Returning to Prague, a brush with Nazi history and the rise of Czech populism

My week in Prague sent me back to the past, from shooting Amadeus to my own Catholic upbringing.

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I spent last week in Prague, the first time there since we shot Amadeus in 1983. It seems ludicrous that 33 years have passed since then because the film, of course, is exactly as it was when we shot it, though both Prague and I have moved on.

In essence, it’s the same city, the castle and St Vitus Cathedral as commanding as ever. The cathedral towers over the right bank of the Vltava, its green eaves giving it a dragonish quality, as if the whole great edifice might suddenly swoop down on recalcitrant citizens and scoop them up into some terrible mountain fastness. On the other side, the vastness of Old Town Square, with its various churches, galleries and restaurants, is as wonderfully airy as ever.

In 1983, the Old Town was covered in scaffolding, not for renovations but to protect passers-by from falling masonry. Now the protective cladding has gone and history is everywhere. The architectural Gemütlichkeit, all pastel shades and pretty ornamentation, is contradicted by what we know has happened here. On a corner of the square is Café Kafka, which sounds almost like an oxymoron. But Kafka’s Castle is this castle, his Trial was predicated on these elaborate law courts. It was from these charmingly cake-like buildings, Peter Shaffer pointed out as we wandered around, that until very recently political opponents were summarily dealt with by being hurled out of top windows. “Defenestration, my dear,” Peter murmured, “is the national sport.”

 

A brush with history

It only takes someone to plant a seed of thought about something in your head to fatally change your perception of it. The reason I was in Prague was to narrate Martinu’s startling Epic of Gilgamesh with the Czech Philharmonic orchestra in its superb Rudolfinum hall, which was built in the 1890s. I was marvelling at the building’s glorious interior and its incomparable acoustics when someone said to me, “Yes, and you know the acoustics are thanks to Heydrich.” It seems that the Reich’s acting protector of Bohemia – otherwise known as the Butcher of Prague and the Young Evil God of Death, the organiser of Kristallnacht and architect of the Holocaust – was a highly accomplished musician, and applied himself to the improvement of the Rudolfinum’s acoustics. He hadn’t quite made all the changes he wanted when he was killed by Czech patriots, which set off a string of atrocities that prompted Martinu to write his shattering Victims of Lidice. As we performed Gilgamesh, it was hard not to feel spooked by Heydrich. History.

 

Holy smoke

Yet what I notice on this visit is the omnipresence of saints. Were they hidden in the communist days? Or simply neglected, allowed to crumble and fade? They’ve made a major comeback since then, their haloes freshly highlighted with gold leaf. I suppose it is no great surprise that the Baroque should be my favourite mode of architecture: it is pure theatre, with its extravagance, exuberance and explosive physicality heightened by enhanced expressiveness. It seems to leap off the very walls, each and every apostle stretching out an unfeasibly shapely arm to the heavens, his whole body twisting with joyous yearning.

This sort of thing gets my heart beating faster, plunging me back to my ultra-religious Catholic childhood, when churchgoing was like having a box at Covent Garden. I went to school at the London Oratory, whose mother church was the Brompton Oratory, a fair imitation of a Roman Baroque church. Here in the Czech Republic, the style has reached the point of near self-implosion. The level of ornamentation is out of control, like a form of dangerously luxuriant plant life; it is almost a disease. And I love it.

I love it because it has a go, because the architect has thrown everything at it. Architecture, said Goethe, is frozen music. Stand in the nave of the empty church of Saint Mikuláše and trumpets blaze, choirs soar and swoop, and drums thunder.

 

Just the ticket

I don’t remember any of this from 1983. The whole city seemed subdued, or even subjugated. Greyness was everywhere. The shops were dismal: Parižská Street, which runs from Old Town Square to the river, was a glum succession of colourless, lifeless garments. Now it’s all Jimmy Choo and Emporio Armani. Then, nobody was buying anything in the shops – everything was purchased on the black market.

I remember expressing an interest in hearing the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on its tour of eastern Europe. My chum Milo in the music department said, “Leave it with me.” The day before the concert, he took me on a tour of the Prague underworld, down strange alleyways, into odd bars, one shady person passing us on to the next, until finally, in some den or another, the precious tickets were handed over.

The following evening we attended the concert: it was half empty. We could have bought tickets from the box office with ease and at half the price. But it was ingrained in Milo’s modus vivendi.

 

Power play

Then, everybody with the tiniest vestige of power used it, whether at the hotel desk, or in the studio, or at the railway station, or in a coffee shop. “No” was the default position. That has changed, utterly: everywhere people are helpful, smiling, patient. The customer is always right; before, he was always wrong. Can it be that capitalism makes people nicer? Or is it just competition? In the old days, choice was scarcely an issue, the only alternatives taking it or leaving it. There was generally only one port of call. Now another smart new coffee shop opens every week. And people seem much more relaxed and cheerful generally.

 

A world of good

One day last week, I had a depressed conversation with a man – a film-maker who is in despair as he senses that the drift into Trumpian populism is racing through the country. Indeed, President Miloš Zeman, a former Havelian rebel, was the first European leader to endorse Donald Trump’s new migration policy. This is hardly surprising from the man who has called for a public militia, and for the man in the street to be legally entitled to shoot to kill “aliens” in self-defence. “Every Muslim, from Casablanca to Jakarta,” he recently said, “is a terrorist.”

I fear the Czech Republic is going to need to enlist the services of all of its recently endorsed saints. May the joyous and affirmative spirit of St Mikuláše prevail, ­despite it all.

Simon Callow’s latest book, “Being Wagner: the Triumph of the Will”, is newly published by William Collins

This article appears in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage

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