The Lust for Power

Will Tizard from Variety on Opus Bonum selection The Lust for Power by Tereza Nvotová (world premiere).

The Lust for Power (Mečiar,Tereza Nvotová, 2017)

Lust for Power, Tereza Nvotová’s thoughtful exploration of one of Slovakia’s most notorious recent leaders, is well timed, to be sure. It would be hard to imagine a better year for looking back at how a populist chameleon managed to seize power, manipulate the system to remain in charge and return from the dead – politically, at least – with horrifying alacrity.

Her well-constructed documentary, which weaves together the tangled threads of Vladimír Mečiar’s rise and fall (and repeated variations on both), also forms an important historical record. It should be preserved while memories are still fresh, lest the nascent democracies of the region forget the object lessons of his often-farcical maneuvers and their effects on his countrymen and women.

In these days of renewed populist mini-Trumps and crackdowns on artistic expression and political opponents in Central and Eastern Europe, whether or not we have learned these lessons is another question. But Mečiar’s case remains our responsibility to keep in mind. Nvotová never lectures us as I’ve just done and strives to examine all sides of this complicated, messy son of Detva, a hamlet more unlikely than most to produce a future prime minister– especially one chosen to pilot his people through the dawn of the Velvet Revolution.

A task more ill-suited to this anti-Havel can scarcely be imagined, as Nvotová shows us through deft use of archival footage, news reports from the early ‘90s and accounts from former colleagues and rivals. Then, of course, there’s Mečiar himself, rolling around his comfortable, sizable (for Slovakia) villa, as unapologetic as ever and only a little less bombastic than the strutting caricature he made of himself while in office.

Never doubt the power of denial, the old saw tells us. A la Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Mečiar happily agrees to discuss his past with Nvotová. He reflects fondly on the days of his attacks on democratic institutions and his charades within the Interior Ministry, gathering blackmail files on his enemies. He reminisces upon the surreal episodes that grew out of his attacks on Slovak president Michal Kováč, culminating in the abortive alleged kidnapping of the president’s son in 1995, a stunt still legendary in the rogue’s gallery of Eastern European politics.

The writer/director never directly confronts her arrogant subject about his past as a similar filmmaker might in Western Europe or North America, which will frustrate some viewers. But Nvotová remains well in line with other Central European documentarians of her generation in going at his character issues obliquely and with a sense of irony, if not a touch of affection. Indeed, it seems apparent that he’s allowed the filmmaker into his personal refuge in part because he’s been charmed over by her non-threatening demeanor. If so, we all are the beneficiaries; few others have gained access to the fallen scoundrel and it’s surely worthwhileto hear his side of things, even if doing so will occasionally turn our stomachs.

The Lust for Power (Mečiar, Tereza Nvotová, 2017).

How else, we suppose, could anyone have recorded Mečiar nonchalantly comparing himself to Alexander Dubček – and in the same breath to Jozef Tiso, the head of the Nazi puppet regime of the wartime First Slovak Republic? Tellingly, the comparison is almost devoid of politics or even basic morality. To Mečiar, the two former Slovak leaders share something more important: Each ended up on the career and physical ash pile, just as he has, to his own disbelief. A philosopher king Mečiar was never born to be...

The dissolution of Czechoslovakia and Mečiar’s incredible seizure of the issue from any side that’s expedient, along with his recasting of the event as a great achievement of his own, is just as stunning. But can we really be surprised? He was, after all, a smarter Trump before Trump, even without a Manhattan real estate empire. His tactics might well have formed the playbook for the despots of today. Sadly, Mečiar’s moves have only been refined and expanded upon, along with his delusions of grandeur. So absurd is his devotion to a singular notion of himself as the victim-in-chief, that the inevitable laughs balance out the queasiness that audiences will share at reviewing his record in his presence.

Nvotová, who is also a Slovak actress and nonfiction filmmaker for HBO Europe, Czech and Slovak public TV, is wise enough not to allow his own rose-tinted account to stand unchallenged. She adds a narrative monologue into the mix, useful both as a refresher of the warped politics of his era and as background for those (perhaps luckily) not familiar with his story. Strange as it seems that this merits commending, it certainly does in the context of so many documentaries from the region inclined to drop audiences into the middle of messy socio-political landscapes with little to no effort made at providing background.

Mečiar’s family history adds further to the big picture, as does evocative aerial footage of the Slovak landscape, which serves as a literal and metaphoric setting in which we can more easily imagine phantasmagorical figures rising from small-town ambitions into an epic threat to all and sundry.

Nvotová’s script, co-written with Josef Krajbich and Barbora Námerová, is also circumspect, leaving it to us to decide what we think of her protagonist, his admittedly remarkable accomplishments and his current rather lonely existence in political exile.

Will Tizard 

Will Tizard is a Central & Eastern Europe correspondent for Variety. Variety is the premier film industry trade journal, covering the global production, distribution and exhibition sectors, plus TV, the web and the stage, and its reviews are an important source for buyers worldwide. He is a senior journalism professor at Anglo-American University in Prague, he is completing production on Buried, a documentary following the fight for the return of stolen Holocaust-era Judaica in Russia.

more articles from a section:  Review

1+2.19On Sounds by ImageThe film journalist Antonín Tesař writes about the new film The Sound Is Innocent directed by Johana Ožvold.Antonín Tesař
1+2.19 Music as a Lag Between Death and InfinityJanis Prášil ruminates on Solo – this year´s winner of Ji.hlava Czech Joy section – which comes to cinemas. Did the picture succeed in depicting the inner world, so hard to portray, of a mentally ill musician? And what if it is the illness itself which enables people to take a look into the grievous core of being?Janis Prášil
1+2.19A Place to Take a BreathThe film journalist Janis Prášil compares two documentary portraits of this year – Forman vs. Forman and Jiří Suchý: Tackling Life with Ease on his blog.Janis Prášil
F2.18The Silence of Others This film by Almudena Carracedo and Rober Bahar, produced by the Almodóvar brothers, screams out for justice for the unpunished crimes of the Franco régime
F4.17China, 87. The OthersWill Tizard from Variety on the Opus Bonum selection China 87. The Others by Violaine de VillersWill Tizard
F2.17Máme tlakovú níž / Richard Müller: Nepoznaný
F1.17Also Known as JihadiWill Tizard from Variety on the Opus Bonum selection Also Known as Jihadi byEric BaudelaireWill Tizard
F1.17On the Edge of Freedom Sydney Levine from SydneysBuzz on First Lights selection On the Edge of Freedom by Jens Lengerke and Anita Mathal Hopland (central European premiere). Sydney Levine
F3.17Acts and IntermissionsColin Beckett on Opus Bonum selection Acts and Intermissions by Child Abigail (internationale premiere).Colin Beckett
F3.17Enticing Sugary Boundless or Songs and Dances about DeathColin Beckett on Between the Seas selection Enticing Sugary Boundless or Songs and Dances about Death by Tetiana Khodakivska and Oleksandr Stekolenko (world premiere). Colin Beckett

starší články

25. 10. 2017

from current issue:

Situational reviewThe creators of Havel didn’t know that they don’t know. And that’s the worst kind of not knowing!Is director Slávek Horák’s film Havel truly chaos that says nothing at all about the recent history of our Czech nation or its first president? Or are the filmmakers entitled to artistic license and allowed to create whatever they like, despite giving the film and its main character the name Havel? And what does it say about the times we live in that from the legacy of the influential playwright, intellectual, politician, and master of words, the filmmakers chose to focus solely on his slightly sensationalised private life?Kamila BoháčkováNew releaseHeaven over Today’s ChinaWhat is the story behind the feature-length documentary, Heaven, focusing on a Chinese Christian-run orphanage that is also a testimony about today’s China? Director Tomáš Etzler sees the film as a logical ending of his seven years in the Middle Kingdom. The second contribution was written by editor Adéla Špaljová who describes her collaboration with the director on the creation of the final cut of the documentary.Tomáš Etzler, Adéla ŠpaljováNew releaseAs Far As Possible Ukrainian documentarian Ganna Iaroshevych describes how she has been preparing her new film called As Far As Possible. It´s a portray of a man who decided to leave Germany and lives in the Ukrainian mountains fighting against the extinction of water buffaloes. „Our film tells about an alternative way of slow living close to nature and animals, and in harmony with yourself. And it seems to us that now this topic is especially relevant to many people around the globe,“ says Ganna Iaroshevych.Ganna JaroševičNew releaseThe Alchemical FurnaceJan Daňhel describes the concept behind his documentary film Alchemical Furnace that portrays the figure and work of Jan Švankmajer.ThemeIt comes right from the bellyIn this personal essay, a Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen remembers one of the world's greatest and most unique modern film composers, Jóhann Jóhannsson. This article was written in 2018, shortly after the Jóhannsson´s death, but has never been published.PoemGramsci’s NotebooksMike HoolboomInterviewKarel Vachek: Films Just Have to Make You Laugh!A doyen of Czech documentary filmmaking Karel Vachek unfortunately passed away on the 21th of December 2020. We publish here the interview he made in 2019 just after releasing his last film, the ninth film novel called Communism and the Net or the End of Representative Democracy. Fifty years after Prague Spring and thirty years after the Velvet Revolution, Karel Vachek “with his inner laughter” looks back on the evolution of our society and predicts a transformation to direct democracy based on the possibilities of the internet that will allow for the engagement of the whole mankind without the need of representatives. Kamila BoháčkováNew BookArmy Film and the Avant Garde?American film historian Alice Lovejoy discusses how her book Army Film and the Avant Garde: Cinema and Experiment in the Czechoslovak Military came to be. First published by Indiana University Press in 2015, the book will be published in a Czech translation by Jan Hanzlík in 2021 by the National Film Archive. The idea for the book emerged during the years the author lived in the Czech Republic.Alice LovejoyIntroductionLiving with inner laughterDok.revue 2.20Kamila Boháčková