The story of Václav Havel’s final play and first film (1988–2011)
After stepping down as president in 2003 Václav Havel decided to return to the play. The first version, in six school exercise books, had been preserved thanks to his good friend and collaborator Anna Freimanová. However, the author began to rewrite it from the beginning, adding some of his own experiences of high office to the basic theme of coming to terms with the loss of power. He completed the five-act play during a 2006 stay in the US where, as he put it, he had the peace and quiet needed to work. After final modifications it was published in book form in 2007.
“The subject matter, meaning the story of someone who holds high office and who steps down from that post, came into existence a very long time ago and is not connected to my experiences of the last 17 years. Nevertheless, I don’t hide the fact that that presidential spell provided me with all sorts of inspiration, all sorts of motifs, that I later drew on in the play. That’s understandable to say the least and natural to say the least. The play is simply about a ruler who has ceased to rule; we don’t know whether he has been deposed in a coup, whether his mandate has expired, or whether he failed to win confidence in parliament. How it happened isn’t important. He has to move out of his state villa and naturally the court surrounding him begins to crumble and now, as in every court, the archetypes of the sycophant, the traitor and such like start to appear there.”
(Václav Havel – Press conference on the publication of the play Leaving, 7.11.2007)
The play Leaving had its world premiere at Prague’s Archa Theatre on 22 May 2008.
David Radok took the helm as director while Jan Tříska, Zuzana Stivínová, Vlasta Chramostová, Ivan Řezáč, Bořivoj Navrátil, Jan Skopeček, Ján Sedal and others appeared in the main roles. The production received the 2008 Alfréd Radok Award in the Czech Play category.
Shortly after the launch of the theatre play the director Jaroslav Brabec proposed adapting Leaving into a film; however, this never occurred due to differences in vision between the playwright and the prospective director. Václav Havel then further explored the possibility of Leaving being filmed, this time in cooperation with the director Jan Němec. In the end he arrived at the decision to direct his work himself.
Influenced by his family background, Václav Havel dreamt of becoming a film director from a young age. Twice he applied to Prague’s FAMU film school but was rejected because of his class background. He began to dedicate himself to theatre but was always connected to the filmmaking world through friends. As early as 1947, when he attended the George of Poděbrady boarding school, he got to know Miloš Zeman and Ivan Passer. During the 1960s he was very close to the Czech New Wave crowd, the leading figures in which, including Jan Němec and Pavel Juráček, were his peers.
During his life Václav Havel had a number of opportunities to experience film shoots at first hand when he appeared in front of the camera as an actor. As early as 1965 he played a patient in Pavel Juráček’s film Every Young Man. He appeared as himself in films such as Stone Bridge by Tomáš Vorel (1996), Up and Down by Jan Hřebejk (2004), where in a short scene he meets two Burmese dissidents, Czech Made Man by Tomáš Řehořek (2011) and in the series The Land Gone Wild IV (2012), where as president he receives wartime airmen at Prague Castle.
Václav Havel also gained experience as a screenwriter when in 1969 he wrote the screenplay Heart Beat, about the trade in human organs, with Jan Němec; however, it remained unmade due to the arrival of the normalisation era. In 2010 Jan Němec filmed a reworked version of it as the first Czech feature film in 3D.
Václav Havel worked with Miloš Forman on several occasions. Their final collaboration was in 2008 on a screenplay for a film entitled The Ghost of Munich based on the novel of the same title by French author Georges-Marc Benamou. However, the project did not get off the ground.
“So after lengthy hesitation I am getting into film only at the close of my public career, as it were. I would like – actually for the first time in my life – to interpret my own dramatic material myself. I have a rather specific vision for the planned film, I have an appetite for the work, I have good collaborators and excellent actors have been cast in the film. I want to turn my relative inexperience into a positive: This will make it easier, I hope, to avoid various habits, clichés and conventions.”
(Václav Havel – Press conference on the publication of the play Leaving, 7.11.2007)
The actual shoot was preceded by the scouting of locations for the film Leaving.
“When I was scouting I mainly went according to the screenplay and consultations with the director regarding the overall layout of the space. The most important thing was to have a dominant entrance from the villa onto the garden, which was to be well-tended and rather large. At the same time, it was necessary that the villa be of sufficient size that its designation as ‘government villa’ would be credible. In addition the director requested distinctive steps descending from the villa to the garden; they were to be almost theatrical in character.”
(scenographer and architect Ondřej Nekvasil – Vila Čerych. Česká Skalice: Centrum rozvoje Česká Skalice 2012)
The second location for the shoot was around Chateau Ploskovice near Litoměřice. The chateau wall was temporarily “decorated” with graffiti for the purposes of filming. Among the slogans were HAVEL TO THE CASTLE and ENOUGH HAVEL ALREADY, which the former president himself helped to spray with relish.
Turning a dramatic text into a film screenplay required minor changes. Some dialogue and excessively long speeches by particular characters were shortened, while passages involving the Voice of the Author, who inserts his comments into the stage version, were cut out. By contrast, several episodic roles were added.
To avoid the mechanical conversion of a theatre production into the genre of film, Václav Havel decided to select a different cast. His concern was the after so many performances the actors had become fixated on a certain way of interpreting their roles. This decision also enabled him to return to his original vision with regard to the casting of some parts.
The costumes made by scenographer and costume designer Zuzana Ježková were a distinctive element of the film adaptation. At Václav Havel’s request the Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt served as an inspiration for her designs, not only in the cuts of dresses and fabric patterns but also in tiny details. The director himself took on the role of jewellery designer.
As a first-time director Václav Havel surrounded himself on the shoot with a team of professionals, including producer Jaroslav Bouček, cinematographer Jan Malíř, first assistant director Jiří Kačírea, editor Jiří Brožek, scenographer Jan Nekvasil and costume designer Zuzana Ježková. Shooting on Leaving got underway on 1 July 2010 and ran for almost two months.
The cast and crew agreed that during the entire shoot Václav Havel came across like an experienced director. From the very beginning he had a clear vision of how the film version of Leaving ought to look and instructed the leads in how to play their roles, not hesitating to act out some scenes himself. The actors regarded his insistence that the script be adhered to precisely as unorthodox and demanding. On the other hand, they commended the exceptional fact that the director himself knew the entire script off by heart and functioned as a living prompter. They also welcomed the fact that he did not insist on the gruelling repetition of scenes and, if he was satisfied, went with the first take.
Václav Havel regarded the filming of the circle dance as the toughest moment in the entire shoot. A night scene that represents the vision or ravings of Dr. Rieger, it can also be understood as a kind of kink in the play. The characters first repeat the lines of other characters before dancing wildly on the surface of the pool as elements of their costumes change. Václav Havel brought in the leading choreographer Jiří Kylián as an advisor on the scene.
The scene is accompanied by a rock version of Ode to Joy which, like the whole soundtrack of the film, is the work of the composer and guitarist Michal Pavlíček. The English translation is by Michael Žantovský.
The film’s premiere took place on 22 March 2011 at Prague’s Lucerna cinema. For Václav Havel the day was both the fulfilment of a childhood dream and a symbolic return to his family’s filmmaking roots, as the Lucerna had been built 100 years earlier by his grandfather Vácslav Havel. The director’s closest collaborators and the majority of the cast also attended the gala evening.
The same year the film adaptation of Leaving was presented to audiences at the 46th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The picture was also screened at foreign film festivals, with viewers enjoying the opportunity to watch it in, for instance, London, Moscow and Singapore.
Leaving got a mixed reaction from viewers and film critics.
“The fact that viewers and reviewers haven’t been able to accept the film, or at least have considerable problems with it, may perhaps be linked to the fact that Václav Havel controls virtually everything in it, meaning viewers don’t have a positive hero with whom they can identify and experience the twists in the struggle for political and moral identity alongside. (…) If viewers can’t identify with a character, they can’t accept the film without relating to themselves all of the doubts and problems of the central character and the main theme of the work, or without identifying with the viewpoint of the author.”
(Jan Bernard: Odcházení. Kino-Ikon 2011)
Produced by the Archive of the Václav Havel Library with the permission of producer Jaroslav Bouček of BUC-FILM.
Curator: Eva Csémyová
Other materials provided by:
Ivan M. Havel
Centrum rozvoje Česká Skalice
National Film Archive