Movie Review: ‘Červená’ a Potent Portrait of a Czech Opera Icon

Movie Review: ‘Červená’ a Potent Portrait of a Czech Opera Icon

She sang for more than 5,000 performances in 100 roles in five continents across the globe. But when she returned to Prague after the Berlin Wall fell 1989, she was a stranger who could walk down the crowded streets of the Czech capital without being recognized. 

It was a familiar feeling in an incredible life. 

In the opening and closing moments of the new Olga Sommerová documentary Červená, which tells the story of the world-renowned Czech opera singer Soňa Červená, the (now) 92-year-old subject is casually sitting on her future grave in Prague as a giant plaque is lowered upon it. 

“But Soňa,” the filmmaker asks her, “what if people should see this and think that you have already passed?”

“Then I shall have lived all the more.”

Červená’s story is a heartbreaking one that parallels a nation that (mostly) survived the horrors of WWII, only to endure 40 years of bitter Soviet rule. 

She was born in Prague in 1925 to Jiří Červený, a composer and founder of Prague’s famed Červená sedma cabaret, and his wife Žofia Veselíková. Her grandfather, Václav František Červený, was a producer of musical instruments credited by the film as the inventor of the saxophone, before it was popularized by Adolphe Sax.

During the war, while Červená was studying to become a singer, both of her parents were improbably imprisoned by Nazis: Jiří due to a Kafkaesque, Brazil-like error (“composer” was mistaken for “communist” in his file, Soňa tells the filmmakers), and Žofia because the invading forces wanted to take over the family’s luxurious central Prague estate. 

Despite both making it home intact, things didn’t get much better in the years following the war: Soviet officials accused Žofia of collaboration with the Nazis despite her internment in a concentration camp, and she died after an interrogation in which she was drugged and fell into a coma. 

In Prague at the age of 91 (she turned 92 earlier this month, coinciding with this film’s release), Soňa Červená returns to the apartment building that was her childhood home, first occupied by Nazis and then Soviets and now the Czech state, where it serves as an archives of historical records. 

It is here, ironically, that she first learns what 'officially' happened to her mother. 

Soňa, too, who by the late 1940s had performed on stage in Prague alongside Czech greats Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec (as the lead of Káča in Finian’s Rainbow, the first Broadway Musical to come to the Czech Republic), also felt the sting of Soviet oppression, and was relegated to a smaller company in Brno. 

But she was “rediscovered” by representatives from Vienna, and eventually made her way to East Berlin, and then the West through the Berlin Wall. From the 1960s through the 80s Červená toured the world and achieved particular fame in San Francisco, where she made her US debut and returned annually. 

In Červená, a brisk portrait of the opera icon’s quite incredible life, decades fly by in minutes and the filmmakers gloss over Soňa's international successes in favor of her early years in Prague, and eventual return.

Now in her 90s, Červená lights up the screen here both in poignant interview sequences and on the stage, where the nonagenarian has been performing in The Makropulos Case (based on Karel Čapek’s play) for acclaimed director Robert Wilson at Prague’s National Theatre since 2010. 

While she lived most of her years and achieved her greatest successes outside the country, Červená remains a true Czech icon whose story is brought to vivid life in this new documentary. 

Following Věra 68 (about Olympic ice skater Věra Čáslavská) and Magický hlas rebelky (about Czech singer and 'voice of the revolution' Marta Kubišová), Červená continues a wonderful streak of historical biographies on great Czech women from Sommerová, one of the country’s most renowned documentarians.

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