Review: ‘Citizen Havel’

This remarkably intimate cinema verite portrait of playwright-turned-statesman Vaclav Havel is a revealing look at a tumultuous period.

It’s hardly possible to get closer to a famous subject for a more extended period of time than the access granted late helmer Pavel Koutecky by playwright-turned-statesman Vaclav Havel. From 1992, just prior to his election as president of the newly formed Czech Republic, through his defeat by arch-rival Vaclav Klaus in 2003 and beyond, this remarkably intimate cinema verite portrait of Havel at the helm is a revealing look at a tumultuous period and will thus stand as a fest mainstay that could do modest specialty biz prior to enduring shelf life.

“I would like to be a good president,” the former dissident playwright said upon his election, and to that end he’s got a panel of trusted advisers, called “sleazy and oddball” by one critic, with whom he consults continuously. To watch him sitting around kibitzing and strategizing with the group is to be reminded of similar dramatic scenes in Robert Redford starrer “The Candidate.” To a great extent, this was seat-of-the-pants governance, guided by Havel’s natural instinct and the idealistic maxim to which he returns again and again: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”

A Boris Yeltsin visit is planned, and Havel escorts Bill Clinton to his favorite Prague jazz club to blow sax. Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood asks advice on local restaurants as the band swings through town on their Voodoo Lounge tour. His doting first wife, Olga, is laid to rest, and he marries current spouse, actress Dagmar Veskrnova, in a warm civil ceremony. Havel is diagnosed with cancer, and insists on a last offscreen smoke with his minister of health and a toast with his doctors before treatment begins.

He is revealed as almost obsessively fussy, forever picking lint off things, fiddling with his ever-present cigarettes and fretting over the fit and suitability of his work clothes. “Are these trousers too short?” he appears to ask French president Jacques Chirac at one point. Upon political defeat, Havel wryly describes his future plans: “I’ll just go from pub to pub, my pockets full of well-thumbed photos of people I used to know.”

“We could film whenever we wanted,” explained original helmer Koutecky, “but it wasn’t clear when something was going to be interesting or have a point to it. … It often happened that when we got there either Havel or someone else told us, ‘Too bad you weren’t here yesterday! Now that was interesting!’”

Koutecky fell from a building while filming another project in 2006, and the footage — on 40 three-hour VHS cassettes — was assembled under the supervision of acclaimed documaker Miroslav Janek. In printed interviews, Janek points out Havel’s ability to tune out the camera, and describes statesman as “a unique phenomenon in politics.” Pic opened domestically Jan. 31, with admissions in the first week matching the first full month of biz for “Eastern Promises.”

Citizen Havel

Czech Republic


A Hero Films release (in the Czech Republic) of a Film and Sociology Foundation, FTV, Negativ Film production. (International sales: Negativ Film, Prague.) Produced by Jarmila Polakova. Directed by Pavel Koutecky, Miroslav Janek.


Camera (color, 16-to-35mm), Stano Slusny; editor, Tonicka Jankova; sound (Dolby Digital), Daniel Nimec, Viktor Ekrt. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 10, 2008. Running time: 120 MIN. (Czech, English dialogue.)


Vaclav Havel, Olga Havelova, Vaclav Klaus, Dagmar Veskrnova, Milos Zeman, the Rolling Stones, Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac.

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