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Ode to Karlovy Vary

Ode to Karlovy Vary

It was my first visit and for those readers unfamiliar with KVIFF, or why one might want to attend in future, herewith a few random observations, historical notes, and user tips. KVIFF is the largest film festival in Eastern Europe, but obviously can’t compete with top international festivals for the top premieres. What it offers instead is a genial, more relaxed environment in which to see them later – it’s a great place for even critics to catch up with films they’ve missed – and a beatific setting in which to spend a few days.  
Over the past 50 years, there have been periodic calls for the festival to relocate to Prague, which on one hand makes some sense and on the other makes as much sense as the Cannes festival relocating to Paris. For the uninitiated, Karlovy Vary, AKA Karlsbad in its German days, is a renowned spa town dating to 1370, when it was founded by and named after Charles IV, King of Bohemia. Located in the mountains some 80 miles west of Prague, KV is almost perfect for a festival of this nature. Spread along the warm, meandering Teplá River, it’s home to 13 major hot springs and an absurd number of beautiful buildings, basically the entire historic downtown – neo-baroque, secessionist, art nouveau, art deco. Nothing is too far away, one and a quarter miles between the festival’s two major sites. 

READ MORE: “Bob and the Trees” Tops Karlovy Film Fest Prizes

Perhaps the best word to describe both town and festival is a German one, gemütlich: cozy, comfy, snug, homey. It would be crazy to move the festival to Prague but they should consider renaming it – even German friends didn’t know where Karlovy Vary is until I mentioned Karlsbad(!) The festival actually makes fun of its anonymity in one of their trailers, when Harvey Keitel tells a New York barkeep that he’s just back from Karlovy Vary and gets a clueless shrug in response. Given all of this, KVIFF should instead be called the Bohemian International Film Festival. For one thing, it sounds cooler. For another, it would be excellent to have a festival known as BIFF. Finally, the acronym could be shortened to BFF, because it’s that kind of festival.

READ MORE: Best of Karlovy Vary Fest, from ’45’ to ‘Heil’

They are funny and soulful and sexy. Granted, it’s a spa town but they seem to have a relaxed sense of time, strolling very slowly in and across and around the streets in a way Germans would never think of doing. This is refreshing unless you are in the back seat of a fast German car and are late to a screening; then it’s just annoying.

A lovely aspect of KVIFF is its car service for participants and some journalists. BMW donated a fleet of 64 cars this year, including some electric, driven by drivers hired from all over Czech Republic. One of our drivers was an accountant who works the festival every year and considers it a vacation. It’s understandable because for a week, the drivers have a lot of power, and practically live in these big black Beamers. Plus they get to ferry celebrities such as myself around. How much does all this cost? Gas and diesel alone amounted to more than $40,000.

Festival central is the towering functionalist Hotel Thermal (tare-máll). Functionalist, which should be self-evident, is Czech for ugly and serves as a reminder of communist days, when people thought it a good idea to tear down really beautiful 19th-century buildings and put up something massive and gutter grey. Termite architecture, a friend called it, which brings to mind Kafka. The Thermal was designed by the husband and wife architectural team of Věra and Vladimír Machonin, which just goes to show what happens when married couples work too much together: bland, heavy, complex. All this said, the Thermal functions (!) remarkably well, even if I was still getting lost in its endless, artless spaces after a week. It features a grand hall, where the opening night ceremonies were held, and there are several small screening rooms upstairs – and lots of other rooms, cafes, and a bar called Hell (more on that below).

READ MORE: Richard Gere Gets Another Tribute at Karlovy Vary: He’s Having a Moment

At the other end of town and the spectrum stands the wondrously neo-Baroque Grandhotel Pupp. Imagine the love child of Steve Wynn and Liberace, and you’re close. The Pupp, its current incarnation designed by two Austrians at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century and an inspiration for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is kind of like its own little city, with bars, cafes, a restaurant, party rooms and a movie theater. How amazing it was sitting in the opulent Pupp Cinema to watch “Embrace of the Serpent,” Ciro Guerra’s black-and-white film about an Amazonian shaman meeting a dying German scientist, Theodore Koch-Grunberg, around the same time the hotel was completed in the early 1900s. Well-known guests at the Grandhotel Pupp include Karl Marx (1874), Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Wagner, Antonin Dvorák, Franz Kafka, and Queen Latifah.

You’ve heard about the waters, which come from deep springs below. They have various temperatures, and taste a bit like water mixed with baking soda. Not particularly good, in other words, but you get used to it. Porcelain mugs with little sippy handles are sold around town in all shapes and sizes and themes, including one in the shape of a toilet, which gives an idea of one possible effect. (According to one source, pardon the pun, the lower temperatures have mildly laxative effect, the warmer temperatures are more generally relaxing.) Locals and visitors alike walk around town and its parks slowly sipping from their handles. Go ahead, buy a mug – this may be the closest you’ll ever get to the 1890s.

I knew about the peat baths from several reliable sources, i.e., women. I took one at the Alzbetiny Lazne spa, where a nice lady told me to take my clothes off and get into the big stainless steel tub that appeared to be full of coffee. I got in for a 15-minute soak in the mineral water mixed with peat. That’s all the time they give you because the minerals in the peat – which is gathered some 40 miles away and from deep down – are cooking you, apparently. I felt little except that after about ten minutes, I did notice that perspiration was streaming down my face — profusely. After the soak, the nice lady returned, ordered me to lie down on the platform, then covered me in heavy blankets for a very warm and somewhat claustrophobic ten minutes, after which I emerged like a butterfly from its pupae, renewed. As its primary benefit is the joints, repeat visits are recommended. Cost: $19.

READ MORE: The Grandeur of Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds in “Mississippi Grind”

There is a subset of quasi-alcoholic known as the festival drinker, not to be confused with the festival smoker, who is usually the same person after three drinks. Every culture has its silent killer beverage and in the Czech Republic it is Karlovy Vary’s own Becherovka herbal bitters, known in German days as Karlsbader Becherbitter. A secret mix of herbs and spices – it has a golden hue and tastes a bit like cloves – Becherovka was developed in the late 18th century by one Josef Vitus Becher. Warning: Becher fathered 16 children by two women, which may have had something to do with his middle name or Becherovka’s 38% alcohol by volume (76 proof), or both. As far as I know, I fathered no children in Karlovy Vary, but then after the night that ended at the bar in the Hotel Thermal, I don’t entirely remember everything. I think the bar is called Hell; it certainly felt like it the next day.

Located in the basement of the Grandhotel Pupp, its circular stairway guarded by two burly bouncers, Becher’s Bar provided free warm meals to festival participants and some lucky journalists. As my father always taught me, never look a gift goulash in the mouth.

Miss a screening? No problem, just book some time at one of the video library’s multitude of computers. Almost all of the films in the festival are available, and it’s a great way to check out a film you’re unsure about. It’s also a great way to skim through a film you’ve heard really bad things about. Don’t quote me.

Besides the waters and the spas and the architecture and the Becherovka, KV is known for these sweet round wafers called oplatky. About ten inches wide, they come in several flavors, including vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut, and can be brought fresh and warm (best) or boxed. When living out of a hotel, having a box of triple-layer chocolate oplatky around can be a life-saver and/or a very bad idea. 

And then there is the thin round cinnamon-roll thing cooked over coals on a big wooden spit. You know, that. It’s really good. 
Finally, there is the giant white-chocolate and banana crepe that our friend Calum bought, thinking somehow that he had ordered a pizza. Just a translation issue, hopefully. Well, in Canada, no doubt that passed for a pizza.

The Czech Republic is one of those countries in which you are not expected, or even necessarily wanted to speak the language because, well, you will screw it up and things will take much longer than if everyone simply speaks English. Though not everyone does speak English. In any case, translation is ubiquitous at all KVIFF events, which keeps things at a pleasingly moderate pace. My one language lesson was fittingly cinematic: the d in dēkuji (thank you) is pronounced like Django (Unchained). Djeh-quí.

As great as my week in Karlovy Vary was, I have to say that I heard the worst music in my life, mainly from car radios stuck on one station, Radiožurnál. As I write this the station is playing George Michael’s “Fast Love” and Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings,” which gives an idea. Mister sings, “Take these broken wings/and learn to fly again/baby live so free/and when we hear the voices sing, the book of love will open up and let us in/ yeah, yeah.” Listen for yourself, here’s the playlisty. Yep, playlisty.

And then there were the live musicians at the Karel IV restaurant who were evidently auto mechanics or miners during by day and vampires by night. Worst was the violinist who, as my friend said, hit all the right emotions but all the wrong notes. 
Radiožurnal is now playing the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” 

KVIFF 2015 had 12,857 accredited participants, of whom 547 were filmmakers, 1017 were film professionals, 670 were journalists and the rest (10,623) were holders of a festival pass. 135,105 tickets were sold, 488 screenings were held. From the 223 feature films featured, 35 were world premieres, 26 international premieres and 12 European premieres. 25 short films and 40 documentaries were screened.

The same restaurant that provided such horrendous music also provided perhaps the sweetest moment of the week. Karel IV is located on the third floor of a building built on a large rock, and its terrace provides an amazing view of the surrounding town and hills. A couple of colleagues and I arrived late one night and though the restaurant had already closed, the kind staff allowed us to order a couple of rounds of drinks from the terrace, and even agreed to turn off the bright lights. For an hour or so we sat in near darkness, wrapped in blankets, stars overhead as the lighted windows of Karlovy Vary began to go dark one by one.

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