Michael Havas: Peter Gabriel called about doing a video with Jan Švankmajer
Michael Havas grew up in New Zealand but came to communist Czechoslovakia – the country his parents had escaped from – to study film. He has made over 50 documentaries in a career that has seen him work with director Jan Švankmajer and many more noteworthy figures. Indeed, I first came across him in connection with a letter protesting Brexit that he wrote to the UK prime minister and circulated to friends, including Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin of Monty Python and musician Peter Gabriel. But when we met I first asked Michael Havas about his family background.
“My first year was in Israel, or Palestine.
“They didn’t like it there at the time so because my father was a returned serviceman he was able to pick and we went to England and spent the next three years there.
“We stayed with Professor Russell, who was one of the fathers of Esperanto. People like George Bernard Shaw would walk into the house – of course I had no idea who George Bernard Shaw was.
“Then, because my mother’s sister had ended up in New Zealand, suddenly she said, Come to New Zealand.
“We took a boat and from Sydney we flew by flying boat to Auckland.
“And I grew up in Auckland. I went to university level there: MA.”
To rewind a little bit, what did your dad do in the famous 311 Squadron in the RAF?
“He was a liaison officer. He was an anglophile. He’d worked for Baťa and had been in England before the war, so he spoke excellent English.
“He didn’t fly. He didn’t do any of these terrible suicide missions during the night.”
And your mum and dad met in the UK, is that correct?
“All of the people from this generation that came from Czechoslovakia to New Zealand had property within a couple of years. It was quite amazing.”
“Yes, it’s a funny story. He had to get out of Hitler’s Slovakia and somehow he got to England.
“He went into this Czech centre, where all of these Czech refugees were milling around, and apparently he was walking down the steps and she was walking up the steps when they saw each other. And something clicked.”
She was a Sudeten German, I read some place.
“No, she was Czech but her father was a Sudeten German. He actually came to New Zealand in the 1960s for six months, so I did get to meet him.
“He was the only relative in the family that I ever met, from the continent, at that time.
“He actually went with her to London before the war for her to study English.”
When your folks moved to New Zealand, what did they actually do there?
“They were this Baťa generation and they were obsessed with being independent and were probably economically very savvy.
“All of the people from this generation that came from Czechoslovakia to New Zealand had property within a couple of years. It was quite amazing.
“My father started from scratch. He started in a meat works, a slaughter house.
“Later he worked for a construction company which was building state welfare homes.
“When I got to Zurich in 1969, there were 30,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia.”
“And then gradually, because they had this obsession to be independent, he set up a small import-export company.”
As a teenager, you became a kind of budding rock journalist and were interviewing people like the Rolling Stones and Roy Orbison. How did the Stones, or the other stars that you met, respond to you being so young?
“Well, we were all young. They weren’t much older. I was 16 and they were 20, maybe.
“I think they were thrilled to be in New Zealand, in Auckland.
“I had this stupid Roliflex camera. In those days if you wanted to do a flash photograph, it was not easy, because the bulbs kept popping out and you had to have batteries.
“And of course I didn’t know what I was doing, quite frankly. But it was good fun.”
After studying in Auckland and in Zurich in Switzerland, you came to Prague in the 1970s to study documentary making at FAMU. What led you to come, during normalisation, to the country your parents had left all those years previously?
“One of them was living in the studentenheim where I was living and we talked.
“I found out that his brother was teaching camera at FAMU and I said, I’d love to make films.
“In those days New Zealand had made three feature films between 1940 and 1970.
“So there was interest and there was support for a New Zealander who was in Europe, because they knew that Europe was making good films and the Czechs had made some wonderful films in the ‘60s.
“So I came. And New Zealand had the advantage of being a political neutral country.
“I became a self-paying student, which means I had to pay my school fees and I had to fund my existence. Well, it was cheap.
“And FAMU was like an oasis of freedom, in a way.
“Even Miloš Forman said in later interviews that during the ‘50s, when he was at FAMU, it was the only place where there was freedom, really.
“In similar ways, in the 1970s FAMU was very inspirational.
“Of course, film making in those days was technically very complicated, so you had to learn lots of technical things which weren’t ideological.
“The other thing was I was not allowed to attend the ideological classes.
“There was a course in Marxism-Leninism and of course they didn’t want my opinions, from the West, so that was a course which I didn’t have to get any marks for.”
You’ve made 50 or 60 documentaries. Has there been a particular focus in your work, or have you done all kinds of different films?
“There was a course at FAMU in Marxism-Leninism and of course they didn’t want my opinions, from the West.”
“I’ve always been interested in culture and history and nature – those would be the three sort of main areas.
“In the case of culture and history, I’ve always tried to find topical aspects, because I’m not interested in doing encyclopaedias looking into the past.
“I’m always looking for some sort of context.
“For example, when I made a one-hour feature documentary about the private art collection of the Liechtenstein family, which was presented by Peter Ustinov, I looked at art as a diplomatic instrument and at how it contributed to the rise to power and the survival of this family in this tiny little country.”
You also worked with Jan Švankmajer. What did you do with him? And how was the experience?
“We had 10 wonderful years together, actually.
“We met through mutual friends and my Swiss producer, who produced the Liechtenstein film, for which Jan did some animation, was so taken by his work.
“This was in the ‘80s, when there was nowhere in Czechoslovakia where you could see Jan’s films.
“We actually secretly screened them on an editing table in the Laterna Magika studios.
“My producer said, Listen, we just have to do some films with him.
“I came home one day and there was this voice on the answering machine: This is Peter Gabriel and I would love to speak to you. I’d been living in communist Czechoslovakia, so I didn’t really know that much about him at that time.”
“We produced his first full-length feature Alice, or Něco z Alenky, and it was a long, complicated process.
“Two American animators, twins, the Brothers Quay, who were living in London at the time, came with a friend of mine, Keith Griffiths. They came for the second time to Prague, asking to meet Švankmajer.
“And of course the powers that be said, We’ve got lots of animators in this country – why do you want to meet Švankmajer? We’d rather you met so and so and so and so.
“They said, No, no, we’re surrealists, that’s why we want to meet Švankmajer.
“When they came the second time, having failed on their first attempt, a friend of mine who was working in Czech film phoned me secretly and said, They are there these three guys, they’ve come here for the second time, they want to meet Švankmajer and I know you know him – could you possibly arrange a meeting?
“So we did and eventually they made a special, one-hour documentary.
“It was the first time, actually, that anybody had made a documentary about Jan, because he wasn’t interested in films being made about him.
“But because they were surrealists they got on very well with Jan. The film was called The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer and it was for Channel 4.
“From then on we worked together for the next several years. We did several short films, like Jídlo, or Food, and Konec Stalinism v Čechách, or the Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.”
Isn’t it the case that your connection to Peter Gabriel comes through his interest in Jan Švankmajer?
“Funny things happen, you know.
“I came home one day and there was this voice on the answering machine: This is Peter Gabriel and I would love to speak to you – if you get a chance, please ring back.
“I’d been living in communist Czechoslovakia, so I didn’t really know that much about Peter Gabriel at that time.
“I called back and he asked whether we could possibly do a music video with Jan Švankmajer.
“At that time were doing his second feature film, which was Lekce Faust, or Faust.
“The other thing was that after the death of Zdeněk Liška, who had been his music composer for all his brilliant films, Jan didn’t really feel comfortable about music.
“The Sledgehammer video is really an homage to Jan and a double homage, because Jan was paying homage to Arcimbaldo, the mannerist painter who had been at the court of Rudolf II.”
“At that time he was calling it ‘pollution’.
“So we never actually did any animation with Jan, although if you look at the Sledgehammer video, you will see that at least half of it – and that’s the half that was made by the Brothers Quay, is very Švankmajerian.”
Now you say it, it’s absolutely in that style.
“It is. The reason is that the Brothers Quay loved Jan’s work. They knew it.
“It’s really an homage to Jan and a double homage, because Jan was paying homage to Arcimbaldo, the mannerist painter who had been at the court of Rudolf II.”
As a fan of Monty Python I have to ask you, how do you know Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam?
“For about six years just after 2000 I was employed by Letní filmová škola, the summer film school, in Uherské Hradiště.
“They asked me to attract and convince people to come from the English-speaking world and then eventually from Brazil as well, and from Africa.
“Somehow I learnt to communicate with these people and once you know one of them it somehow seems to snowball.
“So eventually I succeeded in inviting Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard to Uherské Hradiště.
“Now the idea of inviting somebody to this small city in Moravia – sorry, Moravia – it’s not easy.
“That’s how I got to know them.
“And ever since then we somehow found so many points of contact, in thought and in culture and in history, that we’ve kept up the correspondence.”