Last time when talking about history, I mentioned the overlong prelude to World War 2 as it has played out in Central Europe. Lets now look a bit closer at what has happened afterward. And, again, this is a de-facto merging of Slavic Saturday and Behind the Iron Curtain series.
Today lets look at one of the most prominent Czech artists to date, although outside of the Czech Republic he is probably not that well known – if he is known at all – Vlasta Burian. (You might remember that I have already written about an artist with the same surname, but to my best knowledge that is pure coincidence, they are not closely related.)
Vlasta Burian was one of the most prominent comedians in Czechoslovakia between the wars. Born in a cobbler’s family, he started out in lower-middle class at the time and he indulged in classic sport activities of that class at that time – like tennis and football (soccer). He was a very devout and good athlete, he could be professional – but in his free time, he also did stand-up comedy for the amusement of his friends, to initial dismay of his parents. And this has gradually become his main occupation and through making stand-up comedy routines in pubs he became a professional comedian and actor who starred in movies and who even owned and run his own theater before and during WW2. And he lived in a villa.
But fame is fickle friend. Despite being known patriot for his whole life, he managed to live through most of World War 2 without being overtly persecuted. I say most – Nazis have tried to rope him into making propaganda for them, but after one public routine in radio (which he intentionally botched) he took to feigning illness whenever he was approached by them again. So in 1944 Nazis got finally fed up with him snubbing their attempts to make him their stooge. He was arrested and his theater was closed.
Reasonable expectation after this would be that after the war ended in the spring of 1945, he would be fully vindicated of any wrongdoing. But that was not the case. He has managed to become moderately wealthy, and that was a big no-no after the war when the Communist Party took the reins through a coup. That he has managed it truly through his own works (and was giving to charitable causes throughout) was irrelevant to the new regime. That he was just deftly snubbing Nazis the whole World War 2 was also not enough – he was not resisting enough (in his position, probably anything short of charging at a tank with bare breast and bare hands would be considered “not enough”, after all, Czech pilots who fought against Nazis in RAF were persecuted for fighting against Nazis on the “wrong” front).
So charges were made-up, a kangaroo court was called (multiple courts, actually) and in the end, he barely escaped with his life. All his possessions were confiscated for the good of the people (how convenient) and he was barred from acting – he was only allowed to do menial works. The short imprisonment and subsequent ban from acting and public appearances have seriously undermined his health, both physical and mental.
Like many artists, he suffered from depression. Sports and comedy were probably part of his self-medication. When denied the things he loved, he aged in mere five years noticeably more than he should. When the acting ban was finally lifted after five years, it was too late. He was no longer the springy, energy exuding person he used to be and his acting has suffered. It was still good enough to make a living, but nowhere near as good as it used to be. His health deteriorated quickly and in 1962 he died of pneumonia. His wife followed him in mere nine weeks, grief took her.
His popularity was such that after his death, a movie about him bearing his nickname “Král Komiků” i. e. “The King of the Comedians” was made. And in the following decades his movies were still screened at local cinemas and they are still occasionally aired on Czech TV to this day. Many can also be found on the internet. Unfortunately, unless you understand Czech you won’t be able to enjoy them. Dubbing is out of the question, a lot of Burian’s comedy was in his voice, so you would need really a top-notch dubber. Subtitles would not help too much either, because another significant part was wordplays.
In 1994, five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he was posthumously vindicated in court. Historians extensively examined the historical sources and they found a total lack of any evidence of his collaboration with Nazis whatsoever, in any form. Despite this, for Vlasta Burian the long string of injustices and indignities was still not over. In the year 2002 his grave was adorned with his bronze bust, but it was stolen shortly afterward and probably sold as scrap metal.
Today his grave is adorned with a statue of his hands, which were after his face his most prominent feature. May he finally rest in peace.