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On Campus Event: The Play’s the Thing: Vaclav Havel, Art and Politics

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

Mia Saidel | Dec. 6, 2014

There’s always room for artistic expression, so the saying goes. In the context of the Czech Republic, such freedom that was leant to the creative minds of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) during the waning of the Stalinist regime helped lead the state to democratization in 1989. The cinema in the 1960s was an arena for Czechoslovakian political dissent, where film directors enjoyed a state-supported film industry and increased creative license. Among these visionaries was Vaclav Havel, a gifted playwright who later became the first president of the democratic Czech Republic. The 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and Havel’s presidency coincides with this year’s Czech film series titled The Play’s the Thing, brought to the Malsi Doyle Theatre by the Embassy of the Czech Republic, the National Gallery of Art, and the AU School of Communication.

Prior to the Velvet Revolution, the dismal implications of Communism clouded the lives of Czechoslovakian citizens. Disgruntled filmmakers took to the cinema and brought political satire, dark, absurd humor, and unscripted dialogue to shape the Czech New Wave, a period in the early 1960s of cultural declaration and relatively eased film censorship where statements against the government as a Soviet satellite state could be made for the first time. However, the liberalization of the Czech cinema tradition did not come without repercussions; Havel was imprisoned for five and a half years starting in 1979 for the political dissidence of his plays and writings.

The first film out of the two that were screened at the premiere of the film series certainly contained many political implications. The Uninvited Guest, directed in 1969 by Vlastimil Venclik, satirized the house searches that were imposed on Czechoslovakian citizens who were accused of resisting socialism. The film opens with a young married couple getting ready for bed and preparing to share intimacy when several loud, demanding knocks on the door of their flat forces them to open the door. A large, imposing man ambles into the flat with a cigar and suitcase and tells the couple with a grudging voice, “They sent me here, so I have to stay here.” The man offers no explanation for his stay thereafter. Such abrupt, vague language characteristic of the film was reminiscent of the enigmatical nature of the communist regime, where purges and searches of the people in the 1950s were swift, anonymous and unexplained. The small amount of time in which the couple obliges to the strange man’s presence in their home not only adds to the absurdity that is indicative of this particular film era, but also speaks to the helplessness of the common man in the face of Communism. The man’s brutish interruption into the couple’s lives, depicted through the subsequent scenes wherein he dumps the contents of his suitcase onto the floor, plays the harmonica at the dead of night, and eventually makes himself at home on the couple’s bed reinstates the notion of almost despotic governance. The black and white of the film further enforces the strict dichotomy between Marxism-Leninism and the people. Though the couple and the domineering man are given the central focus, there is a poignant scene in which the husband steps out of his flat in his striped pajamas into the corridor and sees his neighbors in identical pinstriped nightwear with similarly large, imposing men towering over them. The message was clear: every home had its own private intruder under the rule of the proletariat. The power of the film was met with an equally powerful response; after it was released, the government forbade Venclik from making films for the next 20 years

The last film, titled Every Young Man, directed by Pavel Juracek in 1966, highlights the more banal realities of socialism. The storyline about the mundane and slow-paced lives of two Czechoslovakian soldiers is muddled and unclear, an intentional motif. Most of the story follows the two soldiers involved in idle activity, wandering about during their free time in a vacant city most likely alluding to Stalinist Prague, sitting on a train, or even waiting outside a doctor’s office. Staying true to New Wave film technique, there is minimal dialogue and music; on the occasions when there is dialogue, it is between two people at most and involves one soldier asking another an existential question that is not answered directly. The questions are about marriage, love, and the meaning of life. Such ponderance on the part of soldiers, free of their menacing war artillery and left only with their thoughts, alludes to the questions that were unanswered by the regime with regards to the enforcement of Stalinist ideals in Czech society. The theme is cemented when the two approach a window with a noose hanging from the ceiling, and the younger soldier asks the older major: “Have you seen any men who hanged themselves?” The major walked away silently without looking at the inquisitor, as if the depression and loss of identity representative of the period spoke for itself. The two then proceeded to tend to their military rounds in the countryside in silence; the silent eyes of the government were always watching.

The selection of the films shown at the premiere of the film festival not only highlights Havel as a great cinematic force, but also speaks to the authenticity of the arts as a vehicle for political change. Though Vencliv and Juracek were not as famed as their fellow New Wave counterparts, they contributed to giving a face to Communism in ways that surely resonated with audiences that lived during the regime as well as those who did not. These films were empowering and compelling, and demonstrate to the fullest degree that there’s always room for artistic expression.

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