A visit to set of ‘Leaving’, Václav Havel’s debut as film director

Václav Havel (right), photo: CTK

The former president Václav Havel has had many professions in his life – poet, playwright, dissident, revolutionary, president, and published author. Now, at the tender age of 73, he’s adding a new string to his bow – film director. He’s currently directing a feature film version of his most recent play, Leaving, which is about – what else? - a politician trying to adjust to a new life after leaving politics.

Václav Havel (right), photo: CTK
Far away in a distant corner of the Czech countryside, at the Villa Čerych in Česká Skalice, the former president is fulfilling his boyhood dream. For the next few weeks, he’ll be sitting in the director’s chair, filming the screen version of his latest play. As he told reporters, in some ways he has more power at his fingertips as a film director than he did as head of state.

“I’ve been quite surprised at how quick and smooth everything is. I come up with an idea on the set, I tell the person standing next to me about it, and the next day - we’re filming it. It certainly wasn’t like that when I was president!”

‘Leaving’ tells the story of Vilém Rieger, the former chancellor of an unnamed country, locked in a battle of wills with his successor, the unsavoury Vlastík Klein. It’s a King Lear-like contemplation on a politician’s frustrating impotence at finding himself slowly being forced out of his beloved government villa, with several of Havel’s favourite actors among the cast. They include his wife Dagmar, who plays the chancellor’s wife, Irena.

Dagmar Havlová
“It’s obviously a real honour to play the part, but I have to point out that Václav wrote the role for me, not about me! I was there when he wrote the script, I remember reading the first draft. So I’m so happy to finally get the chance to act in it.”

The Havel family are closely connected with Czech film; his uncle Miloš built the famous Barrandov film studios, and his grandfather built Prague’s first permanent cinema in Prague’s Lucerna Palace. His grandson grew up around ‘film people’; he himself wanted to go to film school, but the political atmosphere of the 1950s forced him to consider theatre instead. Tomáš Sedláček, one of his former advisors, says his former boss is truly a jack of all trades.

“He’s got this very strange and unique mixture to do very many things, I mean one doesn’t realise how many things he’s actually been through; playwright, poet, to a degree, dissident being jailed, being a writer, being the president for many, many years, being the ex-president, that also takes a lot of work and strain, then he wrote a successful play, a book, and now he wants to direct his own piece. That’s a very, very wide spectrum. Many people don’t realise that.”

‘Leaving’ in Archa Theatre, photo: www.ct24.cz
Filming will be completed by late August, allowing for a cinema release some time next year. The film will be keenly awaited by fans of Václav Havel’s work, and indeed many curious cinemagoers. But not everyone is convinced it will be a successful transition; reviews for ‘Leaving’ in the theatre were rather mixed, with some critics saying it was nowhere near as good as Mr Havel’s earlier plays. As for Václav Havel himself – he says this will be his first, and last, foray into film.