Something Good #9: The Elevator Lobbies of the Hotel Thermal
I was once unexpectedly invited to attend the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in my then-role as the film section editor of an alternative weekly. I didn’t know much about the festival, nor the town of Karlovy Vary itself, but I did know that a free trip to a Czech Republic spa town for an exotic-sounding film festival was too good to pass up.
Karlovy Vary, also known as Carlsbad, was a hotspot for the European elite back in its 18th and 19th Century heyday; the likes of Beethoven, Goethe, Karl Marx and Chopin would come to “take the waters” at its famous natural hot springs. Most of the town retained its fairy-tale air even through the Communist era, with one towering exception.
At some point in the 1960s, when the film fest, founded in 1946, existed as an extension of the tendentious Moscow Film Festival (I understand there were many documentaries about grain policy), the government decided to build a new resort in the middle of the town.
Construction was “waged” (according to the garbled English-language plaque) in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the result was a sprawling, brutalist incongruity: the Hotel Thermal, a singular example of what might be called late-Modernist Communist resort design, containing at least one disco (which I never found), several cinemas, smoky subterranean bars, whole floors of weird clinics visited by wealthy Saudis and Russians, and, when the hired car dropped me off from the airport, hundreds of festival-goers.
I was disoriented and unsure where to go, but after waiting in line at various wickets (one disconcertingly called “PROTOCOL”), I had my picture taken and was given my accommodations voucher. I immediately got the sense (later verified) that I was one of the only English speakers in town; though the festival was trying to extend its reach by inviting the likes of me, it still felt very much like it was taking place behind the Iron Curtain.
I blearily took the elevator to the 14th floor, where I was immediately struck by the minimalist beauty of the Thermal’s elevator lobbies. I took this picture:
I then dropped off my bags on one of the narrow, cot-like beds in my bright, humid room. It seemed too early to nap, so I decided to go back downstairs and get the lay of the land.
I returned to the elevator lobby and hit the button. Seconds later the doors opened and a dog, alone, casually walked out and down the hall. I almost felt like it nodded at me as it passed. Too jet-lagged to make sense of what had just happened, I took the lift downstairs.
As soon as I stepped into the lobby, though, a panicky young man rushed up to me and grabbed me by the lapels. “Did you meet the dog?” he asked me, breathlessly.
“Uh… yes… I think so?” I answered.
“Ooohhh fuuuuuck,” he said, and rushed past me, and began furiously pressing the elevator call button over and over again.
That evening I attended the festival’s lavish opening ceremonies. Every year they would invite a celebrity and present them with an honorary award; that year’s honouree was Robert DeNiro. I spent most of my time trying to get a good photo of him.
Later that night I would be kicked out of the opening night party for sneaking in without wearing the mandatory tuxedo.
I spent my days wandering around the town, going to screenings, drinking gigantic glasses of Czech beer, and awkwardly standing in the corner of various receptions. Some of the movies were very good—an extremely jet-lagged viewing of Sion Sono’s four-hour erotic-comedic masterpiece Love Exposure, projected in some sort of inflatable tent, remains a highlight of my filmgoing career.
But I kept coming back to the hotel’s elevator lobbies. I had discovered that they were, to my fascination, arranged in subtly varying permutations of red or black vinyl club chairs, standing ash trays, potted plants.
I had overestimated the amount of time I needed to spend at the festival, and was booked there for a good week longer than was really necessary. So I sacrificed an entire day to photograph every one of the lobbies. Here they are, in descending order:
I still think about them all the time.
As this is nominally a recommendations newsletter, my recommendation for this week is this: if you happen to find yourself in Western Bohemia, find your way to the 14th floor of the Hotel Thermal and take a photograph for me.
Epilogue: I would have several more experiences with dogs in the Hotel Thermal, where they roved in semi-feral packs. I remember coming across a pair of them aggressively playing, or fighting, on a second-floor mezzanine, all but ignored by a large crowd of elegant festival-goers. On another visit, a few years later, I was billeted at the next door Hotel Pavlova, the name of which brought to mind images of drooling canines.
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