Worlds apart? Book explores Karlovy Vary festival in Cold War

Jindřiška Bláhová: Proplétání světů / The Interweaving of Worlds

Today Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is the region’s premier cinema showcase. But practically half of its long history took place under communism – and the event in that period is the subject of a new book, Proplétání světů, Intertwining Worlds. So what did Karlovy Vary look like in the Cold War era? And why did it alternate for decades with the Moscow film festival? I discussed those questions, and much more, with the publication’s editor, historian and film journalist Jindřiška Bláhová.

Why was the festival set up in 1946?

“A combination of ambitions and politics, to put it simply. Because in ’46 cinema was nationalised and within that there was an idea, Let’s have a festival.

“It wasn’t a festival like we imagine now. It was only 12 films.”

“But, mind you, it wasn’t a festival like we imagine now. It was only 12 films. It was only a teeny tiny thing.

“It was basically driven by the idea, France has a festival, in Venice there’s a festival.

“In their vision of greatness – it was part of their post-war new identity and the awakening of the nation – the representatives of Czechoslovak film decided, Oh, we can also have a festival.

“And they had a small festival to showcase the greatness, or future greatness, of Czechoslovak cinema. Because the idea was that Czechoslovak cinema can be at the forefront of global cinema.

“It was also crucial for the showcasing not only of film but the project of nationalising or making cinema state-owned as a viable, great project for the future. Because not everybody agreed – there was opposition.

“But the Communists in particular were the driving force, and wanted to show that the project actually had validity and should be part of the culture.”

Was it the case that it was initially called the Czechoslovak Film Festival?

“Yes, it was. It was actually the Czechoslovak Film Festival with International Participation.

“The notion was OK, we will bring in some films, like from Britain or France or Sweden, and we can compare. So it’s about contrast and compare – we can compare how we are doing, how they are doing, and what we can learn from them and what they can learn from us. That was the idea.”

The first edition was in Mariánské Lázně, then it was in Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary, then eventually it was in Karlovy Vary alone. Why that geographical location? Why West Bohemia?

“There was a discussion about whether to have it in Zlín, in Gottwaldov [the town’s communist period name], or whether to have it elsewhere.

“There was an idea, Closer to the German border we can basically infiltrate the Sudetenland, culturally.”

“And there was an idea, OK, closer to the German border we can basically infiltrate the Sudetenland, culturally; let’s basically signal to the world that this is the Czech lands, we are Czech here, you are not coming to Carlsbad but Karlovy Vary. Because historically it was very pro-German and German.

“Also Karlovy Vary as a spa basically followed the trajectory of other tourist resorts – like Cannes, like Venice. There was this historical vibe that was obviously kind of tarnished but still was there. They could say, Goethe was coming here, Freud was coming here and Schiller was coming here.

“So the idea was, There was this cosmopolitan culture and we will create a cosmopolitan event.

“Which they did not, but they thought they could.”

Jindřiška Bláhová | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Even today we hear many references to the fact that Karlovy Vary is an “A” category festival, like Cannes, Venice, Toronto and so on. How did it attain that status in the first place?

“The ‘A’ category is a sort of fetish in a way, so it’s kind of cool to look behind the ‘A’, because what does it actually mean?

“The period you’re talking about, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was festival policy and festival strategy.

“It was the International Federation of Producers Associations [FIAPF] that was actually granting festivals with categories, and dividing them according to hierarchy and importance: how many stars you can attract, how many premieres you can show and also where you were in the calendar depended on this letter.

“So Karlovy Vary wasn’t in there, but it was hugely interested, because, again, Cannes had it and having it was a matter of prestige.

“So already in ’46, ’47, ’49 there was huge interest in trying to get it, but the French producers were not really into it, because communism, Stalinism; they were worried they would tarnish themselves.

“But eventually it happened, in 1956, so with a long period of [laughs] sort of courting and all these things behind the scenes.

“But the main push was, surprisingly, from the French producers themselves, who basically said, We are so interested in the Czechoslovak market, we want to distribute films; we’re going to help you as organisers to get the prestigious category – so we can get through the festival, and through you, to the market.”

Karlovy Vary was founded in 1946 but this year’s edition was “only” the 57th, because for around three decades the festival alternated year-by-year with Moscow, and shared the A category status. Why was that the case?

“How Karlovy Vary was basically forced to alternate with Moscow is a big political story.”

“How Karlovy Vary was basically forced to alternate with Moscow, from 1959, is again a big political story. Until then the Soviets didn’t have their own festival, so they were quite happy to actually exploit, in a way, Karlovy Vary.

“Because the Soviets occasionally had skirmishes with Cannes or Venice, feeling that they were discriminated against on ideological grounds. So they basically banned all communist states or people’s democracies from going to those festivals and they didn’t send any films there in a certain period of time.

“And Karlovy Vary served in the ‘50s as basically a showcase for Soviet cinema.

“Then they decided – as the Cold War became less cold and a little bit hotter and more open, and cultural exchange with the West started to be part of Soviet policy – that they would also have their own international festival.

“They said they would run it from ’59. For a long time the Czechoslovaks were saying, It was a mutually beneficial agreement, we could share costs, because it’s expensive to run a festival.

“But if you look into the documents in the archives you can basically see the frustration and unhappiness of the organisers of Karlovy Vary, who felt they had a chance to emancipate Karlovy Vary and really create something good, in the ‘50s.

“That was just stifled. And then alternation affected it negatively. That’s obvious.”

Crystal Globe | Photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

The main prize at Karlovy Vary was and is the Crystal Globe for Best Film. That was won many times by Soviet films. Was the competition at Karlovy Vary biased in those decades? And if it was, was it therefore diminished in value?

“Yes and no. As one of the chapters in the book shows quite elegantly, I think, Yes, the Soviet films were winning, and at some point there was a feeling they were basically going to win whatever happens – they already have it pre-booked.

“But that was only in the period of time during Stalinism, the ’50s, when the festival was almost running like a manifestation of socialist culture, and promoting Soviet cinema as this progressive, avant-garde cinema.

“So yes, it was like that at the height of the ideological struggle of global communism, or socialism.

“But it changed. The festival is not a monolithic entity through the years. And in the ‘60s you see change also on the Soviet side, because all of a sudden they were producing artistic, really valuable films. The Cranes are Flying is awarded at Cannes, there is a thaw happening, loads of great artistic energy is flowing from the Soviet Union.

“Also the films are increasing in quality, so you would see really great films coming to Karlovy Vary and being rightfully awarded – not for ideological reasons but for artistic reasons – in the ‘60s.

“And then it changed again in the ‘70s, when normalisation started. So you had periods.”

Say during the Czechoslovak New Wave – did the great Czechoslovak directors want to take their films to Karlovy Vary, or did they have their sights on bigger and better international festivals?

“All the Czechoslovak film directors were very ambitious. They were also supported by the Czechoslovak film monopoly, who wanted to be seen abroad, who wanted to send Czechoslovak films and Czechoslovak New Wave films abroad.

“So Mannheim or Cannes or Berlin were showing Czechoslovak films and obviously you could get prize money at those festivals; you couldn’t get it in Karlovy Vary.

“For Chytilová or Forman or Menzel it was much more prestigious to show their movies in the West.”

“For Věra Chytilová or Miloš Forman or Jiří Menzel it was much more prestigious to show their movies in the West, so they tried to do that.

“Inevitably Karlovy Vary was neglected. And you could see the schism. The organisers were frustrated because they, on one hand, wanted to be seen abroad, they wanted to send the crème de la crème of production abroad – but at the same time they wanted to show some Czechoslovak films in Karlovy Vary.

“And that wasn’t happening. Filmmakers were not really interested that much. But in ’68, when Cannes was cancelled, Capricious Summer, Rozmarné léto, by Jiří Menzel was taken out of competition and shown in Karlovy Vary and won.

“But it was, you know, hesitatingly accepted by Jiří Menzel. He was not very happy about it. He came but was kind of sour about it [laughs].

“Again, it was partly a generational thing, but it wasn’t huge antagonism. It was a group of young, ambitious filmmakers who were supported by the film monopoly to go to the West – and they took the chance.”

I learned a lot from the book, which is very interesting, but I must my eyes were immediately drawn to the photos, especially of some of the big stars like Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis and so on. I presume those stars were used to a certain level of luxury. What did they find when they came to Karlovy Vary and went to the Grandhotel Moskva, or Moscow, as the Pupp was called in those days?

“If they were lucky they found a bathroom [laughs], because bathrooms were for a very long time a sort of scarcity. But that improved over the years.

“[Star guests] would get Czech glass or Czech chocolate or some silk scarves, cigarettes, etcetera.”

“They were lavished with a variety of presents. So they would get Czech glass or Czech chocolate or some silk scarves, cigarettes, etcetera.

“So they would definitely be lavished with such things to make their stay nicer, because there not very many of them [laughs]. There were few stars, like big Hollywood stars.

“In ’64 you would have Claudia Cardinale, and there would be a big hoopla about her when she was coming. You didn’t have a line-up of ‘A’ stars, so they were really taking care of them.

“They were trying to basically compensate for maybe some sort of lack of Western modernity, which Czechoslovakia was lagging behind, with a more cordial, welcoming atmosphere and organising their days and offering them trips – shopping trips to Prague or other places, castles – and hunting and roasting wursts or mutton.”

Sausages on the fire? That’s the famous picture of Tony Curtis.

Tony Curtis at the Karlovy Vary festival in 1968 | Photo: Czech Television

“Yes, the famous picture of Tony Curtis, who looks absolutely confused as to what’s going on, with a sausage on a stick.

“But there was definitely an effort to elevate the festival in the ‘60s, to make it more cosmopolitan and more chic.”

How much were Western film distributors interested in bringing their films to Karlovy Vary?

“They were, definitely post-’56, in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, when, again, East and West started to communicate much more. Czechoslovakia was also interested in various levels of exchanges, both economical and cultural, across the Iron Curtain. It was not as ‘iron-y’ as one tends to think – these kinds of exchanges were really seeping through, particularly at the festival.

“So Hollywood, for instance, was extremely interested, basically from ’56 in trying to use Karlovy Vary as a foothold to sneak through the backdoor to the market – and then the Russian market.”

One thing that struck me was that Karlovy Vary film festival, even if it was limited in some, or even many, ways, must have a huge deal to Czechoslovak cinephiles, who were stuck behind the Iron Curtain and didn’t have that much access. It must have meant a lot to them, even to have it just every two years?

“The festival was closed to the general public. It was the Cannes model until the mid ‘70s.”

“It was and it wasn’t. The festival was closed to the general public, basically. It was the Cannes model, until a certain time, until the mid ‘70s. It was oriented towards the industry.”

So no backpackers in those days?

“There were no backpackers, but definitely there was an open theatre, the summer open theatre, which is a fantastic place with 3,000 seats. That was aimed at the general public and also the guests of Karlovy Vary and the population of Karlovy Vary. And it was hugely popular.

“They definitely showed films, including Hollywood blockbusters – Alien was shown there – that you couldn’t expect. Or musicals.”

My final question is, What happened when the Cold War ended? In 1990 Václav Havel was there, as was Miloš Forman. But was the festival a little bit kind of shaken, or confused, to find itself suddenly in a democratic world?

“Like after any change, there were two competing energies. First was, OK, there is this possibility, a new energy to do a different festival, to invite people we couldn’t invite, connect to the West much more, shed the political aspect entirely. As you mention, to invite figures that are associated with the democratic, new vision of the country: Václav Havel and all his entourage, and Miloš Forman and his famous cycling route to Karlovy Vary [from Paris] with Theodor Pištěk. There were new sections representing American indies, etcetera.

“So there was this new energy. And on the other hand there was a sense of abandonment. The festival was sort of abandoned, particularly during ’90 and ’92.

“Nobody knew what to do with it, whether the state should run it, or the Ministry of Culture – or should it be privatised.”

“It was a little bit abandoned by the state, because nobody knew what to do with it, whether the state should run it, or the Ministry of Culture – or should it be somehow privatised; nobody knew what that meant.

“So it was this process of some things went right, some things went wrong. The artistic directors were changed annually, so it was very unstable. There was also fighting with the Golden Golem, the Prague festival.

“But eventually it was bought and transformed – and started its journey to the festival we see now, for better or for worse, in ’94.”