The creators of Havel didn’t know that they don’t know. And that’s the worst kind of not knowing!
The documentary aspects of the biopic Havel were discussed for dok.revue by journalist, translator, dissident, and Charter 77 signatory Petruška Šustrová (PŠ), politician, writer, historian, lawyer, and Charter 77 signatory Petr Pithart (PP), and documentarian and sociologist Ivo Bystřičan (IB).
Critics largely panned the film, yet reports appeared in the media that it was well-received by some of Havel’s contemporaries, for example Michael Žantovský, Dagmar Havlová, or Petruška Šustrová, who joins us here. What are your opinions of the film?
PŠ: I liked Havel, even though I have a few reservations. I like that it is rendered truly cinematically – that the film shows from the beginning that it plays out on a stage. I appreciated the beautiful sequences that alternated between reality and a theatre stage. At a key moment, the character of Havel steps out of the room and raises the curtain, and we see that the entire trial is taking place on a stage. I found this unusual revelation interesting – that what we’re being shown isn’t reality, but rather just cinema. I think this helped the filmmakers show that this is neither a documentary nor reality, and so they have the right to do what they want with these characters, who are more or less fictitious after all, despite having some basis in reality. The reviews of the film that I read and heard were truly devastating. The main argument was that the reality they portrayed was different. It’s complicated. Everyone who ever spoke to Václav Havel once or twice is now an expert and knows what Havel would say or do and how he was or wasn’t. I personally wouldn’t dare. I have a few small reservations about the film: it was a little slow and “sweaty” for my taste. However, when I say that I liked the film, I’m really talking about the film, not about how it portrays the real Václav Havel. Those are two different things.
IB: The film was a disappointment for me, not because I was imagining some concrete depiction of Václav Havel as he truly was – because I didn’t know him personally and had no preconceptions about how he should be portrayed. Nevertheless, I knew him as a public figure, philosopher and essayist, playwright, and eventually politician and president. And so I expected that these sides of his personality would be represented in the film. But I have to say that they were completely absent. To me, the things Petruška Šustrová pointed out – and I like the way she put it – are something like ornaments. Perhaps the work with the theatre environment or the level that intermingles there are visually interesting, but if I didn’t know any of Havel’s theatrical works, I certainly wouldn’t learn anything about them from the film. Not only that, but I also felt the lack of any kind intellectual background for Havel’s values and how they were formed. The film illustrates it on a private level in scenes with Havel’s life partner Olga, but that’s probably what bothered me the most. It focuses too much on Havel’s private life, which it then rounds out with a sort of survey of the historical shifts of our country.
PP: I avoid judging it on an axis of “liked it” or “didn’t like it”. For people like me, it’s not a film. I think a film about Václav Havel should be appealing and accurately portray Havel for people who weren’t his contemporaries and companions. Today’s youth won’t understand it at all. How did Havel become president? Why? In the closing scenes of the film, Havel enters a room where Alexander Dubček is sitting, and Havel tells Dubček that he won’t support him and that he will assume the presidency himself. Then he steps out onto a balcony in front of a crowd of people, throws up a peace sign, and suddenly he’s president. But it isn’t clear why him! Just so the filmmakers don’t get upset, Slávek Horák’s previous work, Home Care, is a good film. But this should never have been made. For a lot of people, it will just bring total confusion – chaos. Yes, there are some good directorial concepts, as Petruška Šustrová mentioned, but on the whole, it doesn’t make any sense.
From Slávek Horák’s film Havel. Photo courtesy of Czech Television
PŠ: I would argue against this. The film doesn’t aim to give, say, an authoritative interpretation of history. I don’t know what the creators’ intention was, but as far as I read, they wanted to show their vision of Václav Havel. And that’s what they did. The other thing is that this kind of vision can hardly depict the real Havel for someone who didn’t know him. Based on the film, it’s hard to say what this film version of Havel thought or what path he took. His feelings of hopelessness or failure, if we can put it that way, are evident in the film, as is the personal drama stemming from all the pressure, his own doubts, and his imprisonment. From my perspective, it wasn’t actually like that at all. But that doesn’t matter. Let people make whatever films they want, as long as they don’t pretend that this is the historical truth as it happened.
PP: You say that it wasn’t like that, but that it doesn’t matter. I don’t get it! A film has to have some kind of logic, after all! Again, take the ending. Before Havel goes to meet Dubček, he tells Olga something like: “I’m not sure if I can do this.” And she replies ironically: “It’s a little late for that now.” And the next scene is their ascent to the balcony. The viewers naturally have to ask why all those crowds of people believed in him! But we don’t find that out in this film. It’s pure chaos! Maybe the filmmakers had good intentions, but they were too ambitious. They didn’t know that they don’t know. And that’s the worst kind of not knowing!
We have here two opposing views – firstly, that it’s necessary to measure the entire film and the character of Havel in it against what Václav Havel was truly like and how historical events played out, and secondly, we have the opinion that anyone can paint their own portrait of Václav Havel, regardless of the reality. Why then is the film called Havel, and why is the actor Viktor Dvořák so physically similar to the real Havel to the point that he also can’t properly pronounce the letter ‘r’?
IB: That’s the key question – why is the film called Havel? Ms. Šustrová says it doesn’t matter how things were in reality, but on the other hand the film is about a real figure who we all witnessed, whether personally or through books or his public image. It’s simply a portrait of Havel, but the film lacks the courage to visit this character from an interesting perspective. In the space of 90 minutes, reduction will always be necessary, but the reduction should allow the important traits of the character to surface. Here the whole long and complicated normalisation period is reduced to the lowest common denominator – it’s anchored in Havel’s private life, and the primary theme becomes his irresolution, which his life partner Olga Havlová helps him work through. I think that’s not enough. Havel is reduced to a kind of absentminded or even foolish person, who, without knowing why – without anyone knowing why – ends up becoming president. We know that’s not how it was, and so from that point on the whole thing becomes a, perhaps unintended, parody.
"Havel can be reduced, but the most important things have to remain. Havel was a master of words, a man of words – whether as a playwright, author of his incredible presidential addresses, or as a writer and essayist. This film completely ignores that!"
PŠ: But I think the film isn’t about the real Václav Havel. You ask why it’s called Havel? Well, it’s an attractive subject and a good selling point. A lot of people I know, who I would dare say know more about the real Havel than the creators, went to see the film. They simply wanted to see how these filmmakers would portray him. At most the film is a testament to how much we all know as a society after 30 years. What do the filmmakers feel the need to say about a person of Havel’s stature? What’s more, it’s a film that was undoubtably well-financed and whose creators had the chance to familiarise themselves with the historical facts. The film doesn’t capture reality; it’s merely the vision of its creators. And they chose to focus on Havel’s personal life, which I think they realised in an inadequate fashion, but they’re not pretending to be a source of knowledge. They show how they see things, and you can’t take that away from them. Rather we more familiar contemporary witnesses should consider why the public memory has passed on something to the filmmakers that resulted in this?
PP: When you say that the film isn’t about Havel, but it’s called Havel – though it doesn’t really know why – then we cease to understand each other. Of course it’s about the real Havel, and the filmmakers focused on certain traits of his – his hesitancy, his uncertainty, his relationship with women, and his ambivalent relationship to politics. I reckon they thought they were pretty daring for showing sides of Havel that he couldn’t have been too proud of. They showed – as Havel says himself in the film – his failures. And those are good scenes. They’re interesting both cinematically and psychologically. As someone who lived through it, there are certain things I don’t mind letting slide. What does it matter that in the film Dubček visits the absurd theatre? It’s completely spurious. Dubček’s entire character is completely wrong in the film, even though he was the second most significant figure of that era. This film can’t possibly make any sense to people who didn’t live through those times.
From Slávek Horák’s film Havel. Photo courtesy of Czech Television
PŠ: The film also misrepresents the relationship between Havel and Dubček on the, shall we say political level, to the extent that this film has one. It starts with Alexander Dubček getting called up to the stage in the Na Zábradlí theatre. Not even my cat would believe that the First Secretary of the Communist Party would come to the Na Zábradlí theatre in the sixties. The film begins with a confrontation between Havel and Dubček that insinuates that Havel took him seriously – that he adored him. But this shares nothing in common with reality. Havel set himself apart from the dominant role of the party, to what extent it was possible, long before 1968. The film ends with Havel symbolically parting ways with Dubček, as if the entire time he had been approaching the decision that Dubček wouldn’t be president. It’s absurd. Nowhere in Havel’s works did I get the impression that he admired Dubček. The film shows one fantasy about Havel that someone’s mind can cook up.
PP: I agree that their relationship can’t be distorted like this. Havel wrote Dubček a personal letter sometime before Gustav Husák took office. We only learned about it later. He wrote: “For God’s sake, you still have the option of slamming the door and saying: I won’t be a part of this anymore, comrades! Do something!”. It was a critical relationship from the beginning, but the film turns it inside out. Havel was never an admirer of Dubček. He treated him with care and consideration, but there wasn’t a pinch of admiration. The filmmakers completely inverted the relationship of the two protagonists. This is corruption of the youth!
PŠ: There’s no need to get angry. The filmmakers certainly didn’t intend to somehow humiliate Václav Havel. It’s the result of poor understanding – and the result of anti-Havel propaganda, which has existed here in several currents for over 20 years. Among other things, we often meet with the belief that Havel didn’t understand politics. After 1989, the critical opinion of Havel leaned on the fact that he wanted to subvert regular politics. But nowadays many people take a critical view of political parties – Havel was just foresighted.
PP: Yes, Havel was sceptical of political parties, and as dissidents we long differed in that regard.
Who then is this film is intended for? We heard here that it’s not for contemporaries who knew Havel because it completely misses the mark about what everything was like then. But it’s also apparently not meant for the younger generation because it doesn’t paint a faithful picture of the normalisation period or Havel’s personality. Additionally, many characters in the film remain unnamed and its very unclear who they’re supposed to represent. For example, Jiří Bartoška most likely plays Havel’s teacher, the philosopher Jan Patočka, but Patočka was always clean shaven, whereas Bartoška has a beard. It’s a detail which shows that historical accuracy wasn’t important for the filmmakers.
IB: On one hand, a film should be intended for everyone, and thinking about target audiences is the job of marketing and shouldn’t concern the filmmakers. Film should be for everyone. It’s by definition a mass medium. On the other hand, I would like to react to what was just said. It’s possible that the reduction of the other characters who were significant in that period is due to the film’s international ambitions. The creators were probably counting on viewers who aren’t familiar with these historical facts, and so they didn’t bother with them. But then it can be a problem for Czech viewers. It was certainly a problem for me. After their radical reduction, the only thing left is the romantic story of a muddler who doesn’t know do with women. I was embarrassed that this dominates a film about such significant figure who created such works. I’m not the slightest bit interested in his sex life. It seems incidental to me, and I’m amazed that it interested the filmmakers. I can only explain it by their perhaps targeting a foreign audience that knows nothing about the facts nor the real historical counterpart of the character.
PŠ: I don’t want to believe that the film’s international audience would be made up of fans of romance novels.
From Slávek Horák’s film Havel. Photo courtesy of Czech Television
PP: If the film is aimed at foreign audiences, then it has too much ambition. A good film can capture the attention of foreign viewers, but to create a film with this goal in mind is a curse. Havel can be reduced, but the most important things have to remain. Havel was a master of words, a man of words – whether as a playwright, author of his incredible presidential addresses, or as a writer and essayist. This film completely ignores that! If one were to transcribe Havel’s lines from this film, they’d be pure nonsense. The film version of Havel is a muddle-headed blatherer. I can grant all the artistic license in the world, but this is simply over the line.
We’ve agreed that from Václav Havel’s entire intellectual and political legacy the filmmakers picked out only his personal defeats, fumbling, and certain scandals of his private life. What does this say about the times we live in and our perception of the recent past?
IB: I don’t think it says anything about our times. The filmmakers aren’t simply a consequence of the current era – it’s no fault of the times that they chose this particular perspective. At most the film says something about its own creators. The times can be seen more in their calculation that such a story would be comprehensible and that we would enjoy taking a peek into someone’s private life and their moral choices regarding relationships. This kind of calculation is probably now a reflection of our times – we think far more about what the audience might want instead of creating something of our own. We see market success as everything.
Let’s turn to the main theme of Slávek Horák’s film. I now address my question mainly to the contemporary witnesses – to those who knew Havel at that time. Did Havel really ponder over whether he’d rather be a writer or dedicate himself to politics? And secondly, whether he wanted a wife, a lover, or possibly to live with them both in a threesome? Is this truly a relevant theme when it comes to Havel?
PŠ: I had the dubious honour of participating in a few conversations about this matter with Václav and Olga. I don’t recall him ever considering living as a threesome. And that he would waver between a mistress or mistresses and Olga? Anyone that knew him would know that this is nonsense. He never did anything of the sort. Not that he didn’t have lovers, but there was never any room for real wavering with Havel.
PP: I know, from a much greater distance than Petruška Šustrová, that Olga was an extraordinarily strong and remarkable person, and after Václav had joined his life with hers, I can’t possibly imagine he would have ever given up his pillar of support. It’s just not possible. Those are two different classes: a casual mistress and an amazing, magnificent partner.
From Slávek Horák’s film Havel. Photo courtesy of Czech Television
PŠ: I never even noticed him having any sort of dilemma between writing and politics. Maybe he said it at some point, but why then would he make political appearances and write political essays if he wasn’t interested? His reluctance to be president was of a different sort. It came not only from his doubts, but from the fact that he thought it would get in the way of his work. In the autumn of 1989, he said that he would rather sit in the corner and advise and reconcile everyone.
PP: A key scene in the film is that of his “failure,” as Havel himself called it. The failure when, in moment of weakness and under duress, he signed a statement saying he would no longer dedicate himself to political action. That scene in the film needed to explain more in order for it to be clear and understandable. It was a terrible situation for Havel, and he wrestled with it for a long time. We asked him how he could believe that Charter 77 had ended. He said he had read the communist newspaper Rudé Právo for the first time! And that the interrogator had been so convincing! That was a missed opportunity for a deeper understanding of the whole complicated situation… As far as his reluctance to accept the candidacy for president, I was there when we persuaded Václav to accept it. The Civic Forum wouldn’t have got involved in politics otherwise. We pressured him, and he really couldn’t decide. And I believe him when he said that for a long time he didn’t want to do it. In truth he wanted to be the one behind the scenes.
At the beginning of our conversation, Ms. Šustrová spoke about the right of filmmakers to create whatever kind of film they want. This is certainly true. But the film Havel was expensive, and it was funded in part by the Czech Film Fund and co-produced by Czech Television, which means that there is a public interest in it creating a credible picture of Václav Havel for the present and future. It’s actually quite shocking to enter the public space with such a distorted and simplified depiction of such an important figure. When these kinds of films are made about the recent past, we can’t be surprised that young people know nothing about our contemporary history.
PŠ: I think that far more about Havel’s role in history (he would laugh if he heard me) can be discerned from our teaching of contemporary history. I would assume that in the year 2020 the generation of filmmakers that grew up after 1989 would have a basic knowledge about a figure as significant as Havel, who is seen in the West as the most prominent Czech dissident. But to people who studied in a free society it seems okay to present such a picture to the public. It’s a testament to their education. At a significant portion of primary and secondary schools, the study of history ends after World War II. I was born in 1947, but we certainly learned about that mad Victorious February of 1948. It was out of the question not to learn it. But that’s the way it is today. The state should subsidise education above all.
Mr. Bystřičan, last year with the TV documentary series Kovy Fixes History, you and YouTuber Kovy dealt with how modern history is taught in our secondary schools. Perhaps you’d like to add something to that in relation to the film Havel.
IB: I agree that our teaching of modern history is neglected, which is a given with the many problems in our education system. There’s not enough time, and there’s too much history. We don’t require a documentarian to investigate the overall shape of our schooling. The Czech School Inspectorate has exact figures and knows exactly what percentage of students reach all the way to the events after 1989 in their studies and how the normalization period is taught in schools. So it’s all the greater shame that the filmmakers gave up on trying to convey anything about that era through the story of such an important figure. I understand that a film isn’t obliged to be a historical account, and that ideological verification of films isn’t the task of the Czech Film Fund. I don’t think the funds were invested improperly, but on the other hand, it’s a shame that the film fails to depict the normalization period and the figure of Václav Havel in a way that would help young people today understand these historical events. The filmmakers have a right to create what they want, but we can’t discount their critics. What we’ve watched still arouses something in us, and as viewers we can be disappointed when we don’t learn anything new or it doesn’t provoke thought – when it just doesn’t do anything for us. Criticism always has its place.
"Let people make whatever films they want, as long as they don’t pretend that this is the historical truth as it happened."
PP: We all know that our teaching of history in schools today is bad. I teach students at the Law Faculty of Charles University, so I see it. We ask ourselves why things are this way. How come the filmmakers didn’t take into account that young people today know nothing about contemporary history? Out of the entire dissident movement, they picked out only the drinking, parties, sex, and music by the Plastic People of the Universe. It’s really too bad they managed to reassert the disparaging remarks about dissidents and “Havel-ites” that circulate among certain groups today. It really offends me because the dissident movement was something else completely. Charter 77 was 598 documents about the state of our country in different spheres of life. It was a massive intellectual work!
It’s precisely because of our current divided society, which has yet to come to terms with the past, resulting in detrimental effects in society and politics, that there’s a need for the filmmakers to be responsible in creating a reliable picture of this recent period in history. If it distorts history, or even gives a fallacious impression of it, this is rather dangerous for society.
IB: The filmmakers do have a responsibility, and in this case, they might feel like they met it, no matter how much we may doubt that. The image of the dissident movement as an endless sex-filled bender reminds me of the famous pamphlet by Ivan Sviták, which he wrote when he was already a professor in America. It stirred up a wave of outrage against him back then because it only gives a part of the picture of the movement. It’s an improper reduction of that era. This is why I got the impression that the film is a parody. It just needs some more upbeat music and shorter scenes, then it would be a proper parody of how the majority of society today sees Havel and the dissidents. As it is, it’s just an improper reduction of the same sort as that old Sviták pamphlet.
PŠ: We should also take into consideration the change in perception toward Václav Havel in Czech society. But this film isn’t about that. In 1989, Havel was regarded both here and abroad as a leading dissident. Then the political parties arrived with the view that apolitical politics is nonsense. Today society is divided between “love ‘n’ truthniks” or “Havel-ites” and those who would use such pejorative terms to describe Havel’s followers.
How do you think a film about Havel should be made in order for it to resonate with the current times and not only serve as a testament to that era but also make an appeal to the present?
IB: always found Havel’s texts to be thought-provoking, both in their comprehensibility and in their stimulating viewpoints. Even today, his texts force me to think about myself, how I make compromises, and what role I play in society. This motif permeates his works, which are fresh and original, and I think a film about Havel should share that ambition. It should have a clear view of what story to tell. I would expect it to aspire to be as original as Havel’s film Leaving, which is intentionally disjointed. I found it interesting that Havel managed to create something so provocative that it ruffled everyone’s feathers even before his death. I would expect a film about him to be like this as well – provocative in a certain regard. Unfortunately, the screenplay and visual conception of Slávek Horák’s film strike me as rather dull.
PŠ: Once again, I would dare to slightly disagree. Everyone can make a film as their knowledge and opinions compel. I wouldn’t presume to tell the filmmakers what to create. If I were the one making a film about Havel, it would be an appeal to personal responsibility – to what one must and should do. Anyone who has closely read Havel’s works knows and feels this. But in the end, Havel was a “man of words,” as was already mentioned here, and so I wouldn’t show him sweating over his work. We all probably get sticky like this when writing, but it doesn’t make for a very good film.
From the filming of Havel - director Slávek Horák (centre) with the performers of the title roles - Aňa Geislerová and Viktor Dvořák. Photo courtesy of Czech Television
It’s clear from this debate that Slávek Horák’s film fails to properly characterise both Václav Havel and the essence of that era. In your opinion, are there any books or films that manage to do so?
PŠ: I don’t know of a single book about Havel and the dissident movement that I would recommend for the general public and that all of my five children with their differing tastes would enjoy reading. I’ve also never seen a film that faithfully embodies the era.
PP: The “foreigner” Agnieszka Holland made an excellent mini-series Burning Bush about this period. With its heroine Dagmar Burešová, First Minister of Justice, it is in my opinion the best representation of those times. Holland obviously has the distance that we still do not. Making a film about the normalisation period takes courage – it has to be a brutal film. Robert Sedláček’s film Jan Palach is also good but more humble – it’s convincing.
PŠ: I would mention the fictionalised documentary series Czech Century by Pavel Kosatík and Robert Sedláček. It’s accurate. The documentary Olga, created from archival footage, was also authentic.
You mentioned Czech Century. In conclusion, allow me to refer to its director Robert Sedláček and screenwriter Pavel Kosatík from their discussion in the magazine Respekt. To a question about how to portray our domestic post-war history in film, Kosatík answered: “In order for it not to illustrate events from distant times but rather connect with the present, it helps to understand the present. There has to be a reason to film it here and now – and that reason must be visible in the result. If, for example, we are shocked by the number of people today who vote for populist parties, feel no solidarity with others, and cast aside the scruples necessary for life in a democracy, it means that we have misunderstood what a large portion of the population wanted in 1989 and lived through in the 90s. We can’t lay the blame solely at the feet of the communists. The dirt was ingrained. We need to keep trying to define, more precisely than before, what that national and societal ‘we’ actually means – what we truly do and do not have in common. In both space and time.” And Robert Sedláček responded to the question thus: “So, how best to show history? In a way that the resulting film forces the viewer to think… Serious films about history should force the viewer to search for their own answers.” It seems that to this end, the film Havel completely falls short.
PP: I hold both of these gentlemen in high regard, and I completely agree with them. Havel truly does not meet these imperatives set by Sedláček and Kosatík. I can’t imagine the audience ever identifying with the film’s protagonist in any situation and asking themselves, what would I do, how would I behave? Great art should shake a person. This film is nothing but piquant spectacle.
PŠ: These quotes are true, but I would carry the thought even further. In order for someone to identify with a figure from the past, they must be familiar with the historical circumstances. I’m afraid that this film doesn’t present any historical circumstances in a way that would allow anyone who didn’t experience these events to identify with anything.
Translated by Brian D. Vondrak