Star of stage, screen and TV for five decades in the Czech Republic, Jiri Bartoska is best known outside his home country as president of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, which wrapped its 50th edition July 11. Bartoska, 68, has overseen the fest since its privatization a little over 20 years ago. But long before that,Variety noted his presence in Frantisek Vlacil’s “Shadows of a Hot Summer,” which took top honors at Karlovy Vary in 1978.
What were things like for Czech actors in 1978?
There was a different situation for theater actors and film actors. Theater actors did classic repertoire. At that time, the theater filled in for all the media outlets, which were entirely at the service of the regime. It was usually sold out, because people could compare their current situation with those classic scenes, and find truth in them. With film it was a bit different: Film was a product of the times; it was by and large propagandistic, and the topics dealt with were generally uninteresting. But aside from that, a great number of comedies and high-quality crime films were made that enjoyed high audience turnout and popularity. We as actors would say: We are theater actors, but we make our livings with film and television. In the big cities like Prague and Brno, where there were TV studios, actors had the chance to make extra money with series or dubbing jobs, but the situation in small, regional theaters was very bad.”
Theater provided both creative and political sustenance?
At that time, a group of colleagues and I had the good fortune of making it from a regional theater to the Theater on the Balustrade in Prague, which is where even future president Václav Havel started out in the 1960s, first as a stagehand and later as a dramatic adviser and playwright. After the revolution in 1989, the theater hosted Havel’s first premiere of “Largo Desolato,” where I had the lead role. The Theater on the Balustrade had a privileged position in a way. We worked with Evald Schorm, one of the main figures of Czechoslovak cinema’s new wave. We had the good fortune and Evald the misfortune of being banned from filming, but he could work in the theater, and thanks to that a lot of outstanding performances came about. So the Theater on the Balustrade had a sovereign position, but most importantly it performed sovereign drama.
You were on your way to an acting career when the Soviets invaded in 1968, and shut off the freedoms that fostered the Czech New Wave.
The occupation started while I was studying at the Janacek Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, and naturally our youth amplified the whole situation. Over the four years of my studies, they sacked a number of professors who didn’t fulfill the political requirements. It left us with a feeling of defeat on the one hand, but on the other also a feeling of defiance — that fighting it out in the theater was worthwhile.
A decade later, were things opening up again?
Domestic productions had very little leeway, but their charm lie in the way they looked for all kinds of allegories and symbolic representations to express themselves. Vera Chytilova made the film “Prefab Story” (1979), the story of a housing development where nothing works, which was an allegory for a state where nothing worked. If she had been able to express herself directly, maybe that film wouldn’t be as interesting. In this way, the viewer became kind of a co-writer, and was excited to discover what the director really wanted to say. In that regard it was an interesting period. A lot of people would say back then: “If only we could…” Suddenly after 1989 though, everyone ‘could’, but very few political films were actually made. Because freedom is tough! Freedom is a wonderful thing, but it’s hard to get by in, especially when a person has lived under totalitarianism for 40 years.
When did you first visit Karlovy Vary?
I used to go as a student of the Janacek Academy. It was also then that I first saw Frantisek Vlacil. In 1998, the Karlovy Vary festival awarded him the Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema and Vlacil died only a few months later. My film career had essentially started in Karlovy Vary in 1978 with his film, and for me, the circle was complete when I presented Frantisek with an award as the president of the festival.
The movie “The Lives of Others” provided a stark portrait of the arts in East German under communism. Were there similarities to the situation in Czechoslovakia?
The situation was similar throughout the “Eastern Bloc”, but in Germany it was probably more dramatic and tense because the Germans were conscience-stricken for having first committed such a catastrophe of global proportions, and then the country is suddenly cut in two. And one part was the “good” side, the one said to have been shooting into the air at Stalingrad, and the other was the evil Western one. West Berlin was inside East Germany, so there were more opportunities for the two countries to confront each other. They could watch Western television and that of course increased the tension, whereas we lived in a relatively isolated environment and it was not as on edge as in Germany.
Directors like Ivan Passer and Milos Forman left Czechoslovakia to build careers in the West, but other important filmmakers stayed behind. Did you consider leaving?
Passer and Forman were directors. As an actor I was held back by my language. And also there are lots of cases, like Pavel Juráček, or another director of the new wave Jan Němec, who emigrated and discovered that they weren’t the cosmopolitan type, and that living and doing creative work in a foreign country was hugely difficult. They came back and the regime really let them feel the pinch, and they couldn’t work here either. With the world-renowned cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček it was a different story. He lived here in Bohemia but had the opportunity to shoot abroad. That’s a different case altogether. So I really never considered emigrating. And I really didn’t want to find myself in a position like Jan Tříska, who emigrated as an actor with status and then played the role of the foreigner in B-movies. Another case was Martin Štěpánek, who was later a broadcaster at Radio Free Europe. I actually don’t know of any actors who emigrated and were as successful in their careers as Forman and Passer.
Who were your filmmaking heroes, actors, directors, writers, both in Czechoslovakia and outside, such as Europe, Asia, USA?
At the time when I started paying attention to film and was looking to it for answers to questions that the system didn’t offer me, I was very deeply influenced by Italian cinematography, although the selection of films at the time was carefully overseen. France, for example, enjoyed a more amicable perception here because it had a powerful communist party at the time, and so a number of wonderful French films made it to Czechoslovakia. With American films, we always got instructions beforehand about how to understand them, which was amusing, because as soon as we got this information then we immediately knew how we were really supposed to understand it. I was fascinated with Hollywood in the 1970s as it was the time of the famous story-films, which I miss in today’s Hollywood – now they make more comics. And I envy American actors the opportunities that television broadcasters are giving them, creating miniseries that offer truly magnificent topics and tremendous roles and challenges for an actor. They are very lucky. In the Czech Republic, television lacks screenwriters, and the stories produced are grey and banal.
What was the role of Karlovy Vary and Moscow Fest back in the 70s?
Political, of course. When you look back at the history, the festival was won by films with from socialist or developing countries, it gave out a ridiculous number of ridiculous awards so that each such film would win something. It was really just a political billboard. But in the early 1960s, when things loosened up a bit, important people started coming – Henry Fonda, Peter Fonda, Tony Curtis, Claudia Cardinale, Richard Attenborough, Monica Vitti, directors Ken Loach, Carlos Saura or Bernardo Bertolucci.
Can you describe the general mood in Prague and in the film, theater, TV communities at that time?
For example, we performed Kundera’s version of Jacques the Fatalist – Jacques and his Master, which was a big political act, because you realized how the spoken text is able to put name to things, and most importantly to put names to them in a group. It’s one thing to read something at home, to be alone with it and struggle with it, but it’s something else to see it in the theater with three hundred others, all of whom suddenly feel a sense of solidarity and know they are not alone. The power of collective perception is tremendous – to feel fear, enjoyment, to be moved in a group of like-minded people. We are now performing the 38thseason of that show in the theater. And there has been something very interesting about it – people’s reactions to the text. Before 1989, we knew exactly when the applause would come, when we would need to pause… 1989 came and suddenly there was no reaction where we had expected one before, because now the media was working, and didn’t need a stand-in. But then people found other things entirely in the text of the play. People are like sponges, absorbing what they need and what they lack at given times.
What was the main thing in your life and career in 1978?
It was definitely my engagement in the Theater on the Balustrade, which was something of a preferred stage that demonstrated that it wasn’t true that some things weren’t allowed. So the theater went on tour to England, to East Germany, to Moscow, on state holidays we didn’t have to play the obligatory things and we played Ionescu, Beckett, Shakespeare, Russian classics – Chekhov, Dostoevsky. It was really what a theater should be, unfortunately though it was the only one, and the other theaters could only envy us.
What was worst thing about that time?
Those days were grey, as if under a blanket. It was schizophrenic. One thing was said in public and another thing at home. The generation that grew up at that time as children probably still bears the stigma. It was a problematic time, but people went on about their lives. A person is born to live out their life. Our grandmother attended dance lessons during the Second World War, and she said there was no more beautiful time of her life. She fell in love and it didn’t matter is there was a war raging. People lived their lives, and you can’t say ‘It was a terrible time, let’s cross it out’. We can’t cross it out. We had to live through it. The problem is, the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence. If a society gets silted up for 40 years, it will take 40 years to cleanse it. No one in Australia today asks if his ancestor was brought from Great Britain 200 years ago with a ball and chain on his leg. Society cleanses itself and functions properly, and I believe that the same thing will happen in our country.