In the summer of 1999, I was alseep on an overnight train ride from Munich to Prague when I heard several loud knocks on my sleeper door followed by urgent words I couldn’t understand. There was a second knock this time followed by words in English, “Czech police coming.” Not words you want to be awaken with in the middle of the night in a foreign county. Visions of manual labor moving large rocks quickly fill one’s imagination. But this was 1999, not 1979 and this was the Czech Republic—not the former Czechoslovakian communist regime. Still it was 2:20 in the morning.
My wife and I fumbled for the lights. and it turned out to be a basic passport inspection as we crossed the border. Later that morning we arrived in the beautiful city of Prague. Though it was ten years removed from the Velvet Revolution, Prague at that time was said to be 15 years behind the rest of Europe. It was as exciting time as they were in the process of rebuilding. We walked the 14th century Charles Bridge, ate inexpensive gourmet meals ($10 for two), and took a boat ride where we saw Frank Gehry’s Dancing House building downtown, and saw the site where the tallest Stalin monument once stood.
We were told that when Michael Jackson performed in Prague at the peak of his popularity he had them erect a plastic statue of himself so that he could look at it across the river from his hotel room. Vanity ‘of vanity. Josef Stalin and Michael Jackson are long gone, but historic Prague still stands and has endured the test of time. And it not only stands, it thrives. And in large part because of the leadership of Vaclav Havel who died just two days ago.
The playwright and former Czech president leaves behind a legacy that is rare in the world of the arts and politics. Below are two videos from the film he wrote and directed that was released earlier this year.
The studio that Vaclav’s father started in the 1930s, Barrandov Studios, also participated in the Czech part of production for Mission: Impossible —Ghost Protocol which stars Tom Cruise and opens in theaters in the U.S. tomorrow. I imagine that there is a lot going on in the screenwriting and production world in the Czech Republic that I am unaware of, but Vaclav Havel and Tom Cruise alone let you know that Prague has a lot on the ball. I welcome anyone in that part of the world to send me some links to show what’s going on there. (Any interviews in English of Czech screenwriters would be especially appreciated.)
Another video, The Power of the Powerless, narrated by Jeremy Irons and based on Vaclav’s well-known essay is also available on DVD.