2006, 77 minutes, documentary, directed by Jan Novak and Adam Novak, Czech Republic
I generally don’t expect a documentary on living under Soviet-style repression to yield many giggles, but Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation is so jammed with anecdotes of state-sponsored absurdity that at times it seems more like a descendant of The Good Soldier Svejk than a historical document. In August 1985 Vaclav Havel tipped off the attorney general of Czechoslovakia that he was soon to embark on a summer vacation visiting friends throughout the country. Part publicity stunt, part protest, part “entertainment for my friends,” Havel’s trip was alternately shadowed by what he later calculates as 300 StB (the Czechoslovakian secret police) agents. Along the way Havel is detained twice, the last time under suspicion of “preparing to commit the crime of disturbing the peace.” His friends are harassed and sometimes detained as well. One white-haired compatriot recalls the StB breaking into his home and accusing him of “harboring a subversive document,” the Charter 77 petition that called for government recognition of human rights. A poster that reads “Fuck for (peace sign)” hangs in the background.
Havel maintained a cordial, if condescending, coexistence with his minders. One of his friends recalls him startling them awake in their cars one night with an offer of tea. Watching Havel and his fellow dissidents yuk it up about the bureaucratic idiocy they were subjected to made me wonder if their irreverence and broad perspective contributed to Czechoslovakia’s revolution being a velvet one. I can only assume it was part of their psychological survival. I also kept thinking that it’s no wonder that this is the country that produced Kafka. The danger here, of course, is that it's easy to forget that a buffoonish government can also be a treacherous one (read: George W. Bush and company). I think that’s why filmmakers Jan Novak and Adam Novak include the story of a young poet and dissident Tomas Petrivy, who was found mysteriously dead in his home two weeks after meeting Havel at one of his vacation stops. “The people who weren't known had it the worst. The StB took it out on them,” says an acquaintance of Petrivy.
Like summer vacation itself, this film starts to sag about midway through and I found myself yearning for more depth and insight into Havel and his country. I often find absurdist comedy to be too broad and too one-note to be sustained for very long and sometimes it seemed like the humor was getting in the way of the larger and more interesting story. As an exercise in irony—a slice of police-state life—this film succeeds, but I wish the filmmakers would have aimed a little higher.