A half-decade ago, director Miroslav Janek finished and released one of the most revealing portraits of a political figure you’re ever likely to see: Občan Havel contained a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage of Václav Havel, the Czech Republic’s beloved first President, culled over 13 years by filmmaker Pavel Koutecký, who relentlessly followed Havel throughout his political career.
Koutecký tragically died before finishing the film, which Janek completed and released in two versions: a 2-hour theatrical cut, and a 4-hour version that debuted later on TV. The footage he had to work with was fascinating: with a bare minimum of talking heads asides or narrative insight, the film gave the public unprecedented access to the former president’s personal life.
In Janek’s latest documentary, Olga, the filmmaker turns his attention to Olga Havlová, Havel’s first wife, who stood by the future President from their artistic beginnings during Prague Spring, through his multiple imprisonments during normalization, and up to his burgeoning political career until her death in 1996.
Havel said of his wife, “In Olga, I found exactly what I needed: someone who could respond to my own mental instability, offer sober criticism of my wilder ideas, provide private support for my public adventures.”
Olga takes the same approach toward its subject that Občan Havel did: through pre-existing footage – most of it gleaned from the period that the earlier film didn’t cover, from private parties and get-togethers during the normalization years – Janek paints an intimate, loving portrait of the Czech Republic’s first First Lady, who was just as admired and respected as her husband.
The only problem: compared to the previous film, Janek doesn’t have nearly enough footage of his subject to work from. The director had 13 years of day-by-day footage of the former President at his disposal in Občan Havel, but has much less of the notoriously camera-shy Havlová: much of the film is comprised of informal 1960s-80s footage of parties and gatherings shot by Havlová and others, which, while invaluable, only tangentially features the subject on screen.
Some of the most revealing footage, in fact, comes directly from material shot for the earlier film, including a sequence where the President discusses his wife as she sits passively by him reading a magazine. The former First Lady wasn’t as comfortable as her husband with the sudden fame that the presidency brought to the couple, a fact we’re frequently reminded of during the film.
While Havel attempted to reign in the fledgling country, his wife continued in the charitable pursuits that were closer to her heart. In one of the film’s most memorable moments – also shot for Občan Havel – she chastises then-Prime Minister (and future President) Václav Klaus for his public comments regarding charity foundations; this sequence, which showcases Havlová’s upfront, straight-shooting discourse with the flippant (and much-hated) Klaus, drew applause at a weekend screening at Kino Světozor.
Lacking significant footage from Havlová’s earlier years, talking heads are also employed. Olga’s niece, Olga Pešková, recites material from interviews with the First Lady, telling Havlová’s story in her own words. Surviving members of The Tomb – the underground society of artists and friends of the Havels, who met in secret under the watchful eyes of the secret police – recount their memories of Olga, as does Plastic People of the Universe’s Vratislav Brabenec, who shares some more poetic words.
A secret police report – narrated in short snippets throughout the film – details the lengths the StB went to track the Havels, but also showcases their mundane day-to-day lives: these are the underground activists that caused the state so much concern?
Charting the transformation in Olga’s life from the underground Tomb to sudden – and worldwide – fame, bodyguards Karel Knotek and Roman Kuchařík – whom Olga wasn’t exactly happy to have walking behind her during quiet walks in the park – share some of the more memorable anecdotes about the First Lady. In archive footage from the early years of her ascension, she’s seen walking down Charles Bridge with Barbara Bush, and showing her modest apartment to Jane Fonda.
We’re unlikely to see politicians like Václav Havel and Olga Havlová any time soon (at least, in this country), and we’re unlikely to see them portrayed in such a revealing, matter-of-fact manner. Olga is not a definitive biography of the former First Lady, but – like Občan Havel – it manages to paint an intimate picture of its subject with a fitting warmth and humanity.