Name any films made in the Czech republic? The question sends the mind reeling in the direction of vaguely remembered black and white art films, obscure satirical pre-Prague Spring comedies or historical dramas, that possibly-maybe were filmed somewhere in Prague. Or perhaps pop videos from Boyzone, Blue and Celine Dion come to mind.
The answer is actually much easier and quite surprising – Think of Amadeus. Mission Impossible, Casino Royale. How about The Bourne Identity?
All these blockbusters and many more besides were filmed not 20 minutes south of Prague city centre, at the massive Barrandov Studios, perched on an escarpment, overlooking the Vltava river.
Away from the hurly burly hen and stag party infested heart of the Czech capital, this enormous site sits largely unvisited like a Hollywood star recluse. The studio exhibition for casual tourists is only open at weekends, and then for only four hours each day from noon. Longer tours and visits to the costume store have to be booked. But hit it on the right day, and you might even get a personal tour by the curator.
The Barrandov studio was apparently never meant to be. Founded in the 1930’s by the Havel Brothers, one of whom was the father of the future President. The plan was for an up-market housing development on the prime real estate. At the last moment, someone suggested adding a film studios, to add a touch of glamour. It was the start of a journey of 80 years, and the production of a staggering 2500 Czech films.
The Barrandov district took its name from the eminent 19th century French geologist, Joachim Barrande, who made a life-long study of fossils in the nearby limestone cliffs. It’s fitting then that one of the studio’s first and most famous films was ‘Journey to the Beginning of Time’ which used ground breaking special effects that would give Jurassic Park a run for its money.
During the second world war, the Nazis feared their propaganda studios in Germany would be bombed, so Goebbels moved in, building several new studios in the process. Likewise the Communists spotted its value when they eventually came to power.
Its creativity was unleashed again in the years leading up to the Prague Spring, with directors such as Miloš Forman - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest and Amadeus - cutting their teeth on satirical movies such as ‘The Firemen’s Ball, ’ a biting critique on the Communist regime. The film was ‘banned forever’ by the Soviets after the 1968 invasion.
After the Velvet revolution, it once again fell into private hands but the need for profit brought it to the brink of closure.
Today the studios comprise the largest soundstage in Europe, outdoor lots, 260,000 off-the-peg costumes, and 65,000 props including 10,000 items of furniture, 7000 guns and 30 thousand carpets!
The list of major films made there is staggering, helped by government subsidies to attract business, plus ready-made film sets in the shape of Prague’s relatively unspoiled architecture. Celine Dion’s video for her 1996 hit ‘It’s all Coming Back to Me,’ which remains one of the most expensive videos of all time, coming in at $2.3 million, relies heavily on the city’s Gothic appeal.
And yet, this Czech dream factory remains remarkably unknown and off the beaten tourist track. But for me, maybe that’s its appeal?