Prague’s Velvet Hangover : After Their Revolution, Czech Artists Are Up Against the Wall

Share via
<i> Craig Unger is a writer living in New York City. </i>

Martin Kratochvil,the founder of Bonton, Czechoslovakia’s first major entertainment company, sits in his living room, an expansive smile spreading under his mustache. The 44-year-old, blue-jean-clad jazz pianist laughs at the ironies that have made him the leading candidate for the unlikely role of Czechoslovakia’s first entertainment-industry magnate.

“I never wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Kratochvil says. “I’d be happy just playing jazz.” Had he been American, Kratochvil might have been just another overworked musician trying to squeeze out a marginal living in an overheated cultural marketplace. But this is Czechoslovakia, a year and a half after its liberation from communism. The rules are being completely rewritten. Actors and rock stars are running Parliament. Vaclav Havel, an absurdist playwright, is president. Writers, artists and intellectuals who have been silenced for so long now can say anything they want.

And, within the confines of the country’s rickety economy, they are doing just that. Following Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution,” plays, movies, books and records that had been banned, including Havel’s adaptation of “The Beggar’s Opera,” became enormous hits. Investigative articles on drugs, skinheads, the black market, corruption in the Communist Party--all subjects that had been prohibited -- began to appear in the press. Street musicians, previously outlawed, sang Velvet Underground and Doors songs. Scores of new magazines and newspapers, more than 40 new record labels and 1,200 new publishing houses began competing in markets that had been previously subject to state monopolies. On Prague’s vendor-lined Charles Bridge, hawkers started selling the uniforms and buttons of the once-dreaded Soviet Red Army as chic souvenirs.


And, of course, Western consumer culture, taboo for 40 years, arrived in all its glory. Bookstores sold “Fanny Hillova” and a famous epic on the American Civil War by Margaret Mitchellova. Personal computers and fax machines became available, at least to those few who could afford them. With pornography sold everywhere at makeshift kiosks, with movie-theater marquees announcing “Rambo” and “Emmanuelle,” with heavy-metal music selling out of music stores, not all of the change is pretty. But free enterprise is finally here.

“In the States, all the markets are saturated,” says Kratochvil. “But here you can produce chairs, records, hamburgers, anything--just like you could many years ago in the States. You’ll see new Rockefellers and Morgans. Everybody is coming--RKO, CBS and NBC--and they want to buy everything from the Prague Opera on down. They’ll go after castles and ruins and change them into Ramada Inns and restaurants.”

Kratochvil himself has acquired some of the appurtenances of moguldom. Budikov, as his home is called, sits on a hill overlooking a lovely village 30 miles outside Prague and comes equipped with an indoor swimming pool, a satellite dish and a state-of-the-art recording studio--luxuries in a country that had slumbered under communism. And Kratochvil will soon make a trip to the States to buy a private plane. But these indulgences are the result of the hard currency Kratochvil earned scoring movies and playing jazz in the West, and to dwell on them would be to miss the point. Kratochvil is more at home with dissident intellectuals and avant-garde jazz musicians than with Michael Ovitz. William Paley, David Geffen, Martin Kratochvil? No, it just doesn’t fit. But while many Czechs fear the new ways almost as much as they hated the old, Kratochvil is not about to sit idly by as capitalism shakes up his country.

“For 40 years, we couldn’t do this,” he says. “Now that it’s here, I’m like a fish that suddenly found water. So why don’t we take chances and see what happens?”

From the park atop Letna Hill you can see virtually every landmark in Prague. There is spectacular Hradcany Castle, historically the royal residence, now the office of President Havel. Its monumental silhouette is the best-known sight in the city. Below is the Charles Bridge with its avenue of statues of the saints. And there is the majestic Vltava River. The subject of composer Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem, “Ma Vlast,” the Vltava is also where the mythic Rabbi Yehuda Low breathed life into the Golem, a fantastic mechanical monster of mud and clay sent out to protect his community.

Prague is as beautiful as Paris or Venice, but it is only now becoming as familiar to Westerners. Because the city’s 1.2 million residents heat with coal, a layer of soot coats the buildings, many of which date from the 1300s. Untouched by war or rapacious Western developers, Prague has been asleep for eons. Now it’s beginning to awaken.


For years, Letna was referred to as the Stalin Monument because of the 100-foot-high statue of the Soviet ruler on top of the hill. But in 1962, after Stalin was discredited, the statue was dismantled. Below, tucked into the hillside behind massive doors, is a bunker that was to have served as a command post of the Communist government in the event of nuclear war. With the revolution in November, 1989, however, the bunker’s doors swung open. Re-christened the Totalitarian Zone, it became the perfect center for the new youth culture. Cold, unheated, with no bathrooms, the Zone hosted cabaret, theater and rock bands for hundreds of young people sitting around drinking beer.

But revolutions, even ones as gentle and joyous as Czechoslovakia’s, don’t take place without chaos. Today, the doors to the Totalitarian Zone are chained shut again--not by Communists but by the new government. “They say it’s for reasons of safety,” says Karel Srp, a former dissident, now an editor at a new publishing house, ArtForum. “But the mayor really wants to develop it into a department store or an underground parking garage.”

These are difficult times economically--though people may be allowed to do more, most of them can’t afford it--and the arts are susceptible to the same pressures. One might think it would be otherwise, especially for the artists who led the revolution. But while the new government eliminated the old regime’s rigid central control, it has also cut the lavish subsidies the Communists poured into culture. People like Martin Kratochvil are the exceptions, not the rule. Save for a few lucky entrepreneurs, these are sad times,very sad indeed. The elation has dissipated so precipitously that President Havel calls it the “Velvet Hangover.” Books, movies, music--all have to pay their own way. Thousands who worked in the state-subsidized monopolies in publishing, music and film face layoffs. In film alone, nearly 80% of 2,200 people employed by the state will lose their jobs. Hundreds of newly launched publishing houses, record companies and publications spring up, but they go broke almost as fast. Without a common enemy--the old regime--the arts in Czechoslovakia have lost even the cultural glue that held them together. Now that the artists can say anything they want, most of them don’t have the means to say it.

“It’s like an earthquake,” says Radek John, an author, journalist and screenwriter. “For 40 years, there was no way at all to lose your job, and 30% of the people did absolutely nothing. It will take years to recover.”

The transformation of Czechoslovakia really began a generation ago with the reforms leading up to the glorious Prague Spring, in 1968. This was the golden era of Czech film, when movies such as Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde,” Ivan Passer’s “Intimate Lighting” and Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains” won international acclaim. The theaters around Wenceslaus Square, the historic plaza and commercial center of the city, became showplaces for the plays of Havel, Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera. This was to be “Socialism With a Human Face.”

That renaissance came abruptly to an end with the August, 1968, Soviet invasion. Newspapers and magazines were closed down. Hundreds of thousands of dissidents lost their jobs in purges or were imprisoned. Many of the country’s best writers and directors fled, finding fame and fortune in the West--among them Josef Skvorecky, author of “The Engineer of Human Souls,” and Kundera, who wrote “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”


Those who stayed behind faced the choice of cooperating with the regime, going into exile or jail. “I could have left in 1968, but I wished to make ‘Larks on a String,’ ” says Menzel, the 52-year-old director whose “Closely Watched Trains” won the 1967 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Shot before the Soviet invasion but not finished until afterward, “Larks” is the poignant story of a young couple who fall in love in a Stalinist labor camp where a lawyer, a tradesman, a saxophonist and several others are being “re-educated.” It was immediately banned and Menzel blacklisted for about five years. “Officially, they didn’t say I couldn’t work,” he says. “But anything I did was not accepted, and anything they offered me was ridiculous.”

Yet it was the writers, musicians, artists and intellectuals who kept alive the democratic ideals that shaped the Velvet Revolution. Charter 77, the movement’s human rights manifesto, came about as a response to the jailing of members of a rock band called Plastic People of the Universe. In 1979, Havel was imprisoned for activities on behalf of the charter. And after the Jazz Section, a union of jazz musicians, was harassed by Communists for its “subversive” publications, five of its members died mysteriously in prison.

Even with all the repression, some writers and musicians, then as now, were among the most privileged members of society. Until last January, wages and prices had been frozen since the 1950s--villas went for $15,000, a long cab ride cost 80 cents, and an elegant three-course dinner might be $6. But such paltry prices seemed extravagant to Czechs whose salaries rarely exceeded $100 a month. (Salaries have not changed much--when Jeremy Irons took a cameo role in a recent Czech film, “The Beggar’s Opera,” he was paid the standard day rate for Czech actors: 120 crowns, or $3.24.) So artists who were successful in the West and brought back highly prized hard currency were often rich enough to be independent of the regime. “They had the economic independence to be able to say whatever they wanted,” says John. “Yet, since they risked jail by speaking out, they had a moral authority that was absolutely unquestioned.”

As glasnost spread throughout the East in the late 1980s, those who continued to criticize the regime became heroes. Groups of performers known as the Prague Five created plays based on visual metaphors and action, rather than words, to withstand the state’s increasingly restrictive censorship. Theaters such as the Drama Club and Theater on the Balustrade (where Havel had worked) once again came alive with political and cultural activity.

“Art was like a magnet for people who disagreed with the regime,” says Kratochvil. “Going to a rock concert was a political statement. Unity was achieved by having a common enemy.”

Eventually, even the Communists realized that repression was counterproductive. “Being banned only increased our popularity,” says Michael Kocab, whose band was outlawed in 1982, and who, as a member of Parliament, is now in charge of ridding the country of the Soviet Red Army. By 1988, not only were Kocab and his band permitted to play, they were granted state subsidies to make a rock movie.


In a world so barren of enterprise that even small green groceries were owned by the state, a jazz musician was potentially an entrepreneurial giant. “To play music, you have to understand the market,” says Kratochvil. “Even in the darkest days of the Brezhnev era, musicians were entrepreneurs--maybe the only entrepreneurs in the country.”

A jazz pianist who co-founded one of the first avant-garde groups in the country in 1965, Kratochvil was influenced musically first by the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. After attending Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1976, along with his partner, guitarist Tony Ackerman, he explored a wide range of musical styles using acoustic instruments. They were impressed not just by American music but by the way American musicians knew how to produce their own albums.

By the 1980s, having composed the scores to more than 50 feature films and released 18 jazz albums, Kratochvil was prosperous enough to build Studio Budikov, the first digital studio in the country. Budikov was so alluring that the government-run recording companies had to go to Kratochvil’s country house to make digital recordings. But when it came to marketing Kratochvil’s and Ackerman’s records, the state’s incompetence became obvious. “There were either too many or too few records,” says Kratochvil. “The back cover was full of mistakes. Whatever they touched, it was bad.”

“One day I was driving with Tony, and I said, ‘Why don’t we do it ourselves?’ ” he recalls. Already the East Bloc was beginning to crumble. On June 4, 1989, Solidarity won a landslide victory in the first free election in Poland in 50 years. A few weeks later, Kratochvil and Ackerman launched Bonton as a cooperative.

Private enterprise was still illegal, and the state refused to allow Bonton to produce records independently. But Budikov went into action anyway, turning out as many as 20,000 cassettes of several of the jazz and rock records they had produced. Technically, they were outlaws, but by then the Communist government had more important things to worry about. In October, a new Hungarian republic was proclaimed. In the theaters off Wenceslaus Square, Havel began a series of meetings with dramaturgs, exiled philosophers and intellectuals who had been banished to manual labor. With Havel as protagonist and director, the most spectacular piece of improvised theater in Czech history had begun.

On Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall came down. A few weeks later, the Czechoslovakian Communist government fell, too. A period of euphoria followed. A Kocab composition became the tune the Hradcany Palace guard played on state occasions. It seemed only fitting that the new president’s guests would include Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg and the Rolling Stones. Anything seemed possible.


It’s a gray winter day in the restaurant-bar at the Hotel Krivan, near Wenceslaus Square, and about 30 people dressed in the fashions of the ‘40s are dancing to “Begin the Beguine.” A man waves a can of smoky ammoniac powder through the room to heighten the sense of faded elegance. Then Vit Olmer, a 48-year-old, blond-haired man with a thick build, steps up to the mirrored bar. The clapboard clacks and the cameras start to roll. This is the filming of “Tank Battalion,” a World War II story based on the novel by Skvorecky.

Since the revolution, the state film monopoly is effectively over, but new laws that would allow independent production are bottled up in Parliament. Once again, Bonton and Kratochvil have jumped the gun; technically, the shooting of “Tank Battalion” is illegal. This time they’ve hired Olmer to direct the country’s first post-World War II independent movie. “The first and last,” Olmer says with a scowl.

There is virtually no chance that anyone will take action against the movie--though Bonton relishes the possibility. “I would love them to try,” Kratochvil says. “It would be fantastic publicity.”

But that remote threat is not the reason for Olmer’s dismay. His bleak prophecy extends far beyond “Tank Battalion.” The director of “Easy Money” and other successful films, he was blacklisted by the Communists for 10 years. With the advent of glasnost , the state film industry at last began to grant him and other filmmakers considerable artistic freedoms. But now, with a few rare exceptions such as “Tank Battalion,” the Czech film industry is dead.

By far the biggest and most sophisticated movie studio in the East Bloc, Barrandov Film studios was developed in the 1930s by Vaclav Havel’s uncle. After World War II, the Communists made it into one of the finest studios in Europe. Now, with Czechoslovakia’s economic crisis, Barrandov’s 170-million crown ($6.3 million) annual subsidy has been terminated. “As soon as I came here, three months ago, I had to cancel 12 films because of lack of funding,” says Vaclav Marhoul, the new head of Barrandov. “What can I do? I’m not Dracula. I don’t want to destroy Czech film.”

It is not just the absence of subsidies that makes the future of Czech film so dark. Like other sectors of the economy, film faces rising prices, principally in the cost of film itself and of making prints and subtitles. The current ticket price of 10 crowns (27 cents) doesn’t cover the cost of admission. According to Jan Jira, head of Lucerna Film, the former state film distributor, of 2,000 theaters, about 1,400 will fold now that government funding is being withdrawn.


Moreover, 70% of those that survive will be showing the likes of “Emmanuelle” and Stallone’s “First Blood.” That leaves room for only a handful of Czech movies each year. Given Czechoslovakia’s small population, any movie has to be a major hit just to break even. Only the low salaries and shooting costs make Czech movies viable--if they can attract foreign sales.

So far the dearth of subsidies has scared away everyone except Bonton. “Of course I’d rather get money from the state than raise it myself and have nightmares about going broke,” says Kratochvil. “But are you going to sit home and weep? It’s very risky. But we can make a good movie for less than $300,000. We’ve already sold ‘Tank Battalion’ to the Family Channel in the U.S. and can sell it to Germany. That alone covers it.”

Still, the future of filmmaking in Czechoslovakia clearly lies in utilizing Barrandov’s facilities for international productions. Marhoul’s mission is to make Barrandov competitive with Pinewood Studios in London and Cinecitta in Rome. Already, a number of major films have been shot there--Forman’s “Amadeus,” Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” and Steven Soderberg’s soon-to-be-released “Kafka.” Disney and Warner Bros. are considering shooting future projects there.

This is bad news for about 1,700 of Barrandov’s employees, who will soon have to scramble for free-lance jobs on foreign productions. Even those most likely to survive are not happy. Czech movies will have to compete on the international market, and that will change them irrevocably.

Director Menzel has just finished what will be the last government-financed film, “The Beggar’s Opera.” He already has two English-language international co-productions lined up, including one to be produced by David Puttnam, former head of Columbia Pictures. Yet he fears the new system will make it impossible for him to make the kinds of films he has always made. “I wish to make Czech movies,” he says. “Our strength is comedies, movies with sentiment. But now it is necessary to make movies with different foreign countries just for financial reasons. It is not possible to use Czech actors, to speak Czech, to have a truly Czech story. This transition is very difficult. It is very scary.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Mick Hawk, Bonton’s director of international affairs, still tanned from a recent African safari, leans back in his chair at the U Sixtu, an elegant restaurant off Stare Mesto Namesti, the Old Town Square. A mixture of baroque, rococo and neo-Gothic buildings, including the old town hall with its astronomical clock, makes this the most popular part of Prague.


The U Sixtu from the outside, however, is just an unmarked doorway. If you know the right people, however, you will descend into the cellar dining room, with its 40-foot ceilings. There, candlelight flickers off the brass railings. The stereo plays “The Shadow of Your Smile.” It is 9 o’clock, but only two or three tables are taken. Privatization of state-run restaurants has yet to take place, and this is one of those spots that the Party nomenklatura kept to itself.

A recent graduate of the University of North Carolina business school, the nattily attired Hawk is the only American on Bonton’s staff. “The Commies sure knew how to live,” he says. Then he confides, “The other people at Bonton don’t approve of this scene. To them, it’s for snotty rich kids who had parents high up in the Party.”

By American standards, Hawk is a neophyte in the entertainment industry, but here he is an expert. “Bonton started off with some terrific hit records,” he says. “But they didn’t really know what they were doing. They did it for the love of music.” He pauses and whispers conspiratorially, “They didn’t even know about profit.”

But when the computers arrived, Hawk taught his colleagues Lotus and WordPerfect, and all the basic business concepts. “They picked it up overnight,” he says.

Bonton’s biggest advantage, however, was that, unlike the massive state monopolies, it was not mired in bureaucracy. Bonton is a lean operation--with only 18 staffers--especially in comparison to its rival, Supraphon, which is woefully overstaffed with more than 200 employees. Moreover, Bonton, alone among record companies, seemed to have a sense of the marketplace. The old regime had lavishly supported classical music but strictly controlled rock ‘n’ roll. Immediately after the revolution, Bonton released records by the exiled protest singer Karel Kryl and Kocab, cassettes of Havel’s banned play “Audience” and English-language lessons. It obtained the rights to the Rolling Stones and George Michael and arranged for distribution to 2,000 record stores. It won a license for the first private radio station in the country and headed a consortium that is likely to be the first independent television station.

Some established cultural institutions such as Mlady Svet, a popular weekly newspaper, managed to adapt to the new rules, too. “Under the old regime, you had to be affiliated with a communist organization in order to publish,” says Radek John, who is also union chief at Mlady Svet. “We’d been affiliated with the Union of Youth, which was somewhat better than the CP itself. But after the revolution, we said, ‘What do we need these idiots behind us for?’ Then, last September, the entire staff quit.”

The next day, everyone went back to work as usual. Without missing a beat, the new issue came out. But above the logo were the words “VYDAVA AKCIOVA SPOLECNOST,”which means, “Published by jointly owned stock company.”


“Now we, the staff, own it,” says John. “It required no capital investment because we were already profitable. If we had tried anything like that a year earlier, it would have meant prison for sure.”

Few other institutions are equipped to find their way in the developing marketplace, especially now that inflation has hit. For newspapers and magazines, the price of paper doubled in January alone. “We’ve raised our cover price from 3.50 crowns (13 cents) to 5 crowns (18.5 cents),” says John. “And our circulation has dropped from 500,000 to 300,000. If we can get through the next two years, we’ll be OK. But at least 80% of the new publications won’t.”

According to one editor, paper costs have skyrocketed so much that it’s not profitable to publish books unless 30,000 copies can be sold--a huge number in a country of 15 million people. “That means only cookbooks, gardening, or pornography,” says Srp, the former head of the Jazz Section. “Serious literature is out. You can’t make art without paying the rent, and it is not possible to make money in culture now. The arts are dead.”

Around Wenceslaus Square, the theaters such as the Drama Club (Cinoherni Klub) and the Semafor, offering productions such as Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” and Sam Shepherd’s “True West,” recently played to full houses, but regulars say that attendance at other productions has fallen off. And Czechs who insatiably devoured the work of long-banned dissidents are already beginning to lose their appetite. “The first hits were phenomenal,” says Hawk. “Karel Kryl’s record sold 250,000 copies, and Havel’s 110,000.” But a year later, sales of Kryl’s second album fell 85%. Even Havel was not immune. Of 60,000 copies of a book containing three of his best-known plays published last year, 40,000 languished in warehouses.

“When everything that was prohibited suddenly became possible, we were like a mad nation,” says Ladislav Hrase, Bonton’s distribution manager. “Soon these hectic times will be over, and the culture will approach a Western model.”

To create an infrastructure that allows private companies to operate in film and broadcasting is slow and frustrating. “There has never been private broadcasting here,” says Kratochvil. “One day the government will say anybody can get a television channel--even if it is 100% foreign owned. The next day, they decide foreign backing should be prohibited. And on the third, they begin to realize you need foreign capital, so they say, ‘Do whatever you like.’ We’re waiting for them to set up the rules of the game. But they just do not know the issues. They asked us to write the laws!”

“Before the revolution, oppression held us together,” says Kratochvil. “Suddenly, you see it falling apart, old friends becoming enemies. There’s no censorship now, but you see antipathy, discouragement. I don’t know what will bring us together. All I can think of is that just as we tried to fight the old regime, now we will try to avoid the worst excesses of Western culture.”


“We have not yet been flooded by Western culture,” adds Milan Steindler, a director in the alternative-theater movement, the Prague Five. “Once that happens, it won’t take long to develop a new underground protesting the culture of McDonald’s, computers and consumer society.”

Because these are such difficult times, Czech artists sometimes lose sight of the fact that they are still working on their greatest creation.

“It is true that there is not much art right now,” says Kocab. “But the significance of the artist is even greater than before. We are creating a new state. Only when the work is done will the government go back to regular politicians representing various parties, pushing one another around. And then we can go back to art.”

In the meantime, they will have no choice but to survive a period that, psychologically at least, can be even more frustrating than fighting the old regime. “Everyone knew that many people would have to lose their jobs,” says Mila Holubova, a writer and dissident who was one of the signers of Charter 77. “But not them ! People said it would take five years or 10 for the transition. But to live those five or 10 years!

“It reminds me of the story of Moses and the Red Sea: A few days after the Red Sea parted, it was hot, people had to work, and everyone was complaining. The same is true here. Everyone is complaining. But we have a free press; we have free speech. Our revolution was a miracle.”