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Independent Prague cinemas will take you down memory lane

When in the late 1990s the first American-style multiplexes appeared in the Czech Republic, with numerous large screening rooms, it looked as if good old cinemas with wooden seats and a faded red curtain were finished forever.

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The brunt of them did not survive. U Hradeb (On the battlements), Palác Svět (World palace), Květen (May), Pilotů (The Pilots’) or Arbes – are all names of cinemas where the lights will never again come up after the show. The few old cinemas that made it through have had no choice but to proffer that something, which sterile and uniform multiplexes cannot – a distinctive ambience. The audiences have – apparently – got the message. In the last few years, something remarkable has been going on – the old and defunct cinemas are coming alive again. People have finally come to realize that the kiss to be had in an old cinema is far sweeter than any multiplex popcorn.

Probably the oldest continuously operating cinema in Prague is Lucerna, (the Lantern), a classic among classics, dating from 1907. Its Art Nouveau auditorium with rich stucco work and ornate chandeliers harks back to the times of the Habsburg Monarchy. Film-goers have included the crème de la crème of the First Republic, Nazi officers during the war, and the Communists who came after. Regimes came and went, and the Lantern threw its light. You can get a feel of it over a glass of Becherovka in the glazed bar in the arcade while waiting for your show to start...

Another gem is the former Bio Illusion from 1926. This cinema closed a few years ago and it looked as if the show was over, but in 2014 it was given a new breath of life by the French entrepreneur Jean-Christophe Gramont, who lives switching between the USA, France and the Czech Republic. He decided to run the previous cinema under the name Royal as an experiential space with its own original cabaret show,  film screenings, theatre performenses and concerts. There is a stylish bar opened during every show and visitors are able to admire memorabilia of the stars of the silver screen – Nataša Gollová’s purse, Adina Mandlová’s hat, or the suit of Svatopluk Beneš.

For die-hard film buffs, theorists and researchers engaged in cinematography, there is cinema Ponrepo in Bartolomějská street. The medieval building, which once hosted a concert by Ludwig van Beethoven, is the home of the National film archive, and offers projections of vintage delights from greats such as Andrei Tarkovsky, the French new wave directors, Elia Kazan or Ingmar Bergmann. In this cinema you will meet students of cinema, venerable film directors and the quiet, unobtrusive, bespectacled film-lovers of the old school, a rare species who come here for their moments of silent pleasure.

Another art cinema in the Centre of Prague is Světozor, (Worldview) which offers two cinema halls. This cinema takes pride in bringing visitors back, by making them feel at home. For instance, you can have your own seat here, with your name on it, there are shows for schools and for seniors, and ‘documentary Mondays’. There is a shop called ‘Terry’s socks’, where you can buy different film artifacts, ranging from posters through music to attire.

Světozor has two sister cinemas. The first of them is Aero, to get to which you need to move a little way out of the city centre, to the industrial part of Žižkov. In the yard here you will find a cinema with a special ‘underground’ panache, where you can have an “utopenec” (the Czech traditional ‘drowned man’ pickled sausage), and a draught beer in a beaker, which you can take with you into the projection room.

The other sibling of Světozor is Bio OKO, the hip cinema in Letná. OKO (the Eye) has changed over time from a cinema to a rather pleasant venue where the residents of Letná go for a beer and may not even get round to the movie. If you want to get to meet Prague’s arty ‘fry’ then this is certainly the place.

Two small and modern Club cinemas in the Centre are Evald and Mat (Checkmate). In the first you can eat well after the screening, the second has a very nice cocktail bar.

Not far from the Florenc Metro stop on the ground floor of the former bank is the Atlas cinema, with its Functionalist feel – chrome, marble walls, a mosaic frieze of the wartime urban legend hero “Pérák” (the Springster). There is a very nice bar here, too.

And finally, here's one more tip for a trip out of the Centre. Tram number 3 or 17 will drop you off in a concrete jungle housing estate. What a surprise you’ll get, when in sight of the prefabs, you will discover a compact, cosy cinema, Modřanský biograf. With a Kofola soft drink, you may well feel a waft of Czech childhood.

Saša Blau
Journalist and photographer. Has lived in London and Berlin, but feels at home when he is travelling. “I am something between a Russian and a German. I was born in Prague,” he says about himself.