Set up after the Second World War, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival has outlasted decades of political and social upheaval to become a fixture on the festival calendar.
Through years of social, political and financial upheaval, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival has carved out a niche as a film event offering a vital link between East and West. It is now settled into a mid-summer slot with a programme that blends premieres and retrospectives and makes great use of its elegant location.
A film festival had been considered in Czechoslovakia before the Second World War, but it took the nationalisation of the film industry in 1945 to force the issue. The first non-competitive festival, in August 1946, was held jointly in Marianske Lazne and Karlovy Vary.
The Communist takeover in February 1948 forced a change of direction and saw a programme selection put together with an awareness of the propaganda strength of national cinema.
That same year the festival settled solely in Karlovy Vary and the competition took place for the first time, as did the award of the Crystal Globe grand prize which has become a permanent part of the festival, though its form has changed over the years. That inaugural award went to Poland’s The Last Stage (Ostatni Etap) directed by Wanda Jakubowska, while William Wyler was named best director for The Best Years Of Our Lives.
In 1956, FIAPF designated Karlovy Vary as a category A festival. Due to the launch of the Moscow International Film Festival and the decision to allow only one A-list festival per year in the Socialist countries, between 1959 and 1993 the two events were staged in alternate years. Notable Karlovy Vary winners during the 1960s included Tony Richardson’s A Taste Of Honey, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone in 1962 and Luis Bunuel’s Diary Of A Chambermaid in 1964.
In 1968, a year of political regeneration culminating in the so-called Prague Spring, the organisation of the festival changed fundamentally. Regulations were reworked, the traditional competition was not held and three independent juries were set up in place of the international jury. That year visitors met the likes of Tony Curtis and Ken Loach, with the creative jury giving the Grand Prize to Jiri Menzel’s Czech film Capricious Summer.
The 1970s saw a period known locally as “normalisation,” which followed the suppression of moves towards political change, with the festival ‘encouraged’ to show propaganda films from the Soviet Union and other communist bloc countries. The poor quality of the films was reflected in a diminishing public interest, though even during that period the event continued to attract international guests.
The social and political changes that took place after November 1989 saw the festival freed finally from political pressure. Financial issues meant the festival had to be evaluated and in 1993 the Ministry of Culture, the town of Karlovy Vary and the Grandhotel Pupp instituted an independent foundation charged with the preparation and organisation of future festivals; actor Jiri Bartoska was made president of the foundation.
Several changes took place: after so many years of alternating with Moscow, the festival became annual, with a quality programme co-ordinated by film columnist and critic Eva Zaoralova. This included the East of the West section, the festival’s regional competition which takes advantage of the Czech Republic’s geographic location as a transition point between East and West.
After celebrating its 40th event in 2005, Karlovy Vary is now firmly entrenched as one of the key post-Cannes festivals of the mid-summer schedule.