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Barrandov Studios is the largest film studio in the Czech Republic. Today, it is used for blockbuster ...
2021-12-15 09:00:00

The Dream Factory on the Vltava
The Story of Barrandov Film Studios

dpmike/iStock by Getty Images
The Dream Factory on the Vltava
The Dream Factory on the Vltava

The sound of the film clapper first rang out in the Barrandov studio in 1933. Founded by the Havel brothers (the father and uncle of the future president, Václav Havel), it played host not only to Czech, but also to American and Polish directors. Casino Royale was filmed there, and the studio has played the role of Narnia.

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The hilltop studio is just under 10 kilometres from the city centre; the quickest way to get there is by tram No. 5 – a ride of 20-30 minutes. It’s relatively close, but in certain ways it’s not the same Prague. You get the impression that rather than the Czech capital, you’re in Hollywood. Construction of a film studio first began there in 1931: the biggest in central Europe, and one of the largest in the world. Spreading out over 120 hectares, it can’t be taken in in a single glance – just like its 90 years of history. “The dream factory on the Vltava”, “the hill of movie magic”, “an institution of memory” – these are some of the names by which Barrandov has been known.

“This complex is proof,” says 80-year-old Mira Haviarová, who knows Barrandov and its history well, because under communism, as the head of the Czechoslovak Film Institute, she would come here to supervise the workshops. Today, she’s a studio consultant for Central and Eastern European, Russian and Caucasus cinema. “Proof of what?” I ask. “That the dream of creating cinema can sometimes take on an unlikely form.”

Barrandov: city of dreams

Haviarová believes that since the beginning, Barrandov has been an expression of love for the cinema, but the initial plan was for a ‘garden city’ – a modern villa district. In 1927, the land for the development was bought by Václav M. Havel, a construction entrepreneur and the father of the future president. Construction began after a few years. First to spring up were ostentatious homes, immediately followed by a restaurant complex – the most modern in all of Czechoslovakia – and viewing terraces. One of the first visitors was president Masaryk. Until recently an undeveloped plateau, Barrandov had achieved stardom.

Havel often said publicly that his inspiration was America. When asked about this, he recalled how after World War I, when he was 20 years old, he took part in a study visit to US university campuses. He was most impressed by the upscale neighbourhoods in Berkeley. He was flabbergasted, because there was nothing like that in Prague. “And how can you explain that the plan for a film studio came about?” I ask Haviarová. “The studio was the dream of Miloš, Václav’s brother,” she says. “He loved the movies; his father had left him the studio Lucernafilm in his will.”

Vácslav, the father of Václav and Miloš, wasn’t a producer, but an engineer. He designed several Art Nouveau buildings, winning fame for the Lucerna Palace, an ingenious building in the very heart of the city, on Wenceslas Square. The first two storeys are home to cafés, bookshops, a cabaret and an art gallery, connected by a labyrinth of long passages. There also had to be a cinema, one of the city’s first. The 10-year-old Miloš would spend whole days there.

When he got a camera at age 18, he started to make documentaries. Four years later, after his father died, in accordance with his last will he gave up on making films and took over the family business. Lucernafilm was awarded a monopoly on the Czech production market, and Miloš became a powerful distributor of foreign films – he organized licenses to show American hits in Czechoslovakia. It’s said that that’s when he started to imagine his own Hollywood on the Vltava.

In the autumn of 1931 the Havel brothers laid the cornerstone of a film studio, and shooting began in the early months of 1933. The first production under the Barrandov brand was Vražda v Ostrovní ulici, an adaptation of a novel by Emil Vachek, the father of Czech crime fiction, but the studio offered much greater possibilities. It had laboratories, props shops, warehouses and two huge sound stages where you could produce absolutely anything – scenes from ancient Rome, or any era you chose. During this time, Miloš was paying off his debts and taking out new loans; the construction of Barrandov cost 14 million crowns, but his network of contacts helped him pull it off. It only took a few years for the studio to draw the interest of American film-makers: MGM and Paramount shifted production across the ocean to Prague. In the spring of 1939, the 32nd film in the history of Barrandov was being made. But everyone was already talking about war.

Barrandov, Haviarová says, was free from pressure before the war, even though it received state financial assistance. Under the German occupation, the studio in its first incarnation ceased to exist. When Goebbels visited Prague, he announced that Barrandov was to work for the good of the Third Reich. The old order was disappearing; the Germans were introducing a new one. Czech production was still strong, but the studio’s work was dominated by Nazi propaganda. In 1940, the antisemitic Jud Süss was filled here. The film was screened at the Venice Film Festival, and then to SS units. It was to prepare the ground for the Final Solution.

Miloš lost his 51% stake in Barrandov, but he did what he could to save the studio. He managed to negotiate terms that the Germans would honour until the end of the war. According to an unwritten agreement, the studio was to make at least five Czech films a year. In 1939–1945, 40 were made; under the occupation government, Barrandov gained three modern sound stages.

Meanwhile, the word on the streets of Prague was that Havel was making deals with the enemy because he wanted peace and quiet. He himself would take that as a line of defence: by paying in the coin of collaboration, he ensured work for film-makers, including those of Jewish origin, which allowed them to earn their bread and avoid deportations. The salvation of Barrandov was to be the foundation of the rebirth of the national cinema.

After the war, Miloš was cleared of the charges of collaboration. Others weren’t so lucky. “Many artists, stars and A-list performers were unjustly considered Gestapo informants and traitors,” Haviarová says. “In front of everyone they had to scrub the streets with toothbrushes; some were lynched. That was the saddest chapter in the history of the Barrandov studios.”

The war ended, and on the orders of President Edvard Beneš, Barrandov passed into the hands of the state. After the communists came to power, Miloš Havel, the former businessman and film magnate, had neither the health nor the money to fight another regime. He went to Munich, knowing he would never return to film work. He died in 1968 as the owner of a flower shop.

Hussites and communists

“You’re just a pup, you don’t know what it was like – but I remember,” Haviarová begins. “When you worked on films, you knew they were following you, recording you. I could speak into this glass, and after a while the secret police would show up with the tape. People knew that certain words shouldn’t be used, that every scene in a script would be checked, and they could prevent it from being shown.” After a moment, she adds: “But still, in those terrible times, there was a wonderful atmosphere, we were like a family. Today we have everything, we can do what we want, buy what we want and travel all around the world. Then there was nothing, but all of us – actors, camera operators, directors – were bound together by a single idea. Film, sir, it was film.”

After the communists seized power in 1948, it wasn’t easy for film-makers. State propaganda took over production. In the new order, the primary need was for costume and historical spectacles, delivered to the Party by a director who was connected with it: Otakar Vávra. In the mid-1950s, the ‘Hussite trilogy’ was filmed at Barrandov – the most expensive project in the history of Czechoslovak cinema. Vávra wrote the script based on a concept from Zdeněk Nejedlý, Minister of Education and later of Culture, who falsified the story of the Czech Reformer, subjecting it to a Soviet narrative. Jan Hus became a revolutionary; the Hussite movement became the first communist organization. Some of the tens of millions of viewers believed this uncritically.

When the 1960s arrived, bringing with it a thaw, loftiness and boredom disappeared from the cinema, at least for a while. In 1963, a certain Miloš Forman made Black Peter – a film taken from real life, made for peanuts, about a teenager working in a shop. At the same time and in the same spirit of the age, a whole generation of people in their 30s were shooting films: Věra Chytilová, Evald Schorm, Jiří Menzel. The press had a name ready for them: the Czech New Wave.

But the greatest success in this period was a film different from all the rest: The Shop on Main Street. Haviarová says if she had to point to a single film, beloved above all the others made in Barrandov at that time, that’s the one she’d pick. Made by a Slovak-Czech directorial duo, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, the story starts in 1942, when the Slovak authorities were starting to implement antisemitic regulations about the ‘Aryanization’ of Jewish assets. A humble carpenter uses his brother-in-law’s political influence to take over a button shop and get to know the owner, the older woman Lautmannova. Meanwhile, on the square in front of the shop, a mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps is underway. It was to be the first Central European film to win an Oscar. “What can I say? What an event that was, you can’t imagine it,” Haviarová says. “And what a story when they went to pick up that Oscar!”

The government decided Kadár and Klos should go to America to pick up the award in person. Kadár was already living on the other side of the Atlantic; Klos was to be accompanied on the trip by the actor Jozef Króner. Together they appeared at the film institute, where an official instructed them on how they were to behave in “that terrible America” and spend their $20 expenses money. They left for the States. On the way, they stopped off in Paris; in the evening they visited a cafe run by an attractive Polish émigré woman. They ordered coffee for $5, plus a $1 tip for Madame Zosia. Klos and Króner promised to stop by on their way back. They had $7 each to make it to America and back.

A dinner party was under way in Santa Monica; Króner had the Oscar, inside a bag, tucked under his arm. Despite the instructions, he had no idea how to behave in “that terrible America”, so he stuck close to Kadár. At a certain moment, a waiter walked up with a tray of little silver sticks. Thinking it was dessert, Króner grabbed a whole handful. Burning with shame, Kadar told his colleague that those weren’t sweets, but Cuban cigars – worth $25 apiece. But he couldn’t get through to him. Even though he didn’t smoke himself, Króner shoved 12 cigars into the bag with the Oscar.

Paris, again. Instead of visiting Madame Zosia, Klos and Króner end up in a casino. With the $14 they have left they buy two chips for roulette, and after a while they head back to their hotel, penniless. The next day there’s a problem: it turns out that at the airport they have to buy an access ticket for 12 francs. Króner is desperate. He’s ready to give away the Oscar to see his wife and child again, when he suddenly remembers the 12 silver sticks. For the price of seven Cuban cigars, Klos and Króner made it back home.

Still, The Shop on Main Street blazed a trail, leading Czechoslovak cinema into a new era. In 1966, a year after Kadar and Klos’s success, Loves of a Blonde, a film directed by Miloš Forman, still unknown to anybody across the Atlantic, won an Oscar nomination. In 1967, Jiří Menzel got the Oscar for Closely Watched Trains, which over time became the most famous Czech film in the world.

When Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in August 1968, the artists became more cautious, and the network of censorship drew tighter. In the difficult times of ‘normalization’, Barrandov was ruled by the absurd comedies of Jaroslav Papoušek and Oldřich Lipský, whom the communist rulers obviously didn’t have a problem with. Over time, the studio started to serve foreign productions, too. Barbra Streisand shot her Golden Globe-winning Yentl here. Sergei Bondarchuk wrapped up his period drama super-production, Boris Godunov, in the Prague studio. Deals with foreign producers would turn out to be the studio’s salvation.

Porcelain, lost and found

Barrandov’s problems after the Velvet Revolution arose because state subsidies no longer went to films, and profiteers were salivating over the land for development. “There were lots of politicians who wanted to take it over, dismantle it and build themselves villas there, because you have a view of all of Prague,” Haviarová says. “After all, that’s what happened to the Mosfilm studios in Moscow.” In 1991, Barrandov was a step away from collapse. When money and work started to dry up, most of the almost 3000 experienced technical workers lost their jobs.

A controversy broke out, and in 1992 the government finally adopted a plan presented by the company Cinepont, founded by the director Václav Marhoul, who bought up Barrandov for half a billion Czech crowns. After a few years, the studio was taken over by Moravia Steel, the country’s largest metals company, which invested in expansion. New sound stages were built, the old staff was back on the job, but on conditions appropriate to the new era. Now they would work as subcontractors for foreign clients.

When Barrandov returned to favour, producers from Hollywood and Europe started to call again. All of them agreed that they were there for the technical resources and experts, but it’s clear that there’s one more argument: shooting in Prague pays. Producers from other countries – mainly America – could save 30-50% on the costs they’d pay at home. Those kinds of rates are almost miraculously low, so shooting really picked up. The hundreds of titles made here include Mission: Impossible with Tom Cruise, The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon, Casino Royale with Daniel Craig, and recently Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi with Scarlett Johansson in one of the starring roles.

According to Eva Vopěnkova, who’s responsible at Barrandov for renting costumes for films, and who accompanies me to my meeting with Haviarová, the secret of this success also lay in the decoration and props workshops. The former, where furniture is stored, was opened in 1968. The next year, a five-storey warehouse just for costumes was opened. Today, they’re the pride of Barrandov.

Vopěnkova says that in the workshops of Prague you can find historical costumes recreated from old engravings and photos – starting from prehistory and ancient times, through stylish creations, to military uniforms. They include Soňa Valentova’s dresses from Witchhammer, the wardrobe from Forman’s Three Wishes for Cinderella and Amadeus. Not many people know that the pearl of Barrandov is a coat from Ivan the Terrible, made by Sergey Eisenstein in 1944. It was made of the pelts of 27 foxes, sewn with silver thread. The total number of costumes is estimated at half a million. The number of props – from spoons and glasses, through coaches and carriages – is 350,000.

It’s actually surprising that anybody’s able to keep track of it all, but the basic rule at Barrandov is: nothing is ever lost. “I remember one story: about 10 years ago a lady calls me from the Polish embassy in Prague and tells me there’s a big problem,” Haviarová says. “The Foreign Ministry had done an inventory and they couldn’t find a porcelain service for 200 people. The records had disappeared; all that was left was a note that it had been borrowed by the Barrandov studio for the Janusz Majewski film Hotel Pacific. That movie is as old as the hills, but I promised to check the records.” The lost service was found after 45 years; the management board of Moravia Steel is organizing an official handover to the Polish embassy.


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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