Militiamen arresting demonstrators, January 1969.
Credit: S Humpalova
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Student photo of Jan Palach
Mid-afternoon, 16th January 1969, passers-by near the National Museum at the top of Prague’s principal boulevard see flames shoot up near the museum fountain. A human being is afire. He runs a short way down the boulevard and collapses. A tramline switchman who smothers the flames sees to his horror that the burned figure is a young man.
The young man was Jan Palach, a student at Charles University, and a letter in the briefcase he left near the fountain explained that he and others had decided to awaken the nation from its apathy following the Warsaw Pact invasion. The letter called for abolishing censorship, ending the occupation paper Zprávy and mounting a general strike and threatened more immolations if these demands were not met. It was signed, “Torch n° 1".
Jan’s letter, which he left at the site where he set himself afire
Jan was rushed to a near-by hospital with third-degree burns on eighty-five per cent of his body. He remained lucid and resolute until he died three days later. His body lay in honour in the Carolinum, the seat of Charles University, and tens of thousands queued to pay their respects. Tens of thousands lined the route of the funeral procession six days later too, in what became a silent protest against the occupation. But it remained silent. Talks between workers and students who began a hunger strike on the site of Jan’s self-immolation faded away, and there was no general strike. A month later, another student, Jan Zajic set fire to himself, but the secret police were ready, and little was made of his death and his funeral.
Twenty years later, though, remembering Jan’s courage prepared ground for the Velvet Revolution. How? Here is what happened. Several dissident organisations, including Charter 77, circulated invitations to citizens to assemble at the statue of Saint Wenceslaus, the nation’s patron saint, 15 January in memory of Jan Palach. The statue is just below the National Museum where he poured gasoline over himself and lit a match. Demonstrations followed spontaneously every day for a week on a scale unprecedented in post-’68 Czechoslovakia. They were put down with unusual brutality by the police and the People’s Militia, a force under the direct control of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The week of demonstrations and their harsh suppression became known as “Palachiáda”. The violence was so indiscriminate that retirees, and supposed regime sympathisers, such as members of the proletariat and members of the Communist Party were seriously injured. Citizens were shocked and angered to a degree unprecedented in post-’68 Czechoslovakia. Factory employees who were told to sign manifestos condemning the demonstrations signed statements condemning the police and the Party instead. There is a fine line where police violence stops being a deterrent to civic demonstrations and anger overcomes fear. The regime was poised on that line, a line which vibrated until the Velvet Revolution.
The violence and the repressive measures that followed prepared for the November revolution in a more direct way too. University students who had demonstrated were photographed, arrested, interrogated and subject to their schools’ disciplinary commissions. There were attempts to kick them out and lock them up. They started forming networks to protect themselves. Faculties dispersed throughout Prague in that atomized society began to be connected, and the students began to feel empowered. So much so, that they skilfully arranged a permit for a major demonstration to commemorate another Jan in November, Jan Opletal, the first student casualty when the Nazis occupied the country in 1939. They were expecting several thousand at the campus on Albertov, south of the city centre. But there were an estimated thirty to fifty thousand, unheard of, undreamt of. When the demonstrators were later attacked by police and red berets, groups of students decided that very night to strike. The following day, Saturday, they were already occupying faculties and couriering a video of the attack to outlying areas to counteract Communist propaganda. They became a vanguard, and the population followed in which became the Velvet Revolution.
People queuing in the Old Town Square to pay respects to Jan Palach
Water canon dispersing demonstrators, January 1969
Student-led demonstration, attacked by police in the evening, setting off the Velvet Revolution
On the fiftieth anniversary of Jan Palach’s act two years ago, he was remembered as a national hero. Ceremonies were held throughout the country, and speakers found new meaning in his courage and passionate call to action at a time when democracy seems to be weakening. In Prague, banners bearing his name hung from the National Museum, visible all the way down the main boulevard (see photo at the head of this posting). The boulevard itself was the site of a day-long programme and an exhibition which traced his life from childhood and included details of his self-immolation and death. In the evening a candlelight procession took the programme to the Old Town Square to music from the Dvořák’s Symphony from the New World. New memorials were unveiled at the Carolinum, where his body had lain in honour and at the high school from which he graduated.
The Prague ceremonies took at their inspiration Jan Palach’s timeless last words:
“A person must fight against wrongdoing as much as he is able.”
Death mask memorial, façade of the Charles University faculty where Jan Palach studied, mounted in 1990.
Seventeenth November is the 31st anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The face of that Revolution in his own country and in the West remains Václav Havel, a complex, elusive thinker, writer, political activist and statesman who continues to fascinate. The most recent biography in English was published last spring by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and a new biopic by the young Czech director Slávek Horák was released in Prague late last summer. So far, it has not been released elsewhere. I have read a number of articles and reviews, but have seen only a trailer, so this is a reportage about its controversial reception at home and the questions it has raised there.
The film begins in the summer of 1968, when Havel is enjoying the cultural, political and sexual freedom of the reform movement and success as a young playwright. All of that is destroyed by the Warsaw Pact invasion, and his gradual politicization begins. Inspired by his wife Olga, he refuses to sign a conformist document, and they are both fired from their jobs. The absurd contrast between his next one, manual labour at a brewery, and his upper class origins move him to begin writing again. He gets to know underground culture, especially musicians, which ultimately contributes to the foundation of Charter 77.
It is in connection with the Charter that a transformative incident occurs in the spring of 1977. Worn down by incessant interrogation, detention and the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence which would render him idle intellectually, Havel agrees to abstain from political activity in exchange for release. He immediately regrets this act of cowardice and, full of self-reproach, commits anew to active political opposition. Later during the period of dissidence, he has a serious love affair that strains his marriage to Olga – not for the first time. The final section of the film covers his dramatic evolution as opposition leader during the Velvet Revolution, culminating in his election to the presidency.
Horák has said that he did not want to make a traditional biopic, but one that explored Havel’s personal life, and portrayed events through his eyes. This necessarily meant including lesser-known incidents and aspects of Havel’s character. The director and co-scenarist Rudolf Suchánek focus on Havel’s complex relationships with women, characterized by serial infidelity and a certain emotional dependence, and what they consider a central paradox of his dissident activity: committing courageous acts out of cowardice.
Viktor Dvořák, a theatre and television actor, has the lead role, and Anna Geislerová, an established film actress, partners him as Olga. Jiří Bartoška plays the philosopher and co-founder of Charter 77 Jan Patočka, who died following police interrogations. Bartoška is a veteran of television, film and theatre who acted in Czech productions of Havel’s plays once they came off the black list. Barbora Seidlová plays Anna Kohoutová, Havel’s lover.
Viktor Dvořák plays Václav Havel in Horák’s new biopic
The acting and photography have been praised by most reviewers. Despite Dvořák’s striking resemblance to the young Havel and his many-sided portrayal of the character, it is the director’s conception of the character that has created controversy. Critics and some members of the public have complained that an extraordinary man is presented as ordinary, some say, caricatured, and that the political dimensions of his story are insufficiently treated. (Havel’s classics “Letter to Gustáv Husák” and The Power of the Powerless are not included, and the individual resistants with whom he formed bonds and created Charter 77 receive minimal treatment.) Other critics and film-goers, though, have appreciated softer, lesser known qualities emphasized by the film: Havel’s generosity, his modesty, his unflinching self-examination.
A collective of his close friends and associates has written an Open Letter criticizing what they call the portrayal of an “indecisive weakling” instead of the “humanized” portrait that the director himself said he wished to create. They object to the simplified treatment of a dissident and statesman whom they characterise as charismatic, highly articulate and strong, even with his hesitations and fragility. To them too, it borders on caricature. They are concerned that the entire world of dissent is misrepresented, and that in the process, an important symbol of modern Czech identity is weakened.
The weekly journal Respekt has considered this question in a new ten-page article entitled “How to Film Havel”. Frequent caricatural covers such as the one on this issue are part of its politically engaged style, but there may be an additional reason this time. The author, the journal’s cultural editor, also considers the film a caricature.
The article situates the film within the broad historical questions that are alluded to in the Open Letter. ‘Truth’ and ‘reality’ become key words in its analysis. “Truth prevails” was the presidential motto under Masaryk, and forms part of the motto of Charter 77. Their inspiration goes back to the 15th century religious reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake for heresy and who maintained that truth has great moral power. Václav Havel called his opposition to the lies of the Communist regime “living in truth”, and one of his most famous sayings is “Truth and love must win over lies and hatred.”
The film poster recalls this quotation with the question: “What would you sacrifice for truth and love?” The Respekt article maintains that the film does not do justice to this, or other, complexities of Václav Havel and the history he made. It makes the salient point that the word ‘history’ exists in the plural only in the Czech language. The editor discusses the difficulty of trying to determine what are reality and historical truth in film: fact vs capturing a certain spirit of the time, for example? She does suggest that simple fidelity to historical appearance (settings, costumes), including an actor who physically resembles the person portrayed, are insufficient. The difficulties of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are particularly sensitive in Czech culture where history was drastically rewritten to conform to ideology during forty years of Communism. The article’s conclusion suggests that the question ‘How do you film Havel’ has not yet been satisfactorily answered.
I lived in Prague during the late 1980’s and the Velvet Revolution and shared the euphoria when Communism crumbled, and Václav Havel was unanimously elected president by a Communist-dominated legislature. I hope to have the opportunity to see Horák’s controversial film soon and to reflect on the political and psychological questions that it raises, and that thoughtful reviewers and others have raised about it.