Havel: ‘Leaving’ is all about change

Havel has fulfilled his dream of becoming a director. But the script has been criticized for being flat and obvious, and the actors stiff.

Society|Arts & Leisure
Guest Writer | 23.03.2011
Havel’s desire to attend film school was thwarted by the communist authorities

It’s the latest career twist of the internationally renowned playwright and ex-dissident who led the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in 1989. This week moviegoers in Prague attended the premiere of former Czech President Václav Havel’s first feature film.

“Leaving” is about the former chancellor of an unnamed country facing the loss of power after stepping down. He’s threatened with losing his comfortable state villa if he doesn’t publicly support his successor and arch-rival.

But Havel, who stepped down as Czech president in 2003 to make way for his real-life arch-rival successor, Václav Klaus, insists the film isn’t autobiographical. Never mind that the villain’s derogatory sounding name, Vlastik Klein, is strikingly similar to Klaus’s.

Havel says the film isn’t about a particular person or act of leaving, but a general exploration of constant change in life.

“The protagonist can’t handle change well, he stops functioning and his whole world collapses around him,” he said in an interview. “He responds in the worst way possible, adapting to a subordinate position that serves the new state of affairs.”

Long time coming

“Leaving” is based on a play by the same name that premiered in 2008, Havel’s first in 20 years. But he began writing it in 1988, before interrupting work to lead the Velvet Revolution the next year and then becoming president. He says he was first motivated to describe to the situation of intellectuals fired from prominent jobs after the Soviet Union put down the Prague Spring in 1968.

Havel’s real life wife, actress Dagmar Havlová (center), plays the protagonist’s common-law wife

The film draws parallels between today and the communist era, but the plot chiefly concerns the role of an ex-president surrounded by a disintegrating inner circle of family and advisers.

Very much a filmed version of the play rather than a new interpretation, the action takes place entirely in the villa’s garden and introduces elements of absurdism that poke fun at everyone, not least the main character himself.

The script is full of inside jokes and symbols, such as a reappearing heart shape, seen as Havel’s own logo, while the cast is peppered with Havel friends and former dissidents, including Havel’s wife, the actress Dagmar Havlová, and a distinguished cameraman who filmed some of the best-known footage of the Soviet invasion in 1968. He plays a scruffy photographer for a tabloid newspaper. Havel’s brother and dog also appear in the film.

Josef Abrhám, who plays the main character, said Havel hired improv actors, but insisted they stick to the script
Always the ‘democrat’

Although Havel employed two of the Czech Republic’s best-known improvisational actors, he insisted that not a word of the script be changed. Josef Abrhám, who plays the main character, said Havel was also very precise about the many details.

“I wouldn’t have dared suggest variations, but they would suddenly come from the president himself, and they were excellent,” Abrhám told reporters after a screening of the film last week. “Everything had to be approved by him, and I’m glad to have survived the process.”

But Abrhám and other actors praised Havel’s easygoing manner on the set. Actress Barbora Seidlová, who plays a young student who seduces the protagonist, said the former head of state showed no imperiousness.

“Many people talk about democracy in vain,” she said. “But he displayed it in practice by communicating with every last member of the crew, speaking to them in such a way that you forget about his being president or director. You just see him as a soul, a person.”

‘Miracle’ film

Reviews of the film so far haven’t been exactly positive. Havel, whose desire to attend film school was thwarted by the communist authorities, received praise for fulfilling his dream of becoming a director. But the script was criticized for being flat and obvious, and the actors stiff. “‘Leaving’ is one of those movies that you shoot with a group of friends to enjoy,” one reviewer wrote.

Despite Havel’s influence, it was far from certain the film would even be completed. Producer Jaroslav Bouček said he agreed to take part on short notice but had to break his own rules.

“I’m a strict producer; I never start shooting a film if I don't already have at least 80 percent of the budget,” Bouček said. “But this was a special situation. The president’s health wasn’t good, and I could see that if I canceled, the film would probably never be made.”

Bouček says he managed to get the money together with two weeks to spare, adding that it was a “miracle” the film was made.

Havel, a former chain smoker who’s had part of a lung removed because of cancer, has been hospitalized with respiratory problems. But he was released in time to attend the film’s official premiere on March 22.

Gregory Feifer is an editor and senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for which he wrote this article. Reprinted with permission. 

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