Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Lída Baarová, Goebbels' only true love: film

We went to see the new Czech movie, "Lída Baarová" ("Devil's Mistress" in the U.K.), about the most famous Czech actress before the war (along with Adina Mandlová) and Joseph Goebbels' mistress.

At the end of the trailer, the old Baarová (not really her...) says: I have loved a criminal. But that isn't a crime by itself, is it?

It's a romantic film that also says quite something about one of the faces of the Czech nation, the face that was highly compatible with the German Nazism. Spoilers are all over the place.

Ludmila Babková (which was her original name) was born in Prague, Austria-Hungary, in 1914. When she was 20 or so, her friend Miloš Havel, the uncle of the late president Václav Havel and the owner of Lucernafilm, pre-war Czechoslovakia's largest movie corporation (the guy who built the film ateliers at Barrandov; this wealthy homosexual was assaulted as an alleged Nazi collaborator by the commies after the war), had a wonderful news for Lída: UFA, a top German film company, hired her for a new movie.

At the beginning, they laughed at her accent when she tried to pronounce the letter "B". However, she got a personal coach so after a few months, her German was more Berliner than the German of 90% of people in Berlin. Baarová's articulation, singing, and dancing made the German filmmakers enthusiastic. Try to check this singing of the actual Baarová in a 1938 German movie, she was pretty hot (well, the voice belongs to the German soprano Hilde Seipp; try Baarová's real singing in Czech movie The Fiery Summer). She finally starred along with Gustav Fröhlich, a top German actor and an idol of German women (played by German actor Gedeon Burkhard), and they got engaged, too. It was a Brangelina-style wonderful couple, they went skiing to Davos, bought a villa, and so on. Shortly after she arrived to Berlin, she received a BMW so that she doesn't have to show her ludicrous toy car from Prague.

At one moment, Hitler and Goebbels (Austrian actor Karl Markovics) visited those film studios in Berlin. The filmmakers tried to hide Baarová (Slovak actress Tatiana Pauhofová) but Hitler and Goebbels simply couldn't overlook her. "Who is this lady?" Hitler ask in his boring voice (Pavel Kříž, ironically known as a shy student from movies about "poets", starred as Hitler and he looks amazingly similar, indeed; here, Hitler learns that Kříž stars as him and indeed, that Kříž is Jewish). It was revealed that she was a Czech actress. "You must be really good if you got the job instead of dozens of wonderful German actresses." A bit tense conversation but it worked great for Baarová.

Baarová was invited to the Führer's office to have some tea, he had a crush on her, too. He plays a vinyl record with Wagner's Valkyrie to her, almost touches her, and then says auf wiedersehen. ;-) She pretended to be annoyed by this interest from the Nazi leaders but she was actually really happy about these interactions. But Goebbels got really obsessed about her. And the movie claims that she loved him, too. This is arguably the most controversial point of the movie. Critics – like my fellow cinemagoer – claim that she only cared about the power so she wasn't "really" in love with the ugly hobbling minister of information. She only tried to make herself look better in her memoirs, I was told. I tend to believe that she really loved him and the movie is fair on this point. Young women may fall in love and if they start to think that Goebbels has a "sexy brain", using the phrase by Czech ex-PM Jiří Quimby Paroubek, they start to love him, too.

Goebbels' backing has brought her (and even the film studios where she worked) lots of advantages (not to mention extra funds). At one moment, she asked Goebbels to keep an Austrian Jewish actress who was supposed to be fired. Goebbels almost immediately agreed: the Jew could continue. Gradually, Gustav Fröhlich is learning about her relationship with Goebbels, and the Fröhlich-Baarová romance is decaying. At some moment, Baarová becomes a 100% Goebbels' mistress and she is happy about that new role. The first intimate scene is full of fire – literally. My fellow filmgoer thought that the visual effects were kitschy (and the filmmakers tried to replace the genuine power of the actors) but I think that such scenes are expected at least in Hollywood movies and I don't think that the Czech movies should be ashamed to be "like" the Californian ones.

Goebbels' wife Magda is gradually learning about the relationship of her husband and she is rather calm about it. At some moment, she understands everything and decides that it's her duty (vis-a-vis the German nation) to preserve the exemplary German family – and make her husband happy, too. Magda invites Lída and makes an offer: Magda would still be Goebbels' wife and the mother of his kids; Lída would be his mistress. They sort of agree.

(At some moment, because of her deep relationship to Goebbels, Baarová also turned down a huge offer from Hollywood. She could have easily become more famous than Great Garbo. Or not.)

Something goes wrong about this contract at some point – I forgot what was the problem – so Magda decides to fight for her husband again. She visits Hitler. He says that he understands why Goebbels fell in love with Baarová. But the decision made at Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" retreat in the German Alps (we were there some years ago) is to "order" Goebbels to terminate his relationship with Baarová and fully return to his family. Goebbels begs to be allowed to leave all jobs in the state and the party or to become an ambassador to Japan etc. but Hitler is firm. Goebbels cries – his mental breakdown looks a bit comical but it may have been an honest portrait of the event, anyway – and calls Baarová to tell her about the terrible news. We will never meet again. She's rather devastated, too.

She tries to commit suicide (by jumping under the train) but a man saves her – an assistant from the film studios named Hans Fischer who (also) had a crush on her. They drive through the German streets during the Night of the Broken Glass. Again, the effects are rather intense here (the trailer shows you a few seconds). Lots of glass is broken, lots of Jews are killed etc. Baarová looks at the scenes from the comfort of their car. Again, the controversy is: Did she actually misunderstand what was going on in Germany?

Fischer allows her to escape Germany. She has to repay the debt to him. Fischer doesn't want any money. OK, so what does he want, she asks? Do you want me to kiss you? No, Fischer's dream is to caress Baarová's breasts. Baarová feels happy because such a request is not a problem for a Czech girl at all. ;-) So there's a breast caressing scene ended by Fischer's happy pronouncement: "Now I can finally die."

Baarová returns to Prague in the early protectorate era. Some of her partly jealous Czech colleagues mock her. Meanwhile, her skillful dad has built a wonderful new villa at Hanspaulka, a luxurious suburb in Prague (where the Václav Klaus Institute is currently located), from the money she previously brought. The dad was arguably the most positive character. He loved his daughters – including Lída's sister, Zorka Janů – but he was also greatly skeptical about the Nazi regime and Baarová's path in life. Baarová's mother (Czech actress Simona Stašová) was very different. She was a not quite successful artist obsessed with her career – and with her daughter's fame and salary. Lída was supposed to achieve what her mother couldn't. Baarová's work for Germany, Hitler, and Goebbels was a cult for Baarová's mother. When the dad (Czech actor Martin Huba) or the sister tried to say something less than enthusiastic about Nazism, she would abruptly terminate their opposition. You know, this mother's character represents that of many Czechs, too.

During the protectorate years (1939-1945), Baarová would be hired in several Italian movies as well as Czech movies which were more modest than the German movies she was used to.

In 1945, the war ended and unfortunately for her, she was just in Prague at that moment. (Goebbels and his wife Magda committed suicide in Berlin when the Soviet soldiers were miles away from them, after they poisoned their five kids. Fortunately, these events were only written on the screen in this movie about Baarová.)

As you can imagine, Baarová had some legal troubles when Czechoslovakia was recreated. She tried to escape to Germany but she was caught by the U.S. army and extradited to Czechoslovakia. The beautiful palaces and film studios especially in Berlin were replaced by dirty and ugly prison cells and communists' offices (but don't forget that the communist totalitarianism only began in 1948). All the investigators believe that she would be hanged. And in fact, she is already standing in a queue and several of her fellow prisoners have been executed. At this moment, someone brings a letter from the Czechoslovak minister and she gets a pardon.

Her dad managed to call Mr Prokop Drtina, the non-communist justice minister in the pre-totalitarian era (1945-1948, the "Third Republic"), and Drtina succeeded in freeing Baarová. Baarová's daddy had to sacrifice his leg (amputation) to save his daughter's life because he had to leave the hospital at a critical moment when he was supposed to fight against an infection in the leg. (Previously, Baarová's hysterical mother dies during an investigation. Her sister Zorka – a regional actress whose career was ruined after the war because of her sister's relationships – committed suicide in 1946, by jumping out of the window – or from the corner of the ship-shaped roof, like a bird, in the movie.)

She starred in several more movies in the late 1940s and the 1950s, then she spent some years in theaters. But she retired afterwards and she basically considered 1945 to be the end of her life. She died in Salzburg, Austria in 2000, at age of 86. The movie is framed as a story she is telling to a young Czech Jewish girl who writes her PhD thesis about the mistress of the guy who sent her grandparents to the gas chamber. The PhD student and old Baarová agree to meet on the following day but Baarová dies before that point. The last moments of this old lady are accompanied by the ghost of Joseph Goebbels – the greatest love of her life – who turns her lights off.

The PhD student said that she was planning to write a clear thesis about evil but at the end, she had to realize that things are not quite as simple.

The movie makes you think about lots of ethical issues – about the relationship between love, power, egotism, envy (and lots of jealousy in the Czech lands). I guess that the movie honestly reflects something like a characteristic Czech moral relativism of a sort. Good and bad people are on all sides, most Czechs tend to believe. Hitler, Goebbels, and colleagues have done lots of unforgivable things. They were also human beings who could fall in love, appreciate beauty, and who made many things in Germany work very well.

And many of the people – I would especially pick Goebbels' wife Magda – had really strong character and ability to sacrifice their personal happiness to something bigger. I think it's fair to say that these are virtues that aren't too widespread in Czechia. Sometimes, this immediate pragmatism of most Czechs seems like a great advantage, too.

But Filip Renč, the film director, makes it clear in this interview in Slovakia that he really hates the Czech opportunism – "where wind there coat" (what's the English form of the proverb?) – and the movie was partly a criticism of this widespread feature of the Czech character. By the way, Filip Renč received a controversial award from President Zeman a year or two ago – partly because he's close and shot a campaign video for Zeman (who is mining energy from the trees LOL). I think the movie on Baarová is enough to see that Renč is a skillfull enough professional. And yes, I do think that many of the negative critiques are a revenge by the Prague Café for Renč's links to Zeman.

Top singer Lucie Bílá's 1930s-style song shot to promote the movie, "When the angel is dancing with the devil".

The movie is currently #2 (almost tied with #1, Alvin and the Chipmunks) in the Czech box offices but it is receiving unspectacular ratings from the critics.

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