A mandatory element of any Prague trip must be a stroll across handsome Charles Bridge, soaking in the magnificent castle views, and mingling with the street sellers and selfie sticks. But, should you decide to step away from the tourist trail – and follow the cobblestone lane that leads you under the arches of this famous structure – you will find yourself in an oddly beguiling world that is just as magical as the one you’ve just left behind.
With towering cut-outs of wooly mammoths, part of an old film set that allows you to swing high over Prague’s skyline, as well as a kooky exercise bike that is part zebra, part 18th century flying machine, even the exterior hints at the fact this is no ordinary museum. Which should hardly be surprising, seeing as it celebrates the life and work of one of the world’s most extraordinary film directors: the Czech master of 20th century film, Karel Zeman.
You would be forgiven for not instantly recognizing the name. Born in 1910 in northern Bohemia, Zeman began his career working for an advertising agency, before going on to direct over twenty short and feature length films. But, even though many of his works earned him international awards, world-wide acclaim and fans in the guise of Pablo Picasso, Salvádor Dalí and Charlie Chaplin, he remains an obscure figure. That said, if you have ever watched a film by Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam or George Lucas (and I’m guessing that’s pretty much everyone then), you will be familiar with his influence.
Nicknamed ‘the wizard of the big screen’, it takes only a few short minutes exploring this museum to understand why Zeman is held in such high regard by artists and Hollywood A-listers alike. His ability to make mesmerizing film magic, in an age long before CGI, is utterly fascinating – with his use of live action, puppets, models and a range of animation techniques to create unique and exciting new worlds.
But it isn’t just his pioneering work with special effects that makes Zeman worth getting better acquainted with. His talent for absurdist humor and political satire, as well as the sheer beauty and imaginative flair of his art, makes this museum well worth discovering. As Tim Burton puts it, in one of the clips shown in the museum,
“…there is something really cool, and personal and handmade and beautiful about his work”.
And it must be said, that although the content and aesthetic of the museum will delight both film enthusiasts and steampunk fans, it is also a wonderful place for school-aged children to explore.
One of the keys to this being such a child-pleaser is that the museum’s curation reflects Zeman’s creative and playful style. Once you come in from the interactive delights of the courtyard and are welcomed at the reception desk, you are positively encouraged to interact with the exhibits and take as many photos and videos as your camera roll will allow. To provide a little added interest, children are also given an age-appropriate trail or game to complete – some of which have been translated into English – which resulted, during our recent visit, in me and my 6-year-old son embarking on a trail around the room dedicated to one of Zeman’s most commercially successful films, Journey to the Beginning of Time.
Just as the film transports four children back to prehistoric Earth, where they come face to face with dinosaurs, and eventually find one of the planet’s earliest creatures – the trilobite – we too were sent on an exploration of this Prehistoric world. This involved watching film clips on both big and small screens, attempting to recreate a piece of film footage involving a woolly mammoth, and flapping the wings of a giant, model dragonfly. And this all came with the bonus of having stickers to add to our map, as well as the chance to discover a trilobite of our very own. In fact, just like the film itself, there was a perfect combination of fantasy, fun and education. This is a happy blend that is continued into the other rooms.
From taking control of a zany submarine and whimsical flying machine in the area dedicated to The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, to pretending to ride on a beautiful flying horse in the room devoted to The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, there is always something to entertain and occupy younger visitors. And then, of course, there are all the opportunities to watch the films themselves – as countless TV screens are peppered around the museum. This isn’t to say, of course, that parents will be able to read all the fascinating information boards and admire all the beautiful costumes and props at a leisurely pace, but it will give them a very good head start.
It would be possible to spend an entire morning here, should you watch all the films and documentary at length – although for most people with children, a visit of around an hour would seem more realistic. Once you have enjoyed getting lost in the strange and evocative worlds of Zeman’s major films, you can also pull up a beanbag and watch some of the beautifully animated films he made for children, before spending a happy few minutes in the rather wonderful museum shop. This is a place to buy DVDs of the films, as well as other Zeman-inspired memorabilia, including some fantastic steampunk clothing. Most children will no doubt also enjoy browsing the pocket-money priced knick-knacks on offer here, and the dinosaur models and kits are bound to be a hit.
Just next to the shop is one last little treat, a room containing a few more interactive exhibits, including the opportunity to get dressed up and capture yourself in the middle of a Zeman film. Pleasingly, for those with dramatic flair, the video booth here also gives you the opportunity to email the clip to yourself, should you want it for either social media or posterity. A perfect memento of a rather strangely wonderful morning.
If you aren’t quite ready to go home though, and are looking some further adventure, it is possible to arrange to leave the museum by solar-powered boat. Tour times and booking arrangements are given on the museum’s website – and although they can’t promise you a trip back through prehistoric terrains, a trip down the Vltava means that you are still probably in for an enchanting journey. Alternatively, if all the film wizardry has sparked yours or your children’s creative impulse – it is possible to arrange for a private animation workshop. My son attended one of these recently, and loved working with a group to put together his own stop motion animation. As you would expect, this is best arranged in advance, and the cost is best shared among a small group – but this would make an excellent finale to any visit.
And so, if you are looking to add a little more whimsical charm to your Prague itinerary, this is very worthwhile addition, and should provide a rather magical diversion for little tourists too. As Zeman himself says,
"Why do I make movies? I'm looking for terra incognita, a land on which no filmmaker has yet set foot, a planet where no director has planted his flag of conquest, a world that exists only in fairy tales."