'Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?' charts an extraordinary life in intimate moments

The new Václav Havel documentary follows the last stage of the former Czech president's life from 200 hours of unique, unpublished footage.

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 11.04.2024 13:58:00 (updated on 09.05.2024) Reading time: 3 minutes

The new time-lapse documentary by Petr Jančárek, Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?, provides a glimpse into the various roles played by Václav Havel during his lifetime: citizen, director, friend, husband, patient, and man at the end of his life.

The film is based on never-before-seen footage captured in the final years of the former Czech president’s life, showcasing both his public and private personas. It will be released on Thursday, April 11.

Much is known about Havel as a public figure, with images of his speeches during the Velvet Revolution, footage of his presidency, and his ascent to Prague Castle being ingrained in the collective consciousness. However, the focus of the film is not political. Here, Havel’s peculiar personality, strength, fragility, doubt, and determination emerge from quieter moments in the years and months before his passing.

"I started working with Havel in 2003. Our relationship was characterized by his complete openness and trust and my absolute responsibility towards him. During the last years of Havel's life, more than 200 hours of unique, unpublished material was created, which then became the basis for a feature-length documentary," says Jančárek.

Footage of Havel's visit with the Dalai Lama, Madeleine Albright, Miloš Forman, and Joan Baez is juxtaposed with more intimate scenes: Havel getting a haircut, struggling with a vacuum cleaner, and being denied a beer by his wife Dagmar Havlová (while visiting Forman). He’s seen at home in his famous cottage in Hrádeček, in his Prague office, jamming at the Trutnov open-air festival, and visiting the set of his film debut, Leaving.

Camera crews also accompanied Havel on his last trip to the U.S. when he was on the verge of death following a stroke—accompanied by his wife and former U.S. Secretary of State Albright Havel navigates the hospitals and hotels of New York with signature bemusement.

I once accompanied President Havel to the PEN Club. [I] never shook hands with Havel, because we saw each other several times every week. And when we were leaving the PEN Club and waiting outside Klementinum for the car to arrive, the President said goodbye to me and suddenly shook my hand. It was about six months before he passed away, and I realized that the handshake was maybe because he thought it might be the last time. From then on, every time we said goodbye, it was a handshake.

Director Petr Jančárek

The documentary had its official premiere on March 18 in the Prague Castle Riding Hall in the presence of Czech President Petr Pavel, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, and Havlová who said:

"By my husband’s side, I experienced moments of supreme happiness and harmony and moments of sinking to the bottom with anxiety that it would not always be like this. As I manage his legacy, I realize he didn't just leave me. His voice is missing, his calm, symmetrical energy."

The 12-year gap between the film’s premiere and Havel’s passing multiplies the intensity of its message to today’s audiences, with Jančárek's film entering cinemas at a time when the former president's legacy and resonates more strongly than ever in society.

Still from Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?
Still from Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?

"I would like us to ask ourselves on the occasion of the screening of this film whether Havel still means something to us, whether we still honor the values that were fundamental to him, and whether he still has something to say to us. Whether we can really hear him in the spirit of the film's title, whether he speaks to us and inspires us," adds producer Jiří Konečný.

Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me? is now showing in Prague cinemas. It is currently showing with English subtitles at Kino Světozor.

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