History closely tied with Europe's political upheavals
To the European film industry, the name Barrandov signifies something different from what it may to Stateside producers — even for those who have shot here.
THE EARLY YEARS (1931-37)
Purpose-built in 1931 by Vaclav Havel (father of the future president) and his brother Milos, the enterprise was intended to be the continent’s answer to Hollywood. Named for the French scientist Joachim Barrand, who discovered trilobites in the area where the studios now stand, the miniature city with 15 soundstages and a nearly 200,000-square-yard backlot is still one of Europe’s epic production spaces, if hardly the most high-tech these days, even for Central and Eastern Europe.
Although the founders had grand visions, much of that scale, weirdly enough, resulted from the urgencies of war and the following four decades of communist control.
The Havel family may have launched Barrandov under the aegis of Milos Havel’s AB company (A for “American,” his early film distrib shingle), but it was the Nazis who expanded on that vision.
THE WAR YEARS (1938-44)
Worried that German film studios would be bombed, Hitler’s propaganda master Joseph Goebbels seized on the chance to launch a massive agitprop machine in the relatively safer Czechoslovakia after the Reich invaded in 1938.
Three huge stages, the New Halls, including the still-busy stages 5, 6 and 7, which can be joined into a massive 12,445-square-foot space, were started, and — although they wouldn’t be complete until after the war — the Germans regularly cranked out films in an effort to spread their vision of the ideal Aryan society.
Stanislav Motl’s 2006 history of the Nazi’s influence over the studio, “Clouds Over Barrandov,” chronicles some of the most surreal episodes of the time, including the downfall of Czech ingenue Lida Baarova. The star of 1939’s “Girl in Blue,” helmed by Otakar Vavra and co-starring the dashing Oldrich Novy, found herself so much the object of Goebbel’s affection that she was eventually banned from Germany, where her career had been blossoming, and Hitler himself chided his message minister on the importance of faithfulness to wives.
Another low point was the 1938 censorship of “White Disease,” adapted from Karel Capek’s book of the same name, which predicted the rise of totalitarianism through a metaphor of an incurable pandemic.
As Goebbels said in November 1940, “We have to be either enemies or friends. We can be terrible enemies but very good friends.”
The liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Allies in 1945, incredibly, did not see Barrandov returned to its original owners, and a ruined Milos Havel immigrated to Munich, never to return to his homeland. The Soviet-dominated Czechoslovak central planners simply took over the reins — although wily Czech auteurs invariably found ways to create gems that transcended the regime’s narrow aims.
“Shop Around the Corner,” the compelling 1965 portrait of anti-Semitism by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, and “Closely Watched Trains,” Jiri Menzel’s 1966 adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel, are just two of the classics that emerged from the compromised system.
Incredibly, so did the Czech New Wave, in which the films of young, unorthodox rabble such as Milos Forman, Vera Chytilova, Pavel Juracek, Jan Nemec and Evald Schorm found their voices — and caused shifts in perspective for followers far beyond the hills of Barrandov’s sleepy Prague district.
Throughout the 1980s, Barrandov cranked out some 30 films per year, along with most of the content for state-run Czech TV, including a dozens of fairytales, many still loved by millions of Europeans at holiday time ( “Three Wishes for Cinderella” by Vaclav Vorlicek never fails to air).
But well before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Western film folk were slowly opening gaps in the Iron Curtain, from Barbra Streisand, who shot “Yentl” here in 1983, to Forman, by then a U.S. resident, who returned to lens “Amadeus,” incorporating the streets of Prague’s historic Mala Strana district, in 1984.
Not long after the fall of communism, the studio, often with the help of smaller, savvier production service companies, shook off its reputation as a gray workhorse, drawing in the likes of Tom Cruise for the first “Mission: Impossible” in 1996. That was followed up by a string of monster and action films, including “Red Tails,” exec produced by George Lucas, and the fourth “Mission: Impossible” pic — but with art films such as Emir Kusturica’s 1995 “Underground” or Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1998 opus “The Barber of Siberia” never far from the fold.
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