She was Czechoslovakia’s most famous screen actress by the age of twenty. In the mid-1930s, she was signed by Bavaria’s UFA studios to star in some of Nazi Germany’s largest productions of the time.
In Berlin, she began an affair with Gustav Fröhlich, one of the country’s top leading men; shortly thereafter, she became the mistress of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. When stories of their romance hit the press, Hitler ordered an end to it, and effectively an end to the actress’s once-promising career.
After the war, Czechoslovak officials imprisoned her for 18 months under allegations of collaboration with the Nazis, though she was never charged. She managed to act again in Italy, but her image was tarnished and she lived the next 50 years in relative obscurity.
Lída Baarová’s story is one of the richest in the history of Czechoslovak cinema, and you can catch it in the new documentary Zkáza krásou (Doomed Beauty) from directors Jakub Hejna and Helena Třeštíková (Mallory), which is currently playing in Czech cinemas.
Or you can go see Lída Baarová, a fictionalized account from writer Ivan Hubač and director Filip Renč that turns the actress’s life story into such haughty melodrama that Douglas Sirk would be rolling his eyes.
The script reads like a highlight reel of events in Baarová’s short-lived career, mostly covering her time in Germany from 1936-38 and then, briefly, back in Prague after the war, spent mostly inside Pankrác Prison. It might be the only film ever to completely flash-forward past the events of WWII, despite Baarová being active in the Italian film industry during that time.
Most disappointing, for me, was leaving the cinema without learning much about the once-famed actress, who has received scant attention in English-language media. She once turned down an offer from MGM and “could have been bigger than Marlene Dietrich” according to her own autobiography, but little of what might have made her so special is evident in this by-the-numbers production.
But while the events of the film are easy enough to chart, the campy, near-parody tone in all but indescribable, and sinks the entire production from the outset.
A collection of individual thoughts and moments:
Despite exquisite period detail throughout the rest of the film, Baarová (Táňa Pauhofová) and her mother (Simona Stašová) are digitally inserted into period stock footage of 1930s Berlin a la Forrest Gump.
Actors playing the parts of Gustav Fröhlich (Gedeon Burkhard, Inglourious Basterds) and Joseph Goebbels (Karl Markovics, The Grand Budapest Hotel) seem to be speaking their native German onscreen, hideously dubbed into Czech (we can hear Goebbels drooling over Baarová on the soundtrack, but none of that is evident in Markovics’ performance).
If you’ve been dying to see a sex scene with Joseph Goebbels, here’s your chance: complete with writhing nude bodies, moans on the soundtrack, and Goebbels’ squeaky ankle brace pushing against the side of a couch. As he climaxes, his devilish face is digitally superimposed on the roaring fireplace.
Czech actor Pavel Kříž, meanwhile, best known for his comedic roles in the “Poets” series that started with Jak svět přichází o básníky, stars as Hitler. His broad portrayal initially invokes Charlie Chaplin – wearing a costume one size too large, he bashfully faces away from Baarová during an awkward seduction attempt – but later on he slips into full Bruno Ganz foaming-at-the-mouth Downfall mode when berating Goebbels over the affair.
Goebbels, on the phone with Baarová, sobbing uncontrollably as he tells her they can’t see each other any longer. Actual dialogue: “Hitler yelled at me!”
Baarová’s mother died during interrogation after the war, but that’s represented here in the worst possible way: an almost comedic cliché where two officials deny her pleas for water, and she drops dead of thirst.
Similarly, Baarová’s sister committed suicide during, and that’s relayed here with all the grace of a Calvin Klein commercial: discordant notes on the soundtrack, a flowing gown blowing in the wind, and a see-through top that reveals her nipples as she leaps from a roof.
Slovak actress Tatiana Pauhofová was extraordinary in the 2013 miniseries Burning Bush, but she was a strange pick for the lead here, bearing little physical resemblance to Baarová and completely lacking her commanding screen presence (her frequent wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look is an especially odd choice). And she’s a decade older than Baarová was during most of the events in the film; Anna Fialová, playing Lida’s young sister, would have been a better fit in the lead.
Over-the-top product placement is common in mainstream Czech films, but you wouldn’t expect it to make an appearance in historical fare like this. It does.
In the film’s final sequence, the 80-year-old Baarová (Zdenka Procházková, who’s pretty great in the movie’s Titanic-like framing device) excuses any historical inaccuracies within the film as “stories” she has made up for “her final role.” Now that’s a ballsy move on behalf of the filmmakers.
While I left Lída Baarová both disappointed and mildly offended by the exploitative tone the film takes toward its subject (and that’s not even touching upon, you know, the Holocaust, which the movie all but ignores), I was never bored by it: the movie undeniably holds some entertainment value in its histrionic melodramatics. You might just feel a little trashy while watching it.
Note: you can currently catch Lída Baarová with English subtitles in Prague at Cinema City Slovanský dům and Kino Lucerna.