BY MILOS STEHLIK
Famous for centuries as a spa, the western Czech town of Karlovy Vary was once known to the world as Carlsbad. This is both because it was founded during the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and because its proximity to Germany places it in the Sudetenland, which once had a significant German-speaking population.
Karlovy Vary is set in a beautiful valley surrounded by woods bisected by the Tepla (translation: warm) River. It is filled with colonnades that shelter 16 mineral springs, each of unique mineral composition and temperature. The river and the surrounding 18th and 19th-century houses create a beautiful scene.
On one end, the town is bookended by the Grandhotel Pupp. Originally built in 1701 but expanded and rebuilt by a Viennese architect at the turn of the 20th century, it is filled with ornate plasterwork and grand mirrored ballrooms. You might recognize it from the James Bond film Casino Royale—the Pupp (named after its original owner) is the hotel at which Daniel Craig and Eva Green stay.
Food in Central and Eastern Europe is too heavy for many, but the scene has changed—there are now Asian and vegan places to eat. One of the best new restaurants is Le Marche, which offers a daily fixed menu, mostly locally sourced, in a small restaurant next to a Hussite church.
If you do overindulge, hotels and clinics offer spa treatments under a doctor’s supervision, and large spas offer everything from mineral to mud baths to massages to special therapies. Many famous people took their cures in Karlovy Vary, some of whom are commemorated by plaques or statues, including German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Russian Czar Peter the Great also came, staying in what is now the Hotel Salvator.
Apparently, the Czar’s cure was so successful that he built an Orthodox Russian church in Karlovy Vary as an offer of thanks. The church fell on hard times but has been lovingly restored by Karlovy Vary’s significant Russian tourist and resident population.
At the other end of the Karlovy Vary spa zone is the Hotel Thermal. It’s a classic piece of brutalist Soviet architecture with some ’60s modernist touches inside. Used for many years by Communist Party Congresses, its multiple theatres and meeting places make it ideal for the home of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, now in its 53rd year.
The Festival opens every year with a live choreographed stage show, this year stunning with gymnasts descending to the stage on a decorated wheel, all bathed in nationalistic colors in keeping with the 2018 theme commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918.
The typically quiet town is packed when KVIFF comes into town. Some people come for the Festival’s many parties—the Festival opening and closing are now enforced black-tie affairs, astonishing in a country whose fashion sense until recently was best known for its socialist blandness. But thousands of young people come, drinking and partying until all hours of the morning, camping out in the woods and watching films.
The Festival is internationally recognized as an “A”-level festival (along with Cannes and Venice), holding a number of juried competitions and awarding prizes. This year, Tim Robbins received the Festival President’s Life Time Achievement Award and gave an impassioned, political speech, widely reported for his calling President Trump a “child monster.” Another highlight, as part of the Festival’s closing, was an award to actor Robert Pattinson.
The top prize, though, went to a remarkable Romanian film by Radu Jude, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians. The film takes on Romania’s role during World War II in which Romania sided with the Nazis and murdered 480,000 Jews, the second highest number after Germany. This is a topic not much discussed in Romania, but Jude makes this an urgent contemporary issue by “reconstructing” the action in an outdoor performance piece.
KVIFF is the best place to see film production from Central and Eastern Europe, which is often neglected by other festivals. These films often take on tough topics. Jumpman, by Russia’s Ivan Tverdovsky, centers on teenaged protagonist, Denis. First abandoned by his mother, who places him in a “baby box,” he is later kidnapped by her from the orphanage, becoming a “jumpman”—jumping in front of moving cars. On such driver is then extorted for large sums of cash by a system in which the investigating police officer, ambulance driver, doctor, prosecuting and defense attorneys, witnesses, and judge are all in on the game. Very well acted and produced, the film is a bleak portrait of contemporary Russia, where love, compassion, and human connection take the back seat to cynical exploitation.
Argentine actress/director Ana Katz received a Special Jury Prize for her Sueno Florianapolis, the story of two psychotherapists on vacation in a Brazilian beach town where their relationship becomes intertwined with the owner of the house they are renting and its family.
The Best Director Award went to Olmo Omerzu for his Winter Flies. The film is a road movie with two teenage boys on the run in a stolen car from their small hometown. Both of the boys are nonprofessional actors who deliver outstanding performances, remarkable for their authenticity.
The shadow of the “big” neighbor to the east, Russia, is never far away, as in Best Documentary Feature Award winner, Putin’s Witness. Directed by Vitaly Mansky, a Russian filmmaker now living in exile in Latvia, the film uses the footage he shot when he had unprecedented access to Putin as he succeeded Boris Yeltsin in the Russian Presidency. It features remarkably intimate moments—the almost impenetrable wall surrounding the always-controlled Putin reveals tiny bits of openness.
Film continues to bear witness to and tell the stories of our day, remaining one of our most powerful outlets of the modern world. And it is festivals like this that help transmit these messages on a broader scale.
See you in next year in Karlovy Vary?