Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

Step aside Aung San Suu Kyi and Maggie Thatcher: make way for Vaclav Havel

Jan 2012


One wants to draw inspiration from a biopic. Anyone moved to see Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady who ends up in a cinema showing Maggie Thatcher in the The Iron Lady is likely to be disappointed, vexed even. The same is probably true the other way round.


Since it seems to be the vogue, I've got an idea for an inspirational biopic: the life of Václav Havel, the Czech dissident President who has just died at the age of seventy-six after a full life, to understate the point. My biopic would be inspiring – it would inspire me – but it could be intensely dramatic, which is probably more important. I would have a newsreel thread running through it, starting with the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948 – a black and white event – and ending with the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – in colour. I would then punctuate that with Havel’s three visits to prison. Each would start with the same sequence of him entering a prison cell (as Kieslowski does in Blind Chance – see my ‘Film Past Film Future’ chapter 8) while the charge against him is heard as a voice-over, and each would include dramatized scenes in flashback. First would be the collection of the 242 signatures for the Charter 77 manifesto in 1977. Next, following his five-year prison sentence in 1979, there would be memories of his family losing their property when it was nationalized, his enforced spell clearing mines (as a 'political'), and his plays in the 1960s, scenes from which could be performed. I would intercut Havel’s interrogation by the court (absurd) with Havel’s self-interrogation in his own mind (profound): should he succumb to despair or not? There are also the letters to his wife Olga, censored by the prison governor. The third prison sentence came in 1989 when he was charged with 'hooliganism'. This could be intercut not with a flashback but with the scenes of outrage it provoked on the streets. The culmination of the film would be his election to the Presidency in 1990 and the victory concert in Prague with Frank Zappa.


And here's another Kieslowski idea. Havel’s career is about the exercise of free will, for while our social trajectory in life is often not determined by ourselves, our emotional trajectory is. The marvellous thing about Havel is the way he chose to mock the regime in his plays, the way he chose to lead dissidents, and the way he chose not to despair.


It would be good too to include Havel’s encounter with Ivan Jirous, the lead singer of the Plastic People of the Universe, the rock band honoured in Tom Stoppard's terrific play, Rock 'n' Roll. “Art changes nothing” Auden claimed, surely rightly for the most part, but he did reckon without the Plastics.


© Tim Cawkwell 2012