for Tribune: Karlovy Vary 2016 (part one)

Thermal en fete

Who owns film festivals? On one level, we could airily suggest that they are owned by audiences, the little people out there in the dark whose bums on seats keep the show on the road. But in a more literal sense, film festivals are organisations like any other—some of them (like London) run by a film-oriented institution (the BFI), others (like Leeds) part of their city’s tourism department. In the USA, many film festivals are openly commercial entities—as anyone who deals with Texas hipster-magnet SXSW quickly learns.

Karlovy Vary – which has taken place in the venerable Czech spa town since 1946—is, in this regard and many others, a very special case. It was set up as a Czechoslovakian showcase of socialist film art in the immediate aftermath of World War II, most of the screenings actually took place 30 miles away in another spa resort in Karlovy Vary county, Mariánské Lázně—better known to cinephiles under its German-language moniker referred to in Alain Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad.

The festival shifted its emphasis to this Habsburg Harrogate in 1950, but was held only in even-numbered years between 1958-1992—alternating with the upstart Moscow festival which began (after a brief false start in the 1930s) in 1959. Almost literally a “chequered history, indeed.


With Czechoslovakia’s dissolution in 1993, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) again became an annual affair—organised as a joint venture (a joint stock company, from 1998) between the national culture ministry, the city council, and the Grandhotel Pupp. The latter is a 228-room, 300 year old de luxe joint which (supposedly) inspired Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and was (indubitably) used for Daniel Craig’s 007 debut, Casino Royale (disguised as the Hotel Splendide, Montenegro). Other names on the guestbook include Bach, Casanova, Goethe, Beethoven, Paganini , Dvořák, Kafka, Freud and—in the KVIFF era—De Niro, Michael Douglas, Gregory Peck, Robert Redford, John Travolta, Susan Sarandon and Helen Mirren.

Czechoslovakia’s post-1948 Communist government nationalised the joint and it was unsubtly renamed Grandhotel Moskva in 1950—the same year Marienbad exited the film-festival scene. The hotel’s original name was restored in 1989 and it is now a private concern—split 50-50 between Czech Casinos (head office Prague) and Casinos Austria International (Vienna).

Karel Och welcomes Michael Shannon to KV 2016

There’s a thudding historical irony that a festival originally devised along strictly socialist and egalitarian lines should now in effect be part-owned by that most nakedly capitalistic of business concerns, a casino chain. And it’s tempting (but unfair) to draw a comparison between the festival’s urbane, moustachioed artistic director Karel Och and the soigné croupiers who discreetly deal out cards in the Pupp’s opulent interiors—attending any brand-new film is a gamble these days, especially as it may mean missing out on the “safe bets” offered by KVIFF’s retrospectives.

In fact, Och deserves much credit for steadily rebuilding Karlovy Vary’s international reputation since assuming the reins in 2010—in a crazily competitive environment that sees KVIFF vie for world-premieres against daunting rivals including Venice and Locarno. But film festivals themselves are inherently reactionary entities—bluntly hierarchical, heavily dependent on big-bucks sponsorship, complacently trading on (and thus perpetuating) banal, outmoded concepts of glamour. I didn’t attend the opening ceremony, but reliable reports from those who did spoke of alluring women in various states of undress and more than a whiff of decadence.

Hard to imagine anything more removed from the festival’s origins seven decades ago. As Francesco Pitassio notes in A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas, the Karlovy Vary film festival was not enclosed and restricted to an elite, but rather disseminated its programs through a workers’ festival all over Czechoslovakia, where thousands of people could attend the screenings… The festival offered an international program for cultural and political exchange among those who considered themselves to be representatives of a progressive culture under shared slogans: peace, the new man, social equality.

the 2015 KV poster

This optimism was to take a “modified form after the Communist coup d’état in February 1948, Czechoslovakia decisively entering Moscow’s sphere of influence—it was a founding member of both COMECON in 1949 and the Warsaw Pact six years later. Pure coincidence, of course, that KV’s top honour, the Crystal Globe, was won by Soviet productions in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1954.

“Ideologically, Karlovy Vary established itself as Europe’s socialist competitor to Cannes and Venice,” wrote Lawrence Formisano. “After having gained power in Prague, the Communist Party was fully aware of the propagandist potential of film and the importance of this tool in the ideological struggle against the capitalist countries. Despite the restrictions imposed by Moscow, the organizers made an effort, however, to make the event unique and original, a festival that stood out from the others, creating what they defined “an alternative model.””

It’s easy to look back on those now ever-so-distant times with wry disdain—often justified. Interviewed for the festival newspaper, Och remarked, “The element of KVIFF’s socialist era that I find most amusing is that festival co-founder and long-time director AM Brousil regularly appointed himself president of the jury.

Hotel Thermal, a work in progress

The “socialist era did leave one inescapable and seemingly permanent legacy for KV, however, in the colossal form of the Hotel Thermal, which is festival’s heart in every practical sense even if Pupp retains the edge in terms of fancy lodgings and invitation-only after-hours partying. Plonked right in the middle of town on the forested banks of the warm-water Teplá river, the Thermal was designed by husband-and-wife team Věra and Vladimír Machonin and built from 1967 and 1976 on the ruins of the former Chebská Street’s various edifices of historical and cultural interest.

Of a style variously described as Functionalist, International and Brutalist, the Hotel Thermal features a 19-story main residential block with gigantic curved concrete frontages and expansive terraces overlooking the Habsburg frou-frou of the town. Heaven only knows what the locals made of it in 1977, but it now stands as a work of art in its own right, dwarfing mere films in terms of sheer scale and brute longevity. But if the Thermal is a work of art, then so is Karlovy Vary International Film Festival—a collective, haphazard creation of multiple decades and diverse, largely anonymous hands,with many future developments—practical, financial, artistic and ideologicaltantalisingly impossible to foretell.

Neil Young
for Tribune magazine
22nd July 2016
online 12th August 2016

upcoming in Part 2: commentary on a selection of the 2016 KVIFF films, old and new.