Self exoticization in a biopic of Václav Havel, a monolith of Czechoslovakian resistance


    Following the prominent dissident and symbol of the Czechoslovakian resistance, idiosyncratic Václav Havel, a playwright, political activist and post-Dubcek president, Havel is a biopic with a familiar trajectory. It depicts the struggles with censorship and the intrusions into private lives between 1968 and the Velvet Revolution, at a time when Warsaw Pact troops under Soviet authority roamed the streets, safeguarding the party’s interests and repressing any dissent. There’s a shot to which director Slávek Horák returns time and time again, capturing the horror of having to face a blank piece of paper and a pen, faced with the alternative of complying with the Soviets’ requests and thus giving up the fight, or leaving that sheet unscathed in the name of a principle. A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s latest feature on the horrors of nazism, is also about similar dilemmas. In both films, the political police assure victims that they only need to sign as a formality. This formality commonly means destroying who you were before, by adhering to a form of moral lobotomy.

    When Soviet troops show up with restrictions on human rights, Havel’s theatre can no longer produce his screenplays. The dutiful officers of the party seem to spy from every corner, so any slight act of rebellion is immediately put down. Though naive at first, believing that Dubcek’s loose, liberal approach will last forever, Havel (Viktor Dvořák) is increasingly embittered by the president’s lack of response. Popular in Prague and with a myriad of supporters, Havel starts to write Charter 77, a pamphlet demanding individual freedom. There are two divergent points in Havel’s representation, painting him as either a powerless victim or an empowered leader of the revolution. Horák seems stuck between the admiration for Havel’s monolithic public figure and the intimate portrait of a man. There are times, however, when the director finds the ideal balance between the two, by breaking the fourth wall to turn reality into a play on a stage and allowing Havel to rewrite his own memories, from working in a brewing factory or taking the stand at a trial.

    Havel the man can at times be less of a graceful comrade, carelessly treating both his wife and his mistress. An important figure in Havel’s life like his wife Olga (Aňa Geislerová) is depicted merely as a jealous, sour presence, mostly smoking in bed. Such choices and others, like a thrilling, futile car-chase with the political police while spreading leaflets of the Charter through the streets of Prague, are indicative of the mainstream scope of the film. They all contribute to a form of self-exoticization, reassuring western viewers of their beliefs about the Soviet Union and communism in general. That same western audience seems to be the primary target of such a biopic, glorifying lesser known figures of political activism and shifting the perspective away from domestic viewers, which makes it irrelevant for anyone who’s lived that era.