Big Hollywood blockbusters like “Casino Royale” and “The Bourne Identity” were filmed at Prague’s Barrandov Studios, but didactic propaganda films were also made there during the German occupation and under the communist regime.
The history of the studio and of its founder, Milos Havel (the great playwright and uncle of the former president of the Czech Republic), are both quite complicated, but they lend themselves to some grand historical drama in the six-part “Private Lives,” which premieres on Aug. 25.
Thanks to the policy of appeasement, the then Czechoslovakia was left to face Germany on its own. However, the Germans consider Czech Bohemia to be relatively pure-of-blood and closely akin to their great Teutonic race. Therefore, they promise Czechoslovakia a benign occupation in exchange for their cooperation.
Willy Sohnel, the newly appointed German censor and general cultural gatekeeper, considers Havel one of the key leaders of the film industry, who can help facilitate their new unequal coexistence, so he is quite enraged when the Gestapo arrests him on a morals charge.
Of course, when Sohnel manages to smooth things over, it means that Havel is even more indebted to him. Nevertheless, the studio head will do his best to protect his employees from the Germans, even Jewish filmmakers like the promising young director Jiri Weiss.
Sohnel will also reward his favorites, like ethnic German starlet Lilli Krallova and Vlasta Burian, a sad-faced Buster Keaton-like comedian who made several popular films in Germany before Hitler rose to power. Even though neither believes in the National Socialist ideology, they both agree to participate in collaborationist films and propaganda, to help their friends and colleagues.
Actor-screenwriter Zdenek Stepanek is even recruited to serve as the literal mouthpiece of the regime, to read the statements of submission from figurehead-president Emil Hacha over national radio. However, the experience so disgusts Stepanek that he approaches the underground resistance.
Arnost Zak, a pleasant but ambitious script editor, is perfectly placed to observe it all. For a while, he was Krallova’s lover, but he will fall for Eliska Novotna, a colleague in the studio press office, who is also deeply embedded in the Resistance. As a result, the disillusioned Zak can tell the entire story in flashbacks to his grown daughter in 1968, with a small platoon of Soviet troops ominously camped outside in the courtyard of his apartment building.
The backdrop of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia is no coincidence or accident. Time after time, screenwriter Tereza Brdeckova draws parallels between the occupying Nazi and communist regimes.
In later episodes, characters make the direct comparisons themselves, suggesting there was more hope that things might improve during the early years of communism, but the Germans had the virtue of being more predictable.
Indeed, the surviving Barrandov filmmakers are often bedeviled by last-minute script revisions, thanks to the constantly changing official “party line.” The one truth that emerges in “Private Lives” is art’s incompatibility with ideologies of a totalitarian state.
There is also a good deal of scandalous drama, which makes “Private Lives” quite bingeable. Unfaithful lovers frequently get roaring drunk at wild parties and have it out with their jealous spouses. Eventually, Havel tells his communist interrogators that kind of lifestyle comes with a career in show business.
There is also a lot of intrigue involving studio politics, the occupying powers, and the Resistance, so the series provides quite a broad perspective on the nation’s tragic World War II and Cold War history.
Even though he is only in the 1968 sequences, Ondrej Pavelka sets an appropriately mournful and regretful tone for the series as old, reflective Zak. Michael Balcar is somewhat less compelling as the younger Zak, because he is written as a largely passive figure.
Moral Failings Explored
In contrast, Michal Dlouhy’s performance as Stepanek is richly complex in ways that fully explore his moral failings. Likewise, Judit Bardos portrays all of Krallova’s flaws but also humanizes her.
Jaroslav Plesl’s Havel is shrewd but sympathetic. Ultimately, the series positions him as someone who made a deal with the devil—out of both selfish and altruistic motivations. Yet, there is something especially sad and haunting about Vladimir Javosky’s work as the childlike Burian, who despite his fame and wealth, is particularly ill-equipped to navigate the politics of the occupying regimes.
Each episode runs well over an hour, and the entire series spans roughly 30 years of Czech history, so viewers really feel like they have been through a lot by the time series director Robert Sedlacek brings the epic story to a conclusion.
The investment pays off. It is a tragedy that unfolds, but a compulsively watchable one. Highly recommended, “Private Lives” streams Aug. 25 on Freevee.
Director: Robert Sedlacek
Stars: Jaroslav Plesl, Judit Bardos, Ondrej Pavelka, Michal Dlouhy
Running Time: 6 episodes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Aug. 25, 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5