Lucie Česálková and Kateřina Svatoňová: The Dictator of Time: (De)contextualizing the Phenomenon of Laterna Magika (National Film Archive, Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague, 2019)

Laterna Magika, which combines multigenre theater performances and multi-screen film projections on stage, was created as a representative and representational program of Czechoslovakia for Expo 58. Its extraordinary success was followed by an eponymous series of performances and, later, a permanent theater stage based on the same production principles. Due to its experimental nature, combination of several art disciplines, its interconnection of art and the development of new technologies, its significant role in national promotion on a global scale, and the collaboration of many outstanding artists, it has been and still is a unique phenomenon – both in the history of Czech art and in its global context. Following primarily Laterna Magika’s activities in 1958–1992, this monograph does not present a complete history of Laterna Magika, but rather interprets it as an intermedia, political-cultural and aesthetic phenomenon.

The first part presents Laterna Magika as a new multimedia form whose originality was seen as the perfect concord of dramatic action and the filmic image. Laterna Magika articulates the relationship between the “liveness” of the immediate performative act and the “artificiality” of film representation as a form of artistic experimentation, relying on technological innovation and employing the principle of a kinetic play with the categories of time, space, rhythm, movement, light and so on. Laterna Magika is shown not only as a “technological theater” but as a place of media translocations – not merely a specific synthesis of theater and film but the result of dialog between exhibition dramaturgy, visual arts, scenography, cinematography and choreography.

Commissioned by the Czechoslovak state for the Brussels World’s Fair, Laterna Magika was closely linked to the priorities of national cultural politics. The international acclaim of the program significantly influenced the further direction of Laterna Magika as an institution and art format. Its further productions continued to be primarily designed for export and its Prague productions were targeted at international audiences – tourists. Thus, Laterna Magika became a sovereign promotional tool – proof that Czechoslovakia can compete with the world both artistically and technologically. The second part presents Laterna Magika as a distinctive institution whose operation and creation were influenced by cultural-political decisions from the top and by the vision of a promotional “export miracle”, as well as the collective of creative personalities who often had different motivations for their participation in this politically scrutinized project. While some had artistic ambitions going beyond the local context, others sought out the Laterna Magika as an “artistic exile” after they were banned elsewhere, and still others had their pragmatic reasons linked to the possibility of traveling abroad and making extra money on expense allowance.

The third part discusses the particular productions of Laterna Magika and the tension between the original dramaturgy of the revue format, similar to variety shows and early cinema performances, and the more compact dramatic plays with a narrative concept more suited to theater. On the one hand, the theater relied on the pragmatic, commercial and politically “safe” repetition of tried and tested and later completely emptied acts, jokes and sketches; on the other hand, creative and innovative processes started to emerge in an attempt to give Laterna Magika higher artistic value and inform its performances via meaning, emotional power, and an often critical and polemical tone.

Due to the varied perspectives employed in this monograph, Laterna Magika is portrayed as a complex phenomenon marked by many historical, cultural, artistic, personal, ideological, political and technological transformations which showed in its productions in various ways and with varying intensity. Its nature has always been molded by its many dichotomies. Laterna Magika is both fragmentary and complex, distractive and immersive, past and present, reproduced and live, traditional and progressive, ideological and critical towards ideology, popular and elitist, discreet and yet voyeuristic. Each production and each new facet gave rise to new contradictions, complications and paradoxes which show the value of viewing the culture of socialist and post-socialist Czechoslovakia of the past sixty years through the prism of Laterna Magika.