Filming With Barrandov

Peter Würt / MERIAN
Filming With Barrandov Peter Würt / MERIAN Back

In the complex of gray houses and halls in the south of Prague, there are dreams being produced as if on a conveyor belt. Foreign film producers compete for Barrandov Studios as they offer an amazing city as a ready-made backdrop.

The unemployed are pushing each other in front of the Labour office in Poststrasse street. There is no beer next door in the Schultheiss-Bier halls. The figures are waiting patiently, their collars erect, wearing their ragged winter clothes. The ghastly-looking faces may only be spoilt by evidence of good nutrition and having been suntanned: the sweat streaks gleam on their foreheads. No wonder because the thermometer shows 31 ° C in the shadow, and it’s certainly ten degrees more in the spotlight. But the 170 men and women standing in line are accustomed to this. They are all registered as extras of the Barrandov Film Studio, and everything that’s happening here is just fiction. The ” Labor Office” in the style of 1920s is in fact the Town Hall for Prague West, the Poststrasse Street is called Podolska street, the red banner unscrewed from the corner – and in the halls of the company Schultheiss-Bier they make Pilsner beer.

They are filming “Spider’s Web,” a novel by Joseph Roth. “It’s a very private story which has the advantage of telling the account of the strengthening influence of pre-fascism movement in Germany in the early 1920s,” says the director Bernhard Wicki, who has been working to get this film made for ten years. An unsuccessful and politically inexperienced young man lets himself be used as a tool for the Nazis and he ruthlessly gains and uses power over others.

Prague was perfect as a backdrop for this film about recent European history. Joseph Roth, whose “The False Weight“ Wicki had already filmed, worked as a journalist for the daily Prager Tagblatt, and he also wrote the last chapters of  “Spider’s Web” in Prague.  Unlike in Berlin, destroyed by the war, in Prague filmmakers still find streets and buildings where the time seems to have stopped. They like the fact that the city is only slowly adapting to the future. For the past 40 years, no windows were replaced, no cat heads were covered by asphalt, the Prague offices of 1989 still look like in Berlin sixty years ago. And painting over or removing a couple of ridiculous signs or removing the forests of TV antennae is just a child’s play for designers and film architects.

They all belong to one of the most famous film studios in the world, the Barrandov Film Studio (FSB). “Barrandov” has a very good name in the world of cinematography. At the beginning of the 1930s Europe’s cutting edge technology studios were founded on the Barrandov Hill. On January 25, 1933, in Studio 1, the first time a film flap could have been heard during the filming of Svatopluk Innermann’s “Murder in Ostrovní Street”. German occupiers took over the studios in 1933 because their own capacity for countless propaganda films was no longer sufficient. By 1945 many German films were created here, films like “Paracelsus” or “Young Girls of Vienna”. Czech-language films were at that time made by the Germans, as Czechoslovak filmmakers went into so-called internal emigration.

Visitors coming to see the Barrandov hill today, reaching Kříženeckého Square 5 lined with birches, have to ask if they really are in the dreams factory. The gray-brown, cold, massive buildings on the square, named after the first Czech director Jan Kříženecký (who introduced cinematography to Prague as early as in 1898), crumble at all corners. There are two red stars hanging over the entrance door. From the outside nothing suggests that glamour and illusions are produced here for the worldwide audience. Both studios from 1933 are still here and are still being used, the third studio from 1937 is used as a synchronization studio. Three huge filming halls built by the Nazis still belong to the largest studios in the world. Because they can be connected together it is possible to build streets up to 110 meters long.


Both the halls and Barrandov’s technical equipment are no longer up to date. There is lack of foreign currency – and modern filming technology is developed primarily in the West. Purchasing anything is beyond Barrandov director Jaroslav Gürtel‘s means. And so one may order a 6,000-watt reflector in Munich costing more than twenty thousand marks, but there is no money left  for a tripod for five hundred marks. A valuable lamp now rests on a hand-forged tripod of an old Russian arc lamp, which can be extended only to a height of 2 meters.

German, French and American producers who decided make a movie at Barrandov and in Barrandov studios know the situation and come prepared: they bring the equipment from the West. For them the real value, besides the architectural diversity of the city on the Vltava River, is low cost labour force that Barrandov can provide. According to the socialist principle if something can not exist it mustn’t exist – there are no unemployed filmmakers in Czechoslovakia. Therefore, instead of the three required light technicians there are even seven of them ready in the shooting spot. Since prices are agreed upon beforehand as a flat rate, no supplementary costs are charged for the extra four and the production is rejoicing. Overall, costs may be about 50 percent lower than in the West. German production teams stand in long lines at Barrandov foreign affairs department to get a filming date. Eighty percent of comissions come from West Germany. In 1987 Barrandov produced films such as “Spider’s Web”, “Rosamunda” or “The Officer Factory” by Wolf Vollmar, production of the last mentioned was estimated at 10 million marks. Almost everyone who has anything to do with this place will sooner or later encounter a man who can afford to do almost anything in Prague: Jan Kadlec, the leader of Barrandov production of more than thirty years. A baroque type figure with silver hair whom nobody can fool.

            He is rumored by the German producers to be able to organize half of the Soviet army in Czechoslovakia as extras in case of emergency. Recently, his team built a whole village on Kadov lake, and while shooting something similar in Germany would seem impossible for the nature preservation act, the situation in Czechoslovakia is not so strict. If the director wants to have a meadow, the trees are cut and he has his clearing. And when a war film requires a house to be torn down, old houses in remediation areas are removed when art demands it.

Because Kadlec is a man who brings foreign currency into the country, he enjoys a really long leash from powerful people. IN the days of real socialism, Kadlec passes through in a metallic Audi 100 Quattro with a Munich license plate. This car belongs to a German company who occasionally films in Barrandov studios and it is parked here as their company car.

Jan Kadlec made it possible for films to achieve world success, such as Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Forman, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring, recalls shooting Amadeus in his old country. The sculptures for Oscar winning piece of cinema originated in the old Tyl Theater and Barrandov Studio 6. Even today, the fantastic costumes are the pride and joy of tailors in Barrandov. There are 45 women and men who constantly make costumes for various productions. Their biggest problem is the provision of material. Where to take old lace and brocade? Buying them abroad is impossible due to lack of money. And supplies from their own country are inadequate. Still, brave seamstresses and tailors are striving to produce stunningly beautiful pieces of costume designs. They spent two hundred hours on a single costume for Queen Elizabeth in “Mary Stuart“. Over the years, more than 250,000 costumes have been placed in the warehouse of the Barrandov Studios. The variety of clothing ranges from (genuine) ermine, female regional costumes and countless Gothic costumes to SS uniforms. Production teams from all over Europe borrow costumes here.

            The collection of props is similarly rich in its range and variety of  items in this socialistic factory for dreams. There are over forty thousand small props on the shelves: from cuckoo clocks to violins, from expensive porcelain dining sets to romantic paintings. A huge warehouse is full of lamps: Czech crystal chandeliers next to neon advertisements. The FSB furniture collection leaves every owner of an antique shop pale with envy, and woodworms think they are in paradise.

There are old carriages: quick hackney coaches and impressive black funeral carriages waiting for another filming day next to the halls with props and costumes.  Behind the furniture storage unit there are two rusty red T-34 tanks and grass grows around them. Modified by plywood and cardboard the tanks have been used many times to fight for this or the other side to fit the script. Rumors surround Barrandov weapons warehouse and unfortunately, it remains off limits. Andy is a light technician and his eyes sparkle when he talks about all the amazing things to be found there. But Andy has a Russian passport and he is a collector of military items. He walks around all day dressed in American military gear, looking like a real soldier of the US Army, and he even uses the right slang. In addition, Andy is in the business of trading things interesting to military fans. Genuine Russian uniforms are exported to the USA. Barrandov’s studios must also take into account its tradition of animated film. The most famous Czech puppet director, painter Jiří Trnka, was in charge of the studio for many years under the name Brothers in T-Shirt, named after three small figures in a striped T-shirt. From 1945 to 1980 there were over two thousand animated films made here. The enthusiasm for cartoons is probably related to the fact that it is also possible to express what would not be otherwise possible in feature films.

Marcela Pitterman is in charge of Production Group IV, which mainly deals with children’s films, they make up almost one third of Barrandov total production. Czech audience think that movies full of imagination have one decisive advantage: they do not get old. The “Proud Princess”, a 1952 film had so far thirty million viewers and that is only in Czechoslovakia. Barrandov Studios also have their own Film Symphony Orchestra with almost 80 fully-employed musicians who record live music in the studio on Wenceslas Square. Czech film composers like Karel Svoboda (Maya the Bee) and Jan Hammer (Miami Vice) are known all over the world, and in the area of film making they facilitated coming together of the West and the East. Barrandov annual budget is 110 million crowns and in last five years they earned extra CZK 38 million on average from foreign contracts. And Glasnost will certainly improve many other things. Jan Kadlec talks about the boundaries of the new freedom: “Of course, we cannot shoot anything that is against the Soviet Union.” All projects must be submitted to domestic dramaturgy, and the studio director has a final word. Erotic movies, or even Rambo III, would not be even considered at Barrandov.

Peter Würt / MERIAN / ISBN  3-455-28903-7