutting-edge technologically speaking. It was the first film in Czech to combine dialogue with music. Is Barrandov today still ahead of the pack when it comes to technology, does it still have new things that it can offer?

“Today’s business is completely different from the way it was back then. Now you have to be focused only on some parts of the production process. It’s not possible to control everything from the development through to the executive production and the technical production, the design. It’s impossible. You know, under communism, Barrandov had 6000 employees, now it has 300. It’s a completely different company. We are focused on the stages, film labs, set construction department. We have axed our rental house, we’ve finished with our sound post production. So it means no, in some parts of the post-production chain some people around the world are most advanced than us. But there is no reason for me to want to control everything. We can negotiate with other people on post production, like UPP or AC.”

After my meeting with Vladimír Kuba, it was time for a tour of the studios. Jana Dostálová was my guide:

“This is the complex of three stages which we call the new halls. It’s from the 1940s. We are now in the first one which has a massive entrance and is 1000 square feet.”

It looks a bit like a school gym hall really, it doesn’t really look like you might imagine a Hollywood or a Barrandov stage would appear.

“Yes, but the thing is that it’s like that now because it’s empty. It’s a blank canvas for everything that they could want to make here. It could be the Sahara, it could be a horse stables, it could be mountains, it could be whatever. They are able to build any type of set for it depending upon whatever they want for the film. So at the moment it’s really empty, it’s only the wooden floor, but what they can build on it – well, it depends on the project.”

Norbert Auerbach has spent his whole life in film, and worked in both Barrandov and Hollywood over the years. He grew up a stone’s throw from the Barrandov studios, and after emigrating to America became one of Hollywood’s biggest movie moguls as head of United Artists there. In 1989 he returned to Prague, and to Barrandov studios:

“Barrandov is not a studio in the same sense as what we call studios in America. In America, what we call wrongly a studio is a big conglomerate media company, which has many other interests, which Barrandov doesn’t have directly. It is not a studio in the same sense as an American one. It doesn’t have its own distribution company. Barrandov does not in principle, with a few exceptions for Czech pictures, finance productions. It is really, truly a studio, a service operation, and a very good one at that, with a very high quality of technicians. It is one of the few, if not one of the only studios, to have its own laboratory.”

In the course of your career you have worked both in Hollywood and here in Barrandov. How do you compare the atmosphere of the two?

“Well, the big difference, not talking about the price, is that Hollywood is strictly a commercial operation. In the Czech Republic, as well as in many other countries, especially in Europe, film is still regarded as a cultural activity. And very often the creative people who are involved in making films consider themselves artists, who yes, want to get paid well, but do not think of what we thought of in our American activity, and that is that the most important person for us is the guy who buys the ticket.”