Zdeněk Mahler – part two


This is the second part of a special Czechs Today dedicated to the writer, journalist and filmmaker Zdeněk Mahler. Over the years, Mahler, who is 80, has worked at the Communist Ministry of Culture, Prague’s Laterna Magika Theatre, and with his life-long friend Miloš Forman on the film Amadeus. But what about more recently? Well, Mahler has spent the last decade researching the life and work of Czechoslovakia’s founder, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. He has made several TV documentaries about the first Czech president, and has even been elected head of the Masaryk Democratic Movement:

“He was an incredibly educated person, a university professor. He was a democrat through and through who managed to join so-called Western culture, Western philosophy and democracy, and Russia. Because he was in contact with Tolstoy and Gorky and with Plechanov. And he created a sort of synthesis between East and West. But most importantly, after the war, a rather paradoxical thing happened, which was people didn’t want to go back to the First Republic, but they wanted to go back to Masaryk, who wasn’t even alive anymore, but he had left a legacy, he left a programme.”

When Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk won the ‘Greatest Czech’ award as voted for by TV viewers, it was Zdeněk Mahler who picked up the prize on the former president’s behalf.

In 2008, Mahler released a new book, with a delay of over 40 years. ‘New York’ is a beautifully illustrated series of musings on the East Coast city and its history.

* * *

In the beginning there are green forests, rivers full of fish and Indians howling on the rocks – the sun is kind and time is not measured – that’s until 1524 – then, an Italian called Verrazano downs anchor in the bay – his brother makes a primitive sketch of the shore, the straight, and the shallows and then off they sail and things return to normal – that’s until 1609 – when an Englishman Henry Hudson discovers the place – he is working for the Dutch and looking for a passage to India – and then, in 1613, a rabble of castaways set up home here unwillingly – there has been a fire on their schooner…

* * *

The book was all ready to go to press in 1967, but then something happened which lead to it spending the next forty years gathering dust in Zdeněk Mahler’s study. Here is the author on the tale of New York:

“I was there for the first time in 1963-1964, and that was because we were preparing this book about New York. I was there with the artist Vladimír Fuka. Fuka was very ill – he had diabetes, and he knew that he didn’t have much time. And back then, books took such an extraordinary long time to publish – nearly three years passed between the writing and the publishing of our book. And just before our book came out, it was already printed, and in fact it had been distributed to the young person’s book club, there had been thousands of copies made and it was all ready for Christmas, but then Vladimír Fuka went into exile. He went to the Unites States, and so the book was withdrawn and pulped.”

During their visit, Mahler and the book’s illustrator Vladimír Fuka criss-crossed the city, communicating with each other using the height of technology: a pair of walkie-talkies:

“When you go to New York for the first time, even if you know something about it, then all at once, you are overwhelmed by all this inspiration. And sometimes it can be the little things that get you the most. We walked the streets and marveled at the water hydrants, and the water tanks on the roofs. And we were blown away by the idea that underneath us there must be a fantastic network of cables and infrastructure. And because Vladimír Fuka loved to draw mazes and labyrinths, he was thrilled with the idea of a second city underneath us. From this isolation which we were living in here, we stepped out all of a sudden into a world which inspired us in every way imaginable. We wandered about in awe.”

* * *

…In 1915 Bell the inventor creates a direct telephone link between New York and San Francisco in 1919 the first transatlantic flights are planned in 1920 the first billionaires emerge amongst the millionaires in 1922 the first newsflash is sent to Paris in 1924 New York Public Radio announces itself in 1925 the whole city gazes nervously at a total eclipse – local prophets predict the end of the world 1929 brings the famous stock market crash in 1930 New York swells to 6 900 000 inhabitants in 1940 it has 7 500 000 inhabitants in 1950 12 300 000 inhabitants 1960 15 100 000 in 1970 it surely has to burst!

* * *

Gustav Mahler
The book became a best-seller when it was released last Christmas, all because Mahler’s grandson found the proofs and urged Zdeněk to give its publication a second shot.

“The only change I made was that in the original, there was a table of the ten highest skyscrapers, and when I wrote the book, I kept the number one spot empty, because the Twin Towers were under construction. And this time I also kept the number one spot empty, but I wrote alongside that it was out of respect. So that was the one change I made to the book.”

After working with Miloš Forman on the making of Amadeus, Mahler was asked to make several documentaries about the composer Mozart. Since this time, he has also made a number of films about Dvořák, Smetana, and most recently, his own relative, Gustav Mahler:

“I have always been interested in Gustav Mahler, and this interest was heightened when Mahler’s biographer, Henry Louis de la Grange, sent me a family tree. And when you look at this genealogy, you see that Mahlers have been in this country since the time of the Thirty Years’ War. And all of this time, they have lived predominantly in two Czech villages: Chmelná and Lipnice. Last year, the head of Czech Television’s music section gave me a call and said, ‘here’s seven times fifteen minutes to do what you want with’, and I had a think and suggested that I use all of this time to explore the one theme: Gustav Mahler.”

At age 80, Zdeněk Mahler continues to work at a break-neck pace. He has most recently been compiling a retrospective of Czech composers for the Czech Republic’s EU presidency.