KARLOVY VARY, Czechoslovakia — In the heart of Western Bohemia, just 80 miles west of Prague, stands the monolithic Hotel Thermal, 15 floors of plate-glass Socialist modernity and home of the 28th International Film Festival of Karlovy Vary. Known for centuries as the magical spa town of Carlsbad, Karlovy Vary was long a favored place of pilgrimage for Russian aristocrats, European royalty, and the wealthy and famous from across the Continent who came to drink from the mineral waters that rise in springs throughout the region.
Since 1946, pilgrims of a different sort have had a reason to travel here. In that year, the first International Film Festival of Karlovy Vary was organized--the same year the Cannes festival was founded.
Throughout the first decade of the yearly festival, even after the Communist takeover in 1948, stars and directors such as Billy Wilder, Roberto Rossellini and Luis Bunuel came from all over the world in increasing numbers, and the festival grew in importance through the golden era of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s.
The festival flourished in those years, despite the fact that in 1957 the Soviets, having launched a festival of their own, decided to make Karlovy Vary a biannual event, alternating it with somewhat more lavish ceremonies in Moscow.
The mood at this year's festival, held last week, was animated but far from optimistic. Most of the journalists covering it were Czech or Slovak, with a cross-section from Western Europe, and many gathered nightly around the lounge TVs to watch the latest announcements as the country moved steadily toward separation into two independent republics.
The tone of the festival was boldly set by its president, the distinguished director Jiri Menzel: "As a result of the well-known situation in the past, the festival has lost a lot of its reputation. Its long tradition has been spoiled, as almost everything else in this country."
Indeed, the problems and strengths surrounding the Karlovy Vary festival reflect the general condition of the country.
Pavel Cerny is president of the East European Film Office. Its main offices are in North Hollywood, but Cerny, 46, has been traveling back and forth for years, representing U.S. films and expending a great deal of energy, most often at his own expense, promoting East European film in the States. "Every European star used to come here," Cerny says. "At 14, I remember watching Claudia Cardinale's bosom falling out of her dress. I was absolutely in love."
Most of the festival winners then were Soviet or Czech; second- and third-place honors often went to Hungarian, Polish or East German productions. (One exception: "The Salt of the Earth," a proletarian film banned in the United States during the McCarthy era.) "Nevertheless," says Cerny, "it was the only place you could see films outside of competition. It was our main connection to the current foreign cinema."
This year, there were enough Czech, Slovak and international celebrities in attendance to feed a steady stream of press conferences, though festival organizers were disappointed that others, such as Barbra Streisand and Dennis Hopper, whose participation was tentatively announced, did not attend. Producer David Puttnam arrived for the opening weekend, which featured a screening of the 1966 film "Marketa Lazarova" by Frantisek Vlacil. During the week, directors Jan Jost, Lizzie Borden and the Coen brothers introduced several of their recent films. (When asked by a Czech journalist why there was so much blood and fire in their films, Ethan Coen replied: "I guess it's a color thing.")
The serious problems facing Czech cinema--and by extension those of Eastern and Central Europe--seemed to have been distilled in a couple of films in particular. One of these, "Martha and I," was directed by octogenarian Jiri Weiss, the preeminent filmmaker spanning the years between World War II and the Czech New Wave of the 1960s. Weiss, who left the country after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and later obtained U.S. citizenship, waited 20 years to make his next film, financed only after stars Michel Piccoli and Marianne Saegebrecht committed their talents.
Set in prewar Prague, it tells the story of a Jewish doctor and the maid who eventually became his wife. Filming began before the 1989 revolution and finished in the following June, giving the cast a firsthand view of the profound changes that shook the country in those months. Saegebrecht, first seen by U.S. audiences in Percy Adlon's "Bagdad Cafe," recalls the first few weeks of shooting with tremendous emotion: "Everyone said to me, 'Marianne, don't talk. Be careful--the driver might be working for the secret police.' They said there were microphones everywhere, maybe even cameras. After a while, you become totally uncomfortable. But I said, well, my words are free. Eventually we all became great friends."