National Geographic’s new miniseries “A Small Light” has certainly roared onto the scene! A fresh look at the story of Anne Frank (Billie Boullet), the eight-part dramatization showcases the time-honored tale through the eyes of Miep Gies (Bel Powley), who went to great lengths to help hide the Jewish teenager and her family following the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam during World War II. Released just last week, with new episodes airing on Nat Geo each Monday night and on both Disney+ and Hulu the following day, the show is already Certified Fresh by Rotten Tomatoes, racking up an incredible 100% Tomatometer score thanks to 24 glowing critic reviews.
Set in Amsterdam, where Anne and her family, along with several friends, hid for an incredible 761 days in the infamous Secret Annex, a 450-square-foot space tucked discreetly behind Otto Frank’s (Liev Schreiber) office, “A Small Light” only briefly made use of the Dutch capital for exterior scenes. Proving incredibly expensive to shoot, production designer Marc Homes tells DIRT the goal was to “get in and get out” of the Netherlands city and move on to the far more economical Czech Republic, where the vast majority of filming took place.
While there, the cast and crew descended upon both Hradec Králové and Prague, with the municipalities’ many historical sites providing an authentic backdrop for the 1930s/1940s-set story. One spot in particular, the fabled Grand Café Orient, is especially notable. Situated just a block east of Prague’s Old Town Square on the first floor of the House of the Black Madonna at Ovocný trh 19, the establishment has the distinction of being the world’s first and only cubist-themed eatery.
Not to be confused with Art Deco, the cubism movement, “one of the most influential styles of the twentieth century,” as broken down by Tate Modern, “was a revolutionary new approach to representing reality invented in around 1907–08 by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. They brought different views of subjects (usually objects or figures) together in the same picture, resulting in paintings that appear fragmented and abstracted . . . It is generally agreed to have begun around 1907 with Picasso’s celebrated painting ‘Demoiselles D’Avignon’ which included elements of cubist style. The name ‘cubism’ seems to have derived from a comment made by the critic Louis Vauxcelles who, on seeing some of Georges Braque’s paintings exhibited in Paris in 1908, described them as reducing everything to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes.’”
A stunning example of Czech-inspired cubism (which, per an educational piece written by Genevieve Shymanski, “was influenced by both the cubist art based in France but also by older architectural styles found in Prague, namely the Gothic and Baroque”), the House of the Black Madonna was crafted by local architect Josef Gočár in 1912. The building’s unusual moniker is a nod to a small stone statue of the Madonna and Child positioned on its northeast corner. The piece is actually a carryover from the original structure that stood on the site, which was dismantled in 1911 to make way for a new shopping emporium commissioned by wholesale merchant František Josef Herbst.
Gočár, who fashioned the Wenke Department Store in nearby Jaroměř the year prior, erected the new six-story shopping center utilizing a reinforced concrete skeleton frame that, as Wikipedia details, “allowed for large interior spaces without ceiling support, which was better suited to cubist aesthetics. The first-floor café, free of interior pillars, was a feat of engineering at the time.” A feat of design, as well, Gočár conceived every element of the restaurant himself, from the chandeliers to the built-in furnishings – all, of course, in the cubist style.
Unfortunately, Herbst’s store did not prove fruitful and it shuttered along with the café in 1922 after a mere decade in operation. The House of the Black Madonna went through several different iterations in the century that followed, including serving as both a bank and office space.
After falling into disrepair, the building was rehabbed twice, first from 1993 to 1994 by modernist Czech architect Karel Prager, who comprehensively restored both its interior and exterior. Following the completion of the extensive project, the House of the Black Madonna was taken over by The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, which operated a temporary exhibit dedicated to cubism on the premises that ran through 2002.
Upon the exhibit’s closing, the property was renovated once again, this time in order to be transformed into the Museum of Czech Cubism, a permanent attraction honoring the movement that opened its doors in 2003. The Grand Café Orient followed suit the next year. A painstaking re-creation of Gočár’s original design, the eatery’s restoration was a true labor of love. As Rudolf Břímek, who was behind the restaurant’s revival, told Radio Prague International, “When we started work on the old-new café, we faced a huge problem – most of the documents relating to it had been damaged . . . so there was not much to go on. We furnished it with the help of old black and white photographs that were saved and we had no idea about the original color arrangements. But I think we were very lucky in that, somehow or other, we managed to strike the right note, to recreate the atmosphere of the time. That either happens or it doesn’t. It is not really something you can plan.”
Today, the Grand Café Orient stands as a definitive step back in time, a gloriously-executed window into the Europe of decades past, with the cubist theme apparent throughout. Every element of the tea room is heavily stylized in the art form, from the wallpaper to the décor to the buffet bar. Even the coat hooks are beautifully thematic!
One of Prague’s most beloved eateries, the café is famed for its baked goods and espresso drinks, of which travel writer Alan Behr of the McClatchy-Tribune News Service espoused, “I found the coffee and pastries to be worthy of Vienna, which is the highest praise I can give.” The restaurant is also well known for its special events, including swing dancing nights and live music performances, both offered regularly on the premises.
Exuding a highly photogenic and timeless European appeal, it is no wonder the place landed a role on “A Small Light.”
In the series’ premiere episode, the Grand Café Orient masquerades as the fashionable Amsterdam bakery where Miep takes Otto in celebration of his birthday shortly after becoming his secretary. Over cake, the two discuss their backgrounds, sharing with each other the events that led up to their respective relocations to the Netherlands’ capital.
Though featured only briefly onscreen, the Grand Café Orient manages to pack a robust visual punch, its structured chandeliers, mint green accents and historical aesthetic translating exquisitely to the screen.
Calling the location “a genuine period place,” Homes tells DIRT he was able to shoot the space largely as it is in real life. Boasting impeccable bones, the restaurant required little outside of the swapping of some signage to transform it into a thoroughly believable midcentury-era Amsterdam establishment and an ideal representation of a far more carefree time in Miep and Otto’s lives before the Nazis invaded the city in May 1940 and their world came crashing tragically down.