Author, playwright and journalist Zdeněk Mahler - part one

11-02-2009

For this edition of Czechs Today I met octogenarian Zdeněk Mahler, born and raised in Prague’s Industrial Vysočany district. Over the last three quarters of a century, Mahler has repeatedly found himself involved in some of the country’s best-known cultural exports. He helped prepare the famous winning Czechoslovak exhibit at the Brussels Expo in 1958, and lived and worked with a certain Miloš Forman throughout the period of the Czech New Wave.

In fact, Zdeněk Mahler has so many strings to his bow, that this is just the first of two Czechs Today dedicated to the journalist and author. A relative of the famous composer Gustav Mahler, Zdeněk was raised the son of a blacksmith, and thinks himself lucky to have survived the Second World War:

“When you look at the lists of Czech people who died in the concentration camps, then you find that there are around 25-26 Mahlers. Our side of the family survived only because one of our grandfathers had a falsified baptism certificate. He was baptized when he married our grandmother, but his certificate was doctored so that it looked like he had been baptised at birth. It wasn’t possible at that time to be all that truthful, when it was a matter of life or death.”

After graduating from university, Zdeněk took a job in Czech Radio – it was the early 1950s, which was an exciting time to be working in Český rozhlas’s hallowed halls:

“I was in a section of Czech Radio which was headed by a Doctor Kolář, he was a wonderful man, a natural scientist. A real expert and a good man, and in all of the departments around me there worked Ludvík Aškenazy, the author, Ota Pavel, the author, Arnošt Lustig, the author, Karel Kyncl, Pavel Kohout, Václav Čtvrtek who came up with the fairytale character Rumcajs. And they were all communists, you see – but they all had real beliefs, real ideas, visions, dreams, some might say utopian dreams. And these ideals, of course, started to be tarnished as we gradually realized that we were being taken advantage of.”

Mahler left the radio to work at the Ministry of Culture and Education. He was there for five years, until 1960. Despite being thrown out of the Communist Party just under a decade later, and working to orchestrate its fall in 1989, Mahler remembers those days at the ministry fondly:

“I worked there as the minister’s press secretary. The minister was Profesor Kahuda, who was originally a chemist and physicist. He was a communist, but he was someone who was able to within the framework of the Communist Party openly say what he thought. He got an invitation to UNESCO’s general conference in Dehli, India, and because at that time I was still able to more or less speak English, he asked me to come with him. And what’s more, I was sent to cover the event for Czech Radio as well, so I flew out before the conference to prepare things in advance. And I stayed on afterwards, because I have to say, that the minister was terribly kind to me, he was like a second father, and he let me stay on and travel and write a book about India.”

The book was called ‘Indický hlavolam’ (‘The Indian Puzzle’) and was published in several languages. It was re-released in 1990:

“I tried to equate all of the things that I, as a young person, brought with me as baggage from Europe – and then what I was confronted with in this other world, in India, which was steeped in Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. So these were all the things I saw. And I was really happy that I got to see something outside of the narrow world we were living in.”

Back in Prague, it was Zdeněk’s work to showcase Czechoslovak culture, for the Brussels Expo of 1958. For this he cooperated with Prague’s Laterna Magika theatre, where he was to continue working throughout the years:

“We started preparing the Czechoslovak exhibit for the Expo. And this happened at an exciting time – in ’56 Krushchev had made his famous speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin and already by 1958 these creative people - architects, artists and curators – were already feeling able to express themselves. So we made this exhibit which showed that people, real people, lived in Czechoslovakia. Of course, the Russian exhibit was a gargantuan, muscular effort – and no one was interested in that sort of art any more. The Czechoslovak exhibit was really original, and we won a number of medals. We had new technology, combinations of film and theatre and so on – and so we won in the end. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, because these chief ideologists then told us that the Soviet Union should have won these medals.”

'Amadeus' by Miloš Forman'Amadeus' by Miloš Forman Mahler wrote books and plays, but he also worked on films. He has enjoyed a life-long cooperation with perhaps this country’s best known director, Miloš Forman, who was an old school friend:

“After we finished university, Miloš and I lived together on Kampa in Prague, in a little house with two rooms, one was his, one was mine. And we stayed there for around seven or eight years – and of course we ran our ideas past each other. I told him about what I was writing and doing in the theatre, and I saw his films. In fact, I would say that those films he made here, I knew about them and saw them first, even before they were made. Because Miloš would come and play me snippets, and I would read extracts to him.”

One of Forman and Mahler’s best-known projects is the Oscar-winning Amadeus, a Czech-American co-production:

“We worked most of the screenplay out in Miloš’s house in Connecticut and in New York. And that was how we developed the script, then the question was where to shoot the film. In America, the production would have cost around 75 million dollars. If we had shot it in Austria it would have cost around 35 million, because it was a historic film and so we would have had to have taken all sorts of things down from the street and put up lots of decoration to restore these places to the way they used to look. And so little by little, the case for shooting it here in the Czech Republic grew. If it were to be shot here then Miloš would be surrounded by friends and former colleagues, and the whole thing would cost around 15 million dollars. And so the American crew and all the actors came over here, and we spent the whole period in which the film was shot, which was around eight months, together.”

Today, Mahler makes films himself, mostly documentaries about Czech composers – including his own forebear Gustav – for Czech and international audiences. He says that one of the odder productions he worked on was an unfinished film about Antonín Dvořák funded by Dodi Al-Fayed. But more on Zdeněk Mahler, and his prolific output over these last 80 years, next week.

11-02-2009