It’s been more than 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell and hundreds of millions of people threw off the yoke of Russian Soviet communism, but the issues of freedom and democracy have lost none of their relevance, while phrases such as “Russian influence,” “the resistance” and “the wall” are fraught with new meanings and fresh urgency.
Slávek Horák’s “Havel,” from the Czech Republic, doesn’t simply remind us of the vision and heroic role the former Czech president Vaclav Havel played in those historic changes, but its incisive and often troubling portrait of the playwright-turned-statesman also churns up thorny issues about populist revolts and the personal roles and responsibilities of both leaders and followers. The film received 14 nominations at the Czech Lion awards, the Czech Republic’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Writer-director Horák clearly wasn’t content to make a hagiographic portrait of Havel, and his creative choices are informed by his trenchant view of the Czech society that the “Velvet Revolution” produced.
“Today,” says Horák, “the Czech Republic sadly doesn’t resemble the country that Havel hoped would become both prosperous and idealistic. It seems like the people here quickly settled for the view that you could either have a good economy or be idealistic, but you can’t have both.”
Ironically, just as Americans elected a citizen-politician to lead them in 2016, back when the Czechs began their post-1989 democracy they turned not to a seasoned political pro, but someone from the arts, though Havel and Trump are as different as Havel’s thoughtful plays and Trump’s reality television offerings.
“Thanks to Havel, it was a very special time in early days, when our country was led by an idealistic writer-thinker philosopher,” Horák says. But just as America’s experiment in Trumpism concluded quickly with Trump becoming a one-term president, the Havel era was replaced in a few years by what Horák describes as “a standard European country.”
Horák says the Czechs consciously chose to take the more conventional, consumerist path and “the majority of the nation decided to go for the ‘full belly,’ which they believed meant they had to give up the luxury of being led by a philosophy or higher thoughts.”
And Havel’s dreams of a new society, forged behind prison walls and during endless days of writing, thinking, planning for a life of free expression, slipped from his grasp. In Horák’s view, “Havel knew it was over before the people knew it. Havel’s ideals died with him.”
Even though Horák laments what the loss of those “ideals” meant for his country, he feels the best way to honor Havel’s memory was to not sugarcoat the great author’s personal shortcomings or to replace Havel’s personal complexities with a “Man on a White Horse” fairy tale.
“Havel was from a bourgeois family, so there was this discrepancy between his ideals and his ‘Let’s sacrifice our wealth on the altar of ideas’ view. The reality is that all his family’s wealth was stolen by communists, so in the 1950s he was very poor. By the ’90s, he was getting back the property stolen by communists, but the people started to feel envy. They were already saying, ‘It’s easy for you.’ Again, the truth is, he became prosperous from his work, his writings, not his heritage, but to a lot of people it undermined his positions. I wanted to emphasize these contradictions in the movie, to show the paradoxes that make him interesting.”