Fotograf Magazine

The Magic of the Multiplied Image

The “Golden Sixties” are also associated with experiments, the new wave, the Brussels design and generally relaxation and inhalation in culture and art. That is why it is surprising that Lucie Česálková and Kateřina Svatoňová have decided to title their book about the discovery Czechoslovakia gave to the world at that time The Time Dictator. The publication accompanying two exhibitions about the Laterna Magika Theatre is a result of the NAKI II grant project lasting several years, which aimed, inter alia, to process the preserved footage created for the performances of this theatrical, vaudeville, dance, musical and film phenomenon. The “dictator” was the Laterna Magika complex, whose essential characteristic was the need to bring everything into line with an absolutely precise scenario that did not allow the dancers and actors to improvise too much. They had to learn to continue in the scenes where they first appeared alone on the screen and then entered the stage. The multimediality of the performances, which was an attractive novelty at that time, has survived fifty years without any major updates, making it an interesting relic of the glorious past. 

The book The Time Dictator deals with the Laterna Magika Theatre from many angles: its artistic character as a vaudeville theatre with film footage, its chronology, and the description of its important technical and technological aspects. Since the Laterna Magika project could not work without the state (i.e. political will and money), the book also describes the political and representational (power) aspects of this phenomenon. To combine all these aspects into a multilayer, compact work, the authors have decided to take a “side view” of the Laterna Magika Theatre. This angle (and approach inspired by Mieke Bal) allowed them not to prefer only one of the aspects. Another source of the methodological inspiration for processing the Laterna Magika archives (scattered in several places) was the visual theory of W. J. T. Mitchell. Thanks to this combination, the authors were able to follow the transformations of imaging and their dependence on the narrative and never forgot the political-economic context.

As the book title suggests, the authors focused on time that determined the form of the Laterna Magika Theatre and that was both an advantage and an impediment: namely, on the need to adhere to the timetables defined by the prepared film footage and the speed resulting from the nature of the film medium itself (too slow shots, which would match the movement of the theatre actors, would make the plot dysfunctional and probably unbearable for the audience). The emphasis on time contrasts with the contemporary focus on space, movement in the space and space transformations in general dealt with by contemporary philosophers and media theorists. The Laterna Magika space included the stage, which gradually evolved from simple screens, used for projections and as the background for the actors, to complex installations of many different kinds of screens, and – especially in the 1960s – thematic spaces (travelling, the living space, and movement in general). The first (and some later) performance for Expo 58 in Brussels was created as an invitation to travel to Czechoslovakia, or rather designed specifically for the “export” – as a machine for foreign currency needed by the state. “The Laterna Magika Theatre did not import art or technological inspiration from abroad; it taught the socialist system to do effective business in the field of art.” (p. 178) Although later performances used more theatrical stage design practices and multiplication of images and characters to liven up the narrative, they never outdone themselves and never got rid off their socialist commercial character that suited them best. Even today, the theatre is an attraction for foreigners rather than for the Czech audience. 

The description of the layered structure of the inconsistent perception of time and space – of the specific experiment, the cultural capital, and everyday experiences projected on the background of one (still existing) phenomenon – is what makes the book The Time Dictator unique.


Česálková, Lucie and Svatoňová, Kateřina. Diktátor času: (De)kontextualizace fenoménu Laterny magiky (The Time Dictator: (De)contextualization of the Laterna Magika Phenomenon). Prague: National Film Archive, 2019. ISBN 978-80-7004-192-5.

Anežka Bartlová