Vaclav Havel’s Film, Odchazeni (Leaving)

(posted by Greg)

The film version of Vaclav Havel’s play Odchazeni (Leaving) – directed by Havel himself – premiered here in Prague a few weeks ago. I hadn’t had a chance to see the play, which Havel wrote in 2005 and which has been the only play he’s written since turning to politics in the wake of 1989. I was quite interested in seeing the film, in part because Havel’s political career, to the surprise of those who knew his earlier work, has taken such an “establishment” turn. He has not only fully backed the policies of the world’s sole superpower but, in addition, the politics of some of its most conservative, and powerful, political groupings (such as the neoconservatives). Thus, he fully backed the United States invasion of Iraq, the stationing of American soldiers and radars on the soil of the Czech Republic as a part of a Star Wars anti-missile system (and opposed the holding of a referendum on the issue), and has refused to condemn the American policies and practices in the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. How then, would this film, which was about the chancellor of an unnamed country leaving office, as Havel had just done, play out, given Havel’s continuing accommodation to the kind of establishment forces that he treated so ironically in his earlier plays? Curiously, in the play, no accommodation is made to these forces at all. It is in fact quite savage in its treatment of all the compromises and deceptions that one must make to keep one’s position in the world of establishment politics. Havel does this quite brilliantly, and the fact that he utilized the best traditions of Absurdist Theater and the Theater of the Grotesque to accomplish this goal was quite gratifying for an irrealist such as me.

But the film does raise the question as to whether Havel, who continues to this day to play the same political game (now in the role of the revered ex-President statesman, very similar to what the protagonist in Odchazeni, Chancellor Vilém Rieger,  was aiming for) that he so savagely condemns in the film, might not be a terribly conflicted person.