‘It’s almost as though I’m an impostor in this job…I feel at any moment as thought someone will come along and divest me of office and throw me back into prison.’ So spoke Václav Havel of his Presidency of the Czech Republic which came, a month or so after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, as a kind of miracle. Havel had been in and out of communist jails all his adult life, had been prevented from attending university for his ‘bourgeois origins’, had seen his plays and writings banned throughout his country. He was the foremost Czech dissident of his era, originator of Charter 77, the protest-declaration of human rights which made headlines round the world and saw many of the signatories dismissed from their jobs, yet most Czechs had been given barely a sight of him in all that time. But as the Berlin Wall fell and Havel seized his moment, directing the Velvet Revolution from a downtown theatre as though staging the drama of his life, there was a fairytale quality about his election which few could dispute. ‘Havel’s is the rare life,’ said fellow-Czech writer Milan Kundera, ‘that resembles a work of art and gives the impression of perfect compositional unity.’ Havel himself was more humble: he was aware, he said, ‘of something utterly unbelievable in my own destiny….Sometimes I think my life is just a dream…’
Certainly he did not look Presidential: Havel was short, teddybearish, tending to chubbiness, with a self-declared ability to vanish into crowds. A man less like Solzhenitsyn, the towering bearded prophet who was his Russian dissident contemporary, it was difficult to imagine, yet there was something about Havel’s unassuming quality which seemed to fit his country. As he took office with the immortal words ‘People, your government has returned to you,’ there was widespread rejoicing, but nobody knew quite what to expect from the self-styled ‘President of the Truth’. Certainly it began as a government of high spirits and fun – colleagues from the time recall how much laughter there was in the Presidential Palace – Havel was controversially to appoint jazz rock artist Frank Zappa as “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism,” and was renowned for zipping up and down the corridors of power on a child’s scooter. His chief fear was that office would change him, that he would have to simplify complexities into soundbites, that ‘Living in Truth’, the title of one of his most famous essays, would be more difficult to combine with actual power. Yet barring the ‘Habsburg glare’ that historian Timothy Garton Ash noted developing in Havel on state occasions, accounts suggest a man more ironic about his position than attached to it and still, after the 13 years of power that his Presidency amounted to, relatively unspoilt.
This is the sense anyway that Citizen Havel (Občan Havel), the 2008 documentary (by Miroslav Janed and and Pavel Koutecký) screened as part of the Made in Prague Festival gives you of Havel in power. Set in the period following the Velvet Divorce of the Czechs and Slovaks in 1993, as Havel took up office in what was effectively a new country, the film gives us vivid images of the President behind the scenes. We see colleagues – in scenes wonderfully wreathed in Havel’s beloved cigarette smoke – instructing him to stand up straight, pull in his stomach, look more Presidential. We see Havel, this ‘happy fellow in a sweater’, awkwardly choosing ties to wear, worrying about the dandruff on his shoulders, bossed about by first wife Olga Havlova who complains he needs ‘instructions for everything.’ There are scenes of Havel trying to play a saxophone without a mouthpiece, and openly giggling when forced to listen to an opponent on the radio attacking him for his lack of moral stature.
Whether or not Havel made a good President for his country – and the country itself is still split on this, some feeling he was too much the dreamer whose government was marked by cronyism – the picture that emerges is enormously endearing: of a man without anger who knew deep down how comical his situation and he himself could be, and never ceased to be slightly amazed by where he had ended up.
The political process aside – and this is likely to be of less interest to non-Czechs – there are also sharp little vignettes of other men of power: of Václav Klaus – who as both Prime Minister and later President was effectively Havel’s nemesis and turned their Wednesday meetings, in Havel’s words, into a ‘nightmare’ – reportedly whining on about not being invited to a jazz concert in honour of a Clinton visit. We see Havel delighted by moments when he has ‘overcome his natural politeness’ and stood up to Klaus, a rival who, one suspects, terrified him. And there is a lovely moment when current President Miloš Zeman, a man gaining a notoriety for his supposed relationship with the bottle, interrupts a meeting with Havel – in which he badgers the President to be stronger with his adversary – to beg him for a shot of Becherovka.
Whether Havel was a successful President or not – and comparison with the hash Lech Walesa, his Polish counterpart, made of it should go some way towards settling the matter – he died mourned all over his country and the world, and it’s not hard to see why. A man like Havel in office is not a phenomenon likely to happen many more times this century , and the film is an invaluable portrait of how it looked and felt. In fact, Citizen Havel‘s only problem is its length – it seems to go on half an hour too long, and to outstay its welcome: something surely only Václav Klaus and his headbanging band of supporters could claim of the man himself.
Citizen Havel (2008) was screened as part of the ‘Made in Prague’ Festival, organised by the Czech Centre, London.