Movies, books, and songs to capture the essence of Prague and get you in the mood for travel

Movies

Loves of a Blonde (Lasky Jedne Plavovlasky) (1965)
Young women working in a communist-era shoe factory provide the backdrop for this tender tale of unrequited love. Milos Forman’s darkly comic film is arguably his best Czech work. No other film quite captures the innocence, simplicity, and quiet desperation of those times like this one.

Closely Watched Trains (Ostre Sledovane Vlaky) (1967)
Classic from the 1960s New Wave won the Oscar for best foreign film. It’s a darkly comic look at the German occupation during World War II. “Time Out Prague” editor Will Tizard says, “There’s no getting around its power and simple charms, which have held up well.”

Amadeus (1984)
Forman’s tale of envy, genius, mediocrity, and murder won eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Though the action takes place in Mozart’s Vienna, much of the filming was done in Prague. Forman even filmed at Prague’s Estates Theater, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered in 1787 with the composer himself in the conducting role.

Kolya (Kolja) (1996)
Director Jan Sverak’s Oscar-winning fable set in the last days of Communist Prague tells of a grouchy bachelor whose heart is melted by a five-year-old Russian boy. Variety film critic Eddie Cockrell says the filmmakers’ biggest challenge was transforming colorful Prague back to the hushed gray stasis of Soviet-era life: “It works. The city becomes the film’s most stately, elegant character.”

Up and Down (Horem Padem) (2004)
Arguably the best of the post-Velvet Revolution, ensemble-driven films examining the harder realities of everyday life. Cockrell says, “See it for an assemblage of the country’s best acting talent and the complex human emotions on display.”

Czech Dream (Cesky Sen) (2004)
The best Czech documentary film in years is a “mockumentary” showing what happens when the filmmakers set out to create a fictitious hypermarket offering rock-bottom prices. A hilarious, thought-provoking send-up of consumer values.

Books

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (1984)
The tangled-up lives of a surgeon, his wife, and his mistress, played out against the 1968 Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet-led invasion that ended it. Adapted as a movie in 1988 starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. Also look for Kundera’s The Joke (1967) and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980).

Summer Meditations, by Vaclav Havel (1992)
Havel wrote this highly readable account shortly after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Meditations not only on those historic events, but also on the nature of politics and morality. Also worth looking for: To the Castle and Back (2007) and Disturbing the Peace (1990).

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka (1915)
A traveling salesman wakes up one morning to discover he’s been transformed into a giant bug. He loses the ability to communicate with his family and ultimately expires alone and ashamed. Franz Kafka’s extended short story of alienation and isolation is a modern classic. The author of The Trial and The Castle spent nearly his entire life in Prague, and while Prague is rarely if ever mentioned in his writings, it seeps out on every page.

The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek (1923)
Timeless classic from the First World War about a guileless Czech soldier named Svejk, whose boundless enthusiasm for the ruling Habsburgs has even the Austrians wondering if he’s not really nuts.

I Served the King of England, by Bohumil Hrabal (1989)
A comic masterpiece by the best-loved Czech writer of his generation. Follows the ups and downs of a height-impaired hotel waiter who rises to fabulous wealth under the Nazi occupation in World War II only to lose it all in the Communist takeover after. Adapted as a movie in 2006 by Oscar-winning director Jiri Menzel.

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, by Heda Margolius Kovaly (1997)
“A personal tour of Czechoslovakia's darkest years.”—Douglas Lytle, author, Pink Tanks and Velvet Hangovers: An American in Prague. Heda Margolius Kovaly, a Jew from Prague, had the misfortune of being caught between Hitler and Stalin. Sent with her family to the Lodz ghetto in Poland, she ended up in Auschwitz. She survived and later went on to marry a Communist, who in the 1950s was executed in a show trial.

The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague, by Timothy Garton Ash (1990)
Oxford University historian Garton Ash was both an observer to and participant in the East European revolutions of 1989. This is the best account of those historic events and that fateful year.

Music

Music has always served as a rallying point for Czechs in their struggle for identity—first in the 19th century as Czech culture reestablished itself, and then in the 20th century when it came under threat from Nazism and Communism.

Compilations:

Ma Vlast (My Country)
Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s extended symphonic poem to his country. The best known of the six symphonies is the haunting “Vltava” (The Moldau)—but each tells a different story of Czech history.

Dvorak’s 9th Symphony (The New World Symphony)
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák wrote his best-known symphony in 1893 during a visit to New York. It was partly influenced by Dvořák's love of Native American sounds.

Songy a Balady (Songs and Ballads)
Sixties pop idol Marta Kubisova’s album was banned in 1969 and only re-released in 1990. The single “Modlitba pro Martu” (Prayer for Marta) was recorded during the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968 and became the unofficial anthem of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Play it in a room filled with Czechs and there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

Bratricku, Zavirej Vratka (O’ Brother, Shut the Door)
A soul-stirring album by the revered protest singer Karel Kryl. Released shortly after the 1968 invasion. Ondrej Hejma of the legendary Czech band Zluty Pes says the sound reflected the spirit of the times: “depressed, angry, and bitter, with no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Karel Gott ´76
The eternal golden voice of Czech pop—part Tom Jones and part Frank Sinatra. Hejma: “Karel Gott survived all of the regimes and until this day—on the verge of his 70th birthday—rules the Czech pop world.” This collection includes the signature “Je jaka je” (She Is What She Is). Like David Hasselhoff, Gott remains inexplicably popular in Germany.

Vetsi Nez Male Mnozstvi Lasky (More Than a Little Love)
The 1998 album by acclaimed Czech rock band Lucie. Hejma says Lucie represented “pop rock at its best when freedom came.”

Classic Songs:

1. “Modlitba pro Martu” (Prayer for Marta) by Marta Kubisova
2. “Bratricku, zavirej vratka” (O’ Brother, Shut the Door) by Karel Kryl
3. “Je jaka je” (She Is What She Is) by Karel Gott
4. “Stin Katedral” by Helena Vondrackova
5. “Ja Budu Chodit Po Spickach” by Petr Novak
6. “Zelva” (Turtle) by Olympic
7. “Laska je laska” (Love is Love) by Lucie Bila
8. “Cerni Andele” (Black Angels) by Lucie
9. “Pohoda” by Kabat
10. “Promeny” by Cechomor

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