Czech Republic, 2011
98 Min, Color

DIRECTOR: Jakub Hejna
PRODUCER: Jiří Konečný
SCREENPLAY: Jakub Hejna, Barbora Příhodová
CAST Josef Svoboda
EDITOR Jakub Hejna
MUSIC Anthony Phillips

Josef Svoboda in the 2011 film documentary "Theater Svoboda"

The most riveting scene of Theatre Svoboda — the feature-length documentary film about the famous Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda — takes place when the playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel confesses to having destroyed a set created by Svoboda for an opera.

The scenery, Havel says, was simply no good. An actor could not perform in front of it or behind it, he explained. Havel and a friend were hanging out at a pub when both men decided to sneak out the back door, run to the theatre unnoticed, destroy Svoboda’s set, and then scamper back to the pub in the nick of time. Neither the police nor Svoboda ever discovered who ruined his work. Svoboda simply had no choice but to create a whole new design. And until this film was made, the embarrassed-looking Havel had never publicly fessed up to having committed such a destructive deed.

Theater Svoboda, the only Czech documentary dealing with Svoboda’s life and work, compellingly gives flesh to an icon. The film quietly chips away at rock-hard giant whose name and fame absolutely precede him. It is neither a hagiography or a sentimental tribute. The filmmaker, Jakub Hejna, is the grandson of Svoboda. Although they lived in the same house, Hejna did not know his grandfather well, because Svoboda did not talk very much, and he was always working abroad. Hejna was 25 years old when Svoboda died. These elements explain the obsessive distance from which Hejna views his own dark personal legacy — and the artistic legacy of his grandfather who was always more respected abroad than in his home country.

Picture and Bust of Svoboda from "Theatre Svoboda" | Courtesy of Endorfilm

Josef Svoboda was born in Čáslav. Originally trained as a cabinet-maker, he studied interior design at the Special School of Interior Architecture and architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, he co-established the Grand Opera of the May 5 Theatre and soon became the theatre’s chief stage designer. In 1948, he joined the National Theatre and from 1950 served there as an artistic and technical manager. He became an artistic director of Laterna Magika theatre (known today as the New Stage Theatre or Nova Scena) in 1974 and its managing director in 1992. He died after a long disease in Prague on April 8, 2002.

Co-written with Barbora Příhodová, Jakub Hejna’s film gorgeously evokes the metaphoric spectacle that marked Svoboda’s scenography. All throughout, the delicately tough film unravels for us the images, scenographic ideas and heart-stopping productions that catapulted Svoboda to prominence. Plentifully, the film offers the luminous interviews Svoboda gave in which he illuminated his theatrical practice.

And yet the film also deeply complicates and darkens Svoboda’s luster. We are shown, for example, Hejna’s feelings about how his grandfather treated his wives as a servant. At the same time, the film shows us the love that women in Svoboda’s life continues to burn for the man and the artist. We are vividly exposed to the possibility that Svoboda might have been an informant of the Communists. Svoboda’s desire to rub elbows with Czech and famous international artists (Alfred Radok, Otomar Krejča, Laurence Olivier, Leonard Bernstein, Peter Brook) forced him to quietly acquiesce to the Cold War politics of the day. At the height of his international fame, Svoboda, the film testily suggests, had a few skeletons in the closet.

Cross and chair scenography by Josef Svoboda from Theatre Svoboda | Courtesy of Endorfilm

Nevertheless, the film never simply condemns. It never stints on showing us the theatrical fruits of the creative freedom which had outlived Svoboda’s complicated political allegiances. Reminiscences from people who knew Svoboda, and his family and friends, along with archive footage, are gradually pieced together to form an image of a man totally committed to his chosen profession. Svoboda became the most influential scenographer of the 20th century, because he contributed to the introduction of the concept of “scenography” as an equal component of theatrical performance. His massive use of light as a construction material for the stage, for instance, helped to conceive the highly progressive discipline of light design.

Through canny juxtapositions with film excerpts from Svoboda’s legendary productions (for instance, Romeo and Juliet, National Theatre in Prague, 1963; The Ring, Covent Garden London, 1974-5; Faust, Teatro Picolo Milan 1989-91), Theatre Svoboda always reminds us of the artistic purity Svoboda held dear and the Realpolitik costs he paid to achieve that purity. This is a quietly powerful and profound film that every scenographer in the world — and every student of Communist-era art and politics — must see. — By RG

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