Documentary offers new look at Czech Republic’s playwright president

Former dissident/playwright turned president Václav Havel remains one of the country’s most well-known and most respected figures, both at home and abroad, whose rise to office had the making of both fairy tale and absurdist drama. In the early ‘90s, Vanity Fair published a famous piece about Mr Havel as a president unlike any other: a man with a scooter to zip through the corridors of Prague Castle, a president who invited Frank Zappa to the capital, in short, a kind of head of state no one had seen before.

Václav Havel with his first wife Olga,  photo:
But that was only a fleeting glimpse: now, a new documentary reveals much more from Mr Havel’s years in office. Shot over more than a decade, “Citizen Havel” captures never-before-seen backroom dealings, moments of political drama as well as comedy and personal history. Included is his relationship to his first wife Olga; communication with the public; there are moments of quiet relaxation at the country house; above all, there is Havel the person, not just the public persona.

Ladislav Špaček was spokesman and the head of the Castle press office during the Havel years; he says a documentary like this one is a rare thing:

“It was a very extraordinary project because there are not very many politicians who would let a camera get so close to them. I very surprised when I came to Prague Castle that he would like to take part in a film like this. But very soon I understood that I had to try my best to help the project along and fulfill Mr Havel’s – as well as the filmmaker’s – wishes.”

Citizen Havel was the brainchild of respected Czech filmmaker Pavel Koutecký, who worked on it for years but died tragically in 2006 before the project was fully completed. Until then, countless hours of material had accumulated. Filming first began shortly before Mr Havel was newly elected as the president of the Czech Republic in 1993, following the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia. Mr Koutecký’s colleague, producer Jarmila Poláková, recall’s the filmmaker’s original inspiration:

Jarmila Poláková says the early years after the Velvet Revolution were indeed remarkable – a sharp break with the past that were fascinating precisely because thez saw non-politicians like Mr Havel suddenly come to the fore. She agrees, especially in the early years, he was unusually informal, a style he has more or less retained; many observers will find Mr Havel’s approach both fresh and extraordinary. The film reveals moments were he is serious but also playful and self-deprecatory. In one scene he practices an acceptance speech and then he jokes after his election.

Equally fascinating are the backroom meetings: Mr Havel surrounded by his closest advisors, discussing everything from matters of state to his wardrobe to photo opportunities. As a rule, security issues were always left off camera. Ladislav Špaček and others make clear this was “understood”, but even so it was his and colleagues’ task to never forget the camera was running.

“We were officials, state officials, so we couldn’t ‘forget’ the camera around us. Some of us were more careful when the camera was present. You can notice in the film when some of the advisors grow quiet, and they very careful when the camera was there. Because they felt it was their job to speak only to the president. Not to the public.”

Still, enough of their dialogues do come through with some, like Mr Špaček or the former head of Mr Havel’s office, Ivan Medek, coming across as the sharpest but also most likeable of political hawks. As for Mr Havel?

'Citizen Havel'
“I think that the film will show the president in a genuine light: until now he was seen mostly only in short clips on the TV news. Just short sentences. But now we can look at him in the kitchen, at his flat, we follow his sense of humour and see that he is not just a politician but a person of many facets. I think this a good example of when a myth of the president as ‘just a politician, thinking just of political talks’ is destroyed.”

For many viewers, Citizen Havel will be another chance to revisit the years gone by: many of the most important moments, both in Mr Havel’s career but also in the state of the country. There are the elections, the fall of the right-of-centre Civic Democrat-led government, Mr Havel’s battles with illness, and his second marriage. Many moments in Mr Havel’s life are seen anew, for the first time, but the film also captures a broader tableau that will have some viewers recalling “where they were” when it all happened. What was it like to re-experience the past for someone who was at the centre of it all? Ladislav Špaček again:

“Well, it is like an engine in time: I can go back ten or fifteen years ago, and it’s a very good feeling to look back at talks and situations now knowing how they turned out! For us, and people around the president, it was very moving to see it. But for viewers in the cinema what is more important is the personality of Havel himself. Of course, for those of us who were involved, we see it through our emotions. We were really, really moved: there were moments when I had tears in my eyes.”

It has to be said it can’t have been easy for those involved to finish the project after filmmaker Pavel Koutecký’s death. Eventually, editor and director Miroslav Janek was asked to complete the film, sifting and choosing from 70 hours of material to bring Citizen Havel to the screen. Critics will say he did an admirable even excellent job especially under the circumstances. We’ll never know exactly how Mr Koutecký himself intended to put it all together, but Mr Janek’s use of the material unravels a curious and personal narrative that peeks behind the political curtain. Producer Jarmila Poláková again:

“I couldn’t accept that Pavel Koutecký wouldn’t complete it. We had been working on another project together as well, and [his death] was incomprehensible to me. I knew that I couldn’t just leave all the material in boxes, that it couldn’t be left unfinished.”