Once upon a “pohádka”

Settle down on the couch, it’s time for a dose of Czech fairytales

For young as well as old, pohádky (fairytales) are an integral part of the Czech Christmas holidays. In a time honored tradition, both classic and new Czech fairytales are played on television in the week leading up to Christmas and continuing to run through New Year’s Day. Watching Tři oříšky pro Popelku (Three Nuts for Cinderella, 1973) with a plate of Christmas cukroví (sweets) in reach is a tradition that rivals that of partaking of the Christmas carp.

Unlike other countries where fairytales are entertainment for the youngest viewers, Czech fairytales are a family affair and considered valid, if not essential, entertainment for everyone in the household. While I know of a few Czech families who eat a substitute for the carp, try to find a substitute for the classic Czech pohádka, and you’ll have a tougher time.

In the not so distant past, Czech fairytales were considered the crème de la crème of Czech cinema. These films brought the best directors, actors and artists together to create robust and colorful stories, featuring spunky princesses, dashing, if a touch naïve, princes, bumbling devils and a host of humorous supporting characters. Czech fairytales wrestled with the battle between good and evil, the search for true love, and the influence of magic on ordinary humans. They often taught a lesson or had a moral. During Communism, the fairytales provided an escape from reality without challenging authority.

Some of the most popular Christmas fairytales were filmed more than 60 years ago. Bořivoj Zeman’s Pyšná princezna (The Proud Princess, 1951) is considered the fairytale that first captured the heart of the Czech nation, and Zeman himself rates as one of the most skilled Czech directors of all time. Princezna se zlatou hvězdou (The Princess with a Golden Star, 1959) directed by Martin Frič is another beloved film from that decade.

Although there are dozens of popular Czech fairytales, Tři oříšky pro Popelku directed by Václav Vorlícek stands as number one and has for many years been given the prime viewing slot on the evening of December 24. I spent my first Czech Christmas watching Tři oříšky pro Popelku with my mother-in-law while my husband tried to keep our one-year-old daughter quiet. Although I didn’t understand the importance of watching the fairytale on Christmas night, and I couldn’t decipher much of the dialogue, it didn’t take long before I fell in love with the character of Popelka.

Unlike a Disney princess dressed in ball gowns and glitter, Popelka spends much of the film dressed in a dark hunter’s cloak. She can shoot a bow and ride a horse. Played by Libuše Šafránková, Popelka has long since been considered the epitome of everything a Czech fairytale princess should be – beautiful, courageous, skilled and feisty to boot.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen Popelka in its entirety. In part, because classic Czech holiday fairytales are shown only once (as for Popelka) or up to two times (other classics) a year on Czech television. There are no reruns of Czech Christmas fairytales. If you accidentally schedule a coffee date or take a nap during the showing of Popelka you will have missed your chance until next Christmas.

The rights to air the original film versions are bought from the Czech national film archive in a lottery process. The main networks draw lots for who gets to air which films, and then they pay for the rights to show the films they’ve drawn. DVD versions of most of the classics can be purchased locally (some even with English subtitles), but watching Czech fairytales is a tradition reserved by Czechs for the holidays.

In recent years, the Czech national television station (ČT1) has created a new made-for-TV fairytale that airs for the first time on December 24. This year ČT1 will release three new fairytales on the evenings of the three main days of the Czech Christmas holidays.

First in the line-up is Korunní princ (The Crown Prince), a tale of two princes, one princess and a magic drink (airing Dec 24 at 19:00). The second, Svatojánský věneček (Saint John’s Wreath) is about a princess whose marriage must save the kingdom from her father’s crazy doings. Among her suitors is a poet, identical twins and a marquis whose mother is the goddess of Death (airing December 25 at 20:00). The final film in the trio is called Johančino tajemství (Joan’s Secret), the story of what happens when a girl who missed getting the gifts of luck and love at her christening sets out in the world as a young adult to find her own luck with only Fate as a companion (airing December 26 at 20:00).

Although Czech film critics and the general population, say that the classics of the golden age of half a century ago can’t be beaten (or at least haven’t yet) by modern fairytales, it’s nice to see new and old fairytales receiving screen time this Christmas.

If you ask my children, they’ll tell you that the best Czech fairytales are recent, including Tři bratři (Three Brothers, 2014) directed by Jan Svěrák and Tajemství staré bambitky (The Secret of the Old Pistol, 2011), both starring the twenty-six year-old actor Tomáš Klus. Whether my kids have a soft spot for Klus or just prefer the novelty of a new story, it’s hard to say.

There’s no way better way to make up your own mind, then getting comfortable and settling down for an evening of fairytales.

I know where I’ll be when Popelka’s showing.

In addition to Popelka and the new TV films, ČT1 is showing Tajemství staré bambitky (The Secret of the Old Pistol), Dešťová víla (The Rain Fairy) and Láska na vlásku (Love trembling in the Balance) in the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
For a full listing of dates and times on ČT1 - www.ceskatelevize.cz

TV Nova will show Tři bratři on Thursday, Dec 24, S čerty nejsou žerty (Give the Devil His Due, 1984) on Friday, Dec 25 and Princezna se zlatou hvězdou on Saturday, Dec 26. Start time is 20:20 each evening. During the day, the station will broadcast Czech movies and cartoons for kids, including popular international films dubbed in Czech.

Prima network will broadcast Jak se budí princezny (the Czech version of Sleeping Beauty, 1978) at 20:15 on December 24.

Where to go in Prague with kids for an interactive fairytale experience (plus see Popelka’s original hunter’s costume)

Once you’ve watched your fill of fairytales, take your children for a field trip to visit the Barrandov Film Studio for a behind the scenes peek at how Czech fairytales are made, including footage from the newly released Czech fairytale Sedmero krkavců (The Seven Ravens) and costumes from classics like Popelka and Milos Forman’s international hit Amadeus (1984).

Walk through a photo documentary showing shots from the filming of The Seven Ravens. See how the main characters costumes were made and learn the trick behind how the brothers were changed into ravens. The current exhibition has interactive aspects for children, including games and an art contest.

For a more through look at the history of Czech fairytales, visit the long-term exhibit showing the history of Barrandov Studio from the 1930s to the present day. See the original costumes from Milos Forman’s Amadeus and the Czech all-long favorite Tři oříšky pro Popelku on display for the first time as well as other Czech favorites. The costumes are on loan from the Czech nation’s cultural heritage collection.

Where: Barrandov Studio’s Filmpoint, Kříženeckého náměstí 322/5 (Praha 5)
Cost: 120 CZK individual, Children 4-15 & Seniors 100 CZK, Family 300 CZK
Open: regularly Saturday & Sunday 10:00 – 16:00, (Seven Ravens exhibit only open through Dec 26-27)

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