“Prague never seems to let go of you, this mother has claws. We ought to set fire to it at both ends, and maybe then it might be possible to escape.”
It was at about 6:30 in the morning when I decided to give up on the half sleep I’ve been attempting since boarding an overnight bus in Brussels about ten hours earlier. Constrained by budget, but also a sort of laziness in not wanting to excessively plan every detail of my trip, I decided to book a student tour that took care of all the essentials. The cost might not have been too heavy on my wallet, but the physical heaviness and disorientation I then felt as we crossed the German border and into the Czech Republic, was enough to curse my choice of travel and second guess the entire trip. The ride itself was further aggravated by a particularly aggressive angry haus-frau type lady bus driver. I also did not think through the type of students who would undertake such a torturous tour or how they would cope with a lack of sleep and ten hours on the road, which essentially turned our tour into a hell ride with increasingly drunken Erasamus students hosting a make-shift party on the bus, with the bus driver at least once every fifteen minutes screaming out through the intercom to tell some one to sit down, and at one point even attempted to leave a portion of the group behind who took too long at a rest station in Germany. By the time morning came, the party may had died down, but the lingering smells and resentment from the night before left me seriously questioning why I put myself through such an ordeal.
Within the hour the sun began to rise and the road opened up to us, giving me my first real view of the surrounding countryside, and it was at that point I began to realize that the destination would be well worth the journey. I have a passing knowledge of Czech cinema, as much as any general cinema survey had provided me with, which means I knew about Czech expatriates such as Milos Forman and Miroslav Ondříček, and mostly through their later Hollywood work. However about a week before I jumped on that bus which took me into an endless Eastern European night, I watched two films at the Ghent International Film Festival that piqued my interest in going to the Czech Republic.The first was Eat that Question, a documentary on the life of one of my favorite musicians, Frank Zappa. Both musically, and more importantly his efforts to battle censorship have in a great many ways influenced the underlying philosophy within my own research on film censorship at the turn of the last century. The documentary features an extensive thread that covers the cult-underground following of his banned albums by young Czech students in the 1980s. After the revolution in 1989, Zappa was invited to Prague and celebrated as a national hero. Although I do not have the clip available, here is footage from Frank Zappa’s last in person concert. Here you can see a people energized and hungry for change, open minded, and ready for new ideas and the chance to tear down the old and build up the new.
The second film was a special restored screening of Ikarie XB-1 with my CIMS colleagues at the Ghent Film Festival. The film premiered in 1964 and it’s black-and-white aesthetic is truly gorgeous. As I read up on the film afterward, I learned that certain film critics argue that the look and feel of Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have been possible without this monumental influence. Moreover, it turns out that Kubrick even toyed with titling his film Ikarie as well, but out of reverence to the source material decided to distance himself from it.
The surreal nature of Czech science-fiction is not limited to the 1960s either. One of the earliest and greatest works of futurism was a play titled Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) by Karel Čapek. This work is credited with being the first time the concept of a robot was introduced into popular consciousness. In fact the entire plot of the play centers around the chain of events that lead up to, during, and after a robot uprising that exterminates
the entire human race, with the exception of one man. As Simon Pegg’s At the World’s End astutely points out, the word ‘robot’ in fact originates from the Czech word for slave. Capek’s influence also likely extends from the figure of the Golem from traditional Jewish folklore. (Prague has one of the oldest Jewish Quarters in continental Europe.) Of course another famous contemporary of Capek, Franz Kafka, made his own contribution to surrealism and reactionary writing to the dehumanizing aspects of modernity and the rise of the bureaucratic state. This clip from Orson Welles’ dizzying adaptation of The Trial in essence helps to summarize the over complicated structure of Czech society, as well as how its people attempt to cope with its constant identity pull between Eastern and Western Europe.
So as my sleep-deprived and disoriented self joined my student group on an arduous forced walk-tour through the city, led by a disinterested young girl, with even less sense of direction or interest in the surroundings than my fellow hungover passengers. Yet in looking back, especially with my knowledge of how Prague has been presented by literary and cinematic elite, this slightly off-kilter introduction to the city was perhaps the best way to learn about it. Over the next three days, however I would begin to un-peel each of the contrasting layers of this fascinating city. From the Soviet-block architecture in the outskirts, to the beautiful Baroque city center, there was so much to take in.
From my first taste of hot wine to trying goulash, to the surreal street performers (which included raving glass walkers, fire eaters, and asshole whistling robots), I could certainly sense the fascinating fusion of cultures that emerge in a cross-road city such as Prague. As my Instagram pictures will attest, the dizzying nature of the city was all at once entrancing and strange.
One of the absolute highlights my wanderings through the city was a visit to the John Lennon Wall. In 1988 on the 30th anniversary of the failed 1968 coup, young Czech began to write grievances on the wall, which would lead the groundwork for the Velvet Revolution roughly one year later. The movement these students followed was described ironically as “Lennonism” and Czech authorities described these people variously as alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism. (Sound at all familiar yet?)
The wall continuously undergoes change and the original portrait of Lennon is long lost under layers of new paint. Even when the wall was repainted by some authorities, on the second day it was again full of poems and flowers. Today, the wall represents a symbol of global ideals such as love and peace. The feeling of walking along it’s ever-changing graffiti, with fellow-free spirits who have an open and compassionate mind, all the while having buskers playing Beatles’ hits and Lennon’s solo work, was transcendent and did much to help to restore my faith in the human race as I prepared for another potentially disastrous 12 hour bus ride. So in reflecting further on Capek, Kafka, Zappa, and Lennon, I can understand how and why Prague has recently been considered within the film industry as “The Hollywood of the East.” It is a city of stark contrasts of Germanic, Russian, and nationalist influences, that dizziness and uncertainty, along with a fascination with the great cultural freedom fighters of the 20th century is very much why Prague will never let go of you. About a week later I went and watched Stephen Soderbergh’s at times confusing and disorienting, Kafka (1991), and yet after visiting Prague and walking the Charles Bridge for myself, certain aspects of his film, and the four artists mentioned above all seemed to come together in a certain synergy. The atmosphere of the post-Soviet Czech Republic, juxtaposed with a recreation of modernistic past, demonstrates why Prague continues to be one of the most fascinating and confusing cities in Europe.