Apr 16, 2023

‘A Small Light’ Party: Filming Location Is Czech Republic’s Slapy Castle

Some stories are far too important not to be told. Take, for example, "A Small Light," which just wrapped its limited run on the National Geographic channel last week and is currently streaming on both Hulu and Disney+. Showcasing the oft-chronicled story of Anne Frank (Billie Boullet) through an entirely new and incredibly powerful lens, the eight-part drama recounts the heroic efforts of Amsterdam secretary Miep Gies (a thoroughly engaging Bel Powley), who played an instrumental role in hiding the celebrated teen diarist and her family from the Nazis during World War II.

Heartbreaking, uplifting and poignant, not to mention Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, "A Small Light" makes for an imperative watch, with the Boston Globe calling it a "valuable story . . . told with grace," Cultured Vultures deeming it "a remarkable adaptation of one of the most haunting stories of the Second World War" and the Sioux City Journal noting it "towers as a series" with "a lesson . . . just as important now as it was more than 80 years ago." Indeed, Miep's enduring mantra that "Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, in their own way, turn on a small light in a dark room" remains paramount today.

Set in Amsterdam, where the Frank family and their friends hid in the infamous Secret Annex for an incredible 761 days, "A Small Light" only partially made use of the Dutch capital for filming, with the bulk of the shoot taking place in the Czech Republic, where production costs are more competitive. While in the area, cast and crew descended upon such spots as Hradec Králové, Prague and Slapy. The latter, a picturesque village situated just west of the Slapy Reservoir in the country's Central Bohemian Region, is home to Slapy Castle, a striking private residence turned performance and event venue that figures at the center of the series’ fourth episode, "The Butterfly."

The historic structure's origins date back to the 13th century when the acreage where it now stands served as farmland for the Cistercian Order of monks in nearby Zbraslav. Following a succession of different owners and iterations, the property was eventually acquired by the wealthy Bondy family, who demolished a large estate on the premises to make way for the sprawling Slapy Castle, which was completed in 1930.

Towering four stories, the mansion was crafted in the "pseudo–baroque" style, an architectural form quite common for the era. Designed for entertaining, the estate's interior spaces (photos here) were fashioned each more luxe, grandiose and spacious than the last, and include a massive ballroom, a music parlor, a gilded dining room, an expansive kitchen outfitted with a food elevator and a formal entrance hall featuring a fireplace and chandeliers.

The surrounding grounds were no less plush, with multiple gardens, a lake, fountains, a granary with a tower, forested meadows, leafy fields and, as chronicled by the Escape from Boredom website, "barns, a wheelwright's and blacksmith's workshop, a greenhouse with hot water heating and even a petrol filling station."

Unfortunately, the Bondy family was forced to flee the home, like so many of their Jewish neighbors, at the onset of World War II, and their once glittering mansion, left behind and abandoned, was ultimately taken over by the Nazis. Following the war's end, Slapy Castle was occupied by the Red Army and subsequently served as a training facility for the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It has stood vacant ever since.

Despite the many changes of hands and surefire pillaging and plundering carried out by the Nazis, the main portions of the residence have been exquisitely maintained, with fine plasterwork, gold-leaf detailing, inlaid wood finishes and decorative archways preserved throughout. With its grand rooms practically screaming to entertain, it is no surprise that the castle has become a popular event venue, regularly playing host to jazz nights and other soirees, its vast hallways once again bustling with revelers, much like when the Bondy family called it home.

Thanks to its authentic historical aesthetic, Slapy Castle is also, of course, a frequent stomping ground for film crews. Standing empty and devoid of furnishings, the property acts as a highly versatile blank canvas, providing production teams a unique opportunity to decorate, outfit and reimagine the interior as they see fit. As such, it has appeared in countless movies and television shows in recent years, primarily those with a World War II slant. The mansion is such an onscreen stalwart, in fact, that production designer Marc Homes tells DIRT a crew was moving off the premises just as "A Small Light" was moving in, with another descending upon the estate just as soon as he and his team had wrapped up!

In the episode titled "The Butterfly," Miep and her husband, Jan Gies (Joe Cole), attend an ice-skating-themed holiday party at the castle, hosted by Miep's best friend, Tess (Eleanor Tomlinson), and Tess’ boyfriend, Daniel Van Dijk (Tom Stourton). Said to belong to Daniel's wealthy parents, the mansion proved an ideal backdrop for the celebration, with, as Homes notes, the pseudo-baroque architecture reflecting both the time period and Van Dijk's "new money, bougie personality" perfectly.

For the shoot, Homes and his crew dressed the castle's central hall with Christmas decorations, bright candelabras, rich drapery and a slew of artwork. The cheery setting serves as a sharp contrast to the series’ outside world, where most citizens are facing the terror of living under Amsterdam's new Nazi regime.

While Tess tells Miep at the episode's outset, "I’ll get the gardeners to hose down the courtyard and we’ll make it into an ice rink," in truth, the rink featured in the scene was a rental brought in specifically for the production, with the rest of the snow effects accomplished using white nylon sheets and salt.

The set dressing certainly makes for beautiful scenery, with Miep enjoying a solo skate under the moonlight as snowflakes fall romantically at her feet. But the reverie doesn't last as the Gies soon discover that they are surrounded by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers at the gala, prompting them to make a hasty exit, never to speak to Tess or Daniel again.

Other productions to utilize Slapy Castle include the 2004 World War II drama "Before the Fall," in which it plays the home of Gauleiter Heinrich Stein (Justus von Dohnányi), where boxer/National Political Institute of Education student Friedrich Weimer (Max Riemelt) heads for a brief visit.

The estate masquerades as the ritzy Tichota hotel, where Jan Dítě (Ivan Barnev) finds employment for a time in the 2007 Czech historical comedy "I Served the King of England." Of the luxe lodging, Jan states, "The hotel was like in a fairy tale. It reminded me of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ I couldn't really imagine how I’d ended up here, or who it was built for, or if it was possible to live like this."

A teenaged Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) moves into the property with his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), in the 2007 psychological thriller "Hannibal Rising."

Slapy Castle portrays a local Sudetenland hotel that is taken over by the Nazis in the 2010 war drama "Habermann."

The exterior appears as the supposed Hamburg, Germany estate where Rachel Morgan (Keira Knightley) and her husband, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), are relocated following the end of the second world war in the 2019 drama "The Aftermath." (Interiors were filmed 400 miles away at Tralau Castle in Travenbrück.)

And the castle pops up as Springwood, the Hyde Park, N.Y. home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan), which Crown Princess Märtha (Sofia Helin) and Crown Prince Olav of Norway (Tobias Santelmann) visit on the 2020 PBS series "Atlantic Crossing."

It is quite an impressive resume for quite an impressive estate.

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