Tuesday was a state holiday in the Czech Republic, the Day of Czech Statehood, which marks the feast day of the patron Saint Václav, or Wenceslas. While it has always been a red-letter day for Czech Roman Catholics, who commemorate the martyr’s murder in the year 935, it is only in recent years that the date has gained in political significance. This year the office of the government marked the occasion with a special ceremony to return an 80 year old film epic about the holy monarch to the screen.
The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra plays the rediscovered score of a nearly forgotten milestone in Czech cinematographic history. The film “Saint Václav” was the largest production ever made for the screen when it premiered in 1930. With an unheard of budget of four million crowns – drawn in part from the first-ever state grant bestowed to a motion picture – the silent film’s cast of 100 included big names from home and abroad and more than 5,000 extras were on hand for lavish battle scenes. Such was the enthusiasm to mark – what was then believed to be – the millennium anniversary of the death of Saint Václav (elsewhere sung of as the Good King Wenceslas), in 1929.
However, the film bombed. It missed its original release date and when it came to the cinema a year later, audiences were already used to “talkies” and the silent Saint Václav was largely ignored. Eighty years later though, the second premiere of Saint Václav got the attention it was intended for by a gathering of VIPs in Prague’s Rudolfinum and live broadcast on Czech Television. Prime Minister Petr Nečas spoke of the importance of Saint Václav before the lights went down.
“The veneration of Saint Václav is among the oldest traditions of our history. His legends were a part of the dawn of Czech literature, his likeness was the subject of artwork from the Middle Ages until modern times. All of the turning points in the development of Czech statehood can be seen through the tradition of Saint Václav, to which the nation has turned since time immemorial, particularly in times of peril... Prince Václav stood at the inception of the process of Bohemian unification and the transformation into a solid state body.”
The attention paid Saint Václav by statesmen is a recent trend in the Czech Republic, where commemorations of the prince and patron saint were long the domain of the Church alone. “The Day of Czech Statehood – Saint Václav” was only introduced in the year 2000 at the initiative of the Christian Democratic Party, and efforts were since made at the legislative level to secularise it, eventually dropping Saint Václav from the official name. And while the previous two governments made increasing efforts to note the day, this year’s commemoration seems a full return to the recognition of the patron saint of the Czech lands. Prime Minister Nečas punctuated his speech on the traditional importance of Saint Václav with what could only sound like a prayer.
“Saint Václav, Duke of the Czech Lands, we turn to you to assist us in our deeds and so that the Czech Lands may prosper, so that your nation may be content and so that we live in peace and friendship with our neighbours. Thank you.“
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