Havel: Intimacy at the Origins of Democracy

Václav Havel is a legendary figure in the political and cultural history of Czech Republic. His life has been covered in several documentary films over the years, but Havel (2020) must be one of the most ambitious biopics to fictionalise the former playwright’s rise as the first president of democratic Czech Republic, after the fall of communism. Directed by Slávek Horák, the film debunks the myth of a flawless revolutionary and activist by digging into his past and personal relationships – sides that haven’t usually been in the spotlight. 

May ’68. Prague. Václav (Viktor Dvorák) is a chain-smoking man of the theatre, surrounded by a group of hippie friends, with large glasses, turtlenecks and funky music in their veins. They’re also swimming in the waters of politics, debating and vehemently protecting each other’s freedom and liberty of expression. Soon after the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia, the political landscape turns into a controlled regime that consolidates the communist hold, which Václav and his group oppose. 1977 is the moment of Charta 77 (their magnum opus) and it doesn’t take long for Václav to be incarcerated (twice) for his charismatic dissidence. The experience in prison is a transformative one, a back-and-forth chronicling the melting of Václav’s bohemian extravaganza and maturing into the Czech powerhouse of democracy.

Havel places an important emphasis on Václav’s relationships with the women in his life. There’s his wife, Olga (Anna Geislerová) and his lover, Anna (Barbora Seidlová). As a recurrent pun, Václav asks Olga to read his texts or his political manifestos and afterwards lays solemnly on the other side of the bed, telling her he’s sorry for not being as “morally strong” as she deserves. Horák and scriptwriter Rudolf Suchánek clearly understand the nuances of this arrangement, pointing out both women’s discontent and Václav’s impossible emotional state of mind, without pulling the string too vigorous one way or the other.  

There certainly has been a need for filmmakers to revisit personalities of the past, in an attempt to deconstruct the aura of intangibility that still lingers around certain names. It is a genre in itself, inheriting the Hollywood obsession with individualism. In the case of Eastern Europe, it is no wonder that so many artists served as a subject for various biopics set in communist times. Summer (Leto) is one of the latest, revealing the intimacies of Soviet rockstars Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko. Without much in common stylistically, both Leto and Havel emphasize the ongoing quest to fight censorship and gain access to free speech for artists. These fictional dives into the past undoubtedly evoke a larger discourse on the challenges contemporary artists are facing, while also depicting the characters’ romantic life in a way that shows nothing is as simple or as traditional as in history books.

Havel maintains a smooth visual language to the end. Crowded spaces, in which the Chartists write their manifestos in secret, contrast with grandiose theatre halls, which they are only able to visit as mental projections. The closeness doesn’t turn into invasiveness – even though we’re breathing next to Václav and his friends, the proximity is rather soothing, conveying a sense of nostalgia. Not for those nightmarish times, but for the confidence and the determination that sparks in the human body and mind when the truth is being called for.

Diana Smeu
Edited by Amber Wilkinson