Former Czech president calls shots for "Leaving"

With typical diffidence, Vaclav Havel quietly waited until everyone else got their freedom before taking his own share.

In 1989, he became the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia since the 1948 communist coup in that country. But he never really desired the post, as he’s often admitted. Still, when his cohorts in the struggle for freedom that became the Velvet Revolution put his name forward in 1989, he felt he could hardly refuse.

So he served, often uneasily, for 13 years, overseeing the restoration of democracy and the free market, Czech membership in the European Union and NATO, and the peaceful split-up of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Now, some 21 years after every other Czech was freed from the cruel absurdism of the Soviet machine, Havel, at age 73, is finally doing what he always dreamed of: directing a film.

“My family contributed greatly to Czech film,” he recalls, in a rare interview on the set of “Leaving,” the adaptation of his 2007 stage play, now being shot on the grounds of a prewar-era villa in the town of Ceska Skalice.

“So naturally, I dreamed of directing movies. But, because my family had property, the communists would not allow me to study at film school.”

But his entree into the theater was really a compromise for Havel — if one in which he found ample opportunity to send up the Kafka-esque society Czechs were living in before 1989.

“Leaving” portrays the story of a melancholy head of state, Vilem Rieger, stepping down from power and yearning to resume his long-neglected private life. Alas, he discovers, a la “King Lear,” that his kingdom was not what he thought it was, and that those he trusted most now care little for him, while those he reviled as petty bureaucrats prove to be decent, practical allies.

On a sunny day on the film set,the ex-president exudes calm but admits that film is far more demanding than theater in many ways.

“I didn’t realize all the work behind it,” he says. “You have to be on the spot all times.”

Working under a former president and a man many call the conscience of the Czech people could be intimidating, admits actor Jaroslav Dusek, who plays Klein, the Machiavellian rival politico who wants to evict Rieger so he can sell off the property at a shopping mall, complete with bordello.

But, says Dusek, Havel’s humility wins out. “He still has that quality of a little boy at play,” he says.

Yet Havel’s message, even if satirical, is more relevant now than ever — that the decency and dignity of most people are always under threat; the threat’s simply changed from capricious communist bureaucracy to crass consumerism.

Whether the film, budgeted at $3 million, can do much business in the United States beyond arthouses is up for debate, confesses producer Jaroslav Boucek. Hopefully, he says, auds will be drawn to the work because “Havel’s name is well known,” adding that he’s in talks with a U.S. and a German buyer.

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