Ahead of the Day of Czech Statehood on September 28th, special screenings of the silent film “Svatý Václav” (Saint Wenceslas), accompanied by the Symphony Orchestra of Prague, are taking place at the grandiose Municipal House, the very site of the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic one hundred years ago.
The score of this milestone in Czech cinematographic history was only rediscovered less than a decade ago – which seems incredible since when “Saint Wenceslas” was completed in 1929, it was the largest, and by far most expensive, domestic production ever made.
The cast included stars from home and abroad, and more than 5,000 extras were enlisted for the epic battle scenes. At the time, it was believed that 1929 marked the millennial anniversary of Prince Wenceslas I’s death at the hands of his own brother, Boleslav. (In fact, he was martyred in the year 935).
While September 28th, the feast day of the Czech patron saint, has long been a red-letter day for Czech Roman Catholics, St. Wenceslas Day only became a national holiday in the year 2000 – “the Day of Czech Statehood” – upon the initiative of the Christian Democratic Party.
Legend portrays Prince Wenceslas I of the Přemyslid dynasty as a pious man and a Christian martyr. Historically, he helped the Czech lands ally themselves with the Saxon king Henry the Fowler and made peace with the neighbouring Germans.
The legend travelled far and grew in the telling over the centuries – as recalled, for example, in the English Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas”. But while the fratricidal Boleslav in fact founded the independent Czech state, the martyr Václav became the symbol of Czech statehood.
It was also a flop.
“Svatý Václav” did not premiere until 1930, by which time audiences were already used to “talkies” and the silent epic of the silver screen went largely ignored, though now it is now a treasured showcase of techniques and sensibilities from that golden era.
If not for the discovery of the score by musicologist Viktor Velek, the film may well have remained a hidden gem, known– and seen – largely only by film historians.