Vaclav Marhoul - A Czech renaissance man

Vaclav Marhoul

Coilin O'Connor's guest for One on One this week is Vaclav Marhoul who was in the news earlier this year as the organiser of the huge military parade held in Prague's Letenska Plan to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Besides this activity, Mr Marhoul has many other interests. In addition to his work as a writer and producer for the popular Sklep theatre, he is a well known filmmaker and former head of Barrandov Studios. He is also a founder member of the Tvrdohlavi group of artists, which translates as "The Stubborn Ones" in English. Tvrdohlavi caused quite a stir when they emerged in Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. I started by asking Mr Marhoul what had prompted him to help set up this organization.

It was very simple. We just tried to express that we are a free people and that we can do what we want. Maybe this was impertinent, but the truth was that in 1970 the Czechoslovak Union of Artists strictly forbade the setting up of any artistic group. In 1987, when we founded Tvrdohlavi, we didn't ask anybody if we could do it or not. I just sat down and wrote a letter to the union and told them that we were a group and that we were going to plan an exhibition. That's all. I didn't ask anyone's permission. Maybe they were so shocked that they didn't react. I didn't receive any letter back from them or anything like that. In December 1987, we rented this House of Culture for 10 days over the Christmas period. I think they gave it to us because they thought nobody would be interested at Christmas. They reckoned everybody would be at home watching TV and the wonderful Czech fairytales, etc. It was a really great surprise - not just for us but for them as well - when more than 1500 people came to the exhibition every day. This was a great success. People thought that it was something that opposed the regime, but I must say very openly that it wasn't some dissident event. We didn't plan it like that. We just tried to do something and to show some stuff, because the trouble for artists back then, especially painters, was that they couldn't show anyone what they were doing.

After the Velvet Revolution, you were head of Barrandov Studios, which must have been quite a challenge. Are you happy with what you achieved in that the studios still survive to this day?

Barrandov at that time was in a crazy situation. The economic situation was absolutely awful, because the government decided to abolish all state subsidies. It was really crazy. Common sense was my teacher. I didn't have any special economic training. Common sense told me that there was no point having over 2000 employees when we couldn't pay them. I ended up firing 1700 people and I also cancelled 17 Czech films that were in production, because we simply didn't have the funds to complete them. The third very important decision was that we started to try and attract British and American filmmakers to Barrandov. It was very hard at the start. When I visited Hollywood for the first time and met with representatives of the major studios, I remember talking about Barrandov for 20 minutes. One executive from 20th Century Fox told me it sounded interesting and wonderful and that she loved Switzerland. I had to tell her that I was talking about the Czech Republic. But at least it was a start. Now, 15 years later, everyone knows where Barrandov is and it is really providing professional services at the moment. But at the time it was very hard.

Despite 15 years of freedom compared with what went before, a lot of people would say that Czech film has never managed to reproduce films that are of the same quality as those made during the communist era. Would you agree with this opinion and, if so, why is this the case?

It's really hard to say. From 1990 to 1995 there was a big hangover for Czech filmmakers, because the new style of financing started and people weren't so familiar with it. They had to learn how to talk to sponsors because the government was no longer paying for anything. In my own opinion, I feel that Czech film has eventually been reborn. By this I mean that people are now shooting movies about topics they really want to make films about and are doing stories they really want to tell people. In the last 15 years, a Czech movie has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar four times. Czech films have won prizes at festivals like Locarno, which is a very prestigious event. This is wonderful and it's very interesting because the government is not supporting the industry so much. Czech filmmakers are like Don Quixote with their cast and crew as Sancho Panza. They're riding around in very old horses trying to achieve something. All Czech filmmakers are heroes in my opinion.

I've read that you are now preparing a film called Tobruk, which is based on the experience of Czechoslovak volunteers fighting in Africa in World War II...

I must say that the history of the Second World War is my hobby. I have always been interested in WWII history, especially that of the Czechoslovak units who fought in the war. It's very interesting for me because Czech people know about the Czech RAF pilots who fought in the war as well as those that fought in Russia, but barely half of them know that Czechoslovak soldiers also fought in Africa. The rest of them have absolutely no idea that this happened. So I think audiences will find it very interesting.

Your interest in all things military saw you organizing a big parade on Prague's Letenska Plan this year to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and in recognition of Czechoslovak participation on the allied side. How did people react to this? After all, the idea of military parades is still a sensitive issue in this country, as this is the type of event frequently held during the communist era...

A lot of people did ask me why I was using Letenska Plan, which was always used by the communist army. I told them to have faith in me and that this was something different. A lot of people didn't believe me. They were expecting something like the communist military parades. These people were eventually very surprised and pleased with the event. The veterans were also very happy with it. More than 200,000 people turned up to see it, which was wonderful. It was totally free non-commercial event. The government didn't give us anything for it. All the money to organize the event came from private sponsors. That was the difference between our event and those in Moscow, London and Paris, which were organised and fully financed by the national government. Here in Prague we paid for everything. Of course, that didn't stop all the government people taking their VIP seats on the day.