Krystyna Wanatowiczová: Miloš Havel – český filmový magnát.

Krystyna Wanatowiczová: Miloš Havel – český filmový magnát.

Praha: Knihovna Václava Havla, 2013, ISBN 9788087490181, 552 pp.

Author
Anna Batistová
Keywords
Miloš Havel; Barrandov Studios; Lucernafilm; Czechoslovak film industry; exile; biography; interwar period; Second World War; Nazi occupation

Although there have been impressive research projects for the last two decades on the Czech film industry and academia has several active and prolific authors, the history of Czech cinema still remains somewhat under-researched. There are blank spaces here and there, more questions than answers result from many projects, and over some periods and topics a hic sunt leones sign still seem to be hanging. This makes the discipline exciting, but also demands responsibility and honesty from its participants. Add the small number of Czech language speakers around the world and the small (and rugged) landscape of Czech publishing, and you end up with a situation where any new contribution should be welcome, but also carefully reviewed and assessed. Krystyna Wanatowiczová’s monograph is such an attempt to contribute to the discipline.

It is always a pleasure when an intriguing book appears unexpectedly, either from an author you did not know before or within a publishing house that does not specialise in film studies. Krystyna Wanatowiczová’s biography of Miloš Havel is certainly such a book – a surprise, and in a good way. To foreign audiences, Miloš Havel is easily introduced as the former (and first) Czech president Václav Havel’s uncle, but his life was much more deeply intertwined with Czech (Czechoslovak) cultural and political life from the early 1920s until his exile in the early 1950s. Also, as we will see, his biography might be considered emblematic in respect to Czechoslovak society of the 1940s and 1950s.

The author (who is primarily a journalist) set herself a tricky task – to succeed, where others have failed. As she explains in her introduction, there were previous attempts to write Miloš Havel’s biography, interviews with some of his friends and colleagues were recorded at the beginning of the 1990s; preparations for a film documentary on his life were made at the beginning of the millennium; his career within film industry was even a topic of a university thesis (Horníček 2000). Although these activities added several new pieces to the puzzle of Havel’s life, many more questions still remained unanswered, and Wanatowiczová decided to concentrate especially on those of motivation, inner thoughts, feelings, and private life of the mysterious entrepreneur of the First Republic. Her publisher, the “Vaclav Havel Library”, offered favourable conditions – especially access to the family archive containing both official, or legal, documents and private correspondence and papers, as well as the results of previous attempts at a biography.

Havel’s early career coincided with the development of the local cinema industry. He started as a cinema theatre director, gained more experience, financial backing, and contacts in distribution; he strived to become a film producer, and, finally, profited mostly from providing facilities to the emerging industry and supporting it with the help of his political and social connections. Without his decision to invest in modern studios, Czech film production of the late 1920s and 1930s would have probably continued to border on amateurism. Without his relationships with both Czech and later German officials, the field might have dwindled or come to an end during economically and politically challenging times. Family ties and capital stemming from the building industry provided secure backing for bank credit and loans, while restaurants, clubs, and bars, as well as rent from apartments and offices in the Havel family’s Lucerna palace and elsewhere, brought a regular and secure income (compared to the rather unstable business of filmmaking in Czechoslovakia during the interwar period).

Havel’s life became more eventful during the period of the so-called German protectorate in Bohemia and Moravia. His studios in Barrandov on the outskirts of Prague - new, modern and outside the usual radius of Allied air attacks - were to become part of the centralised German cinema industry, and he was forced to sell his share in the company. He remained in charge, and, according to his statements after the war and testimonies of others, did everything in his power to protect both the creative and the below-the-line personnel from forced labour in Germany. He also made sure that the studios would still be used for Czech production as well (the aryanization of Czech cinema industry is described in detail in Bednařík 2003). The annual production of features in Czech declined during the war years, but many have argued that the quality of individual films increased (e.g. Klimeš 1989; Doležal 1996; Bednařík 2010). Miloš Havel also seems to have been a producer who was not afraid to invest in newcomers and their directorial debuts; some were more successful (for instance, František Čáp, a director who left for Yugoslavia in 1948), some less (as Rudolf Hrušínský, better known as an actor). He was also consciously and successfully building his brand, at least, compared to other production companies in Czechoslovakia between the wars – “This is Lucernafilm!” (the motto in the graphic logo at the beginning of their films) was the mark of “quality popular filmmaking”.

While Havel was accused of collaboration with the Nazis after the war (both anonymously and openly) and had to undergo a trial, the authorities had difficulties obtaining a conviction, and Havel was incarcerated only later, for his first illegal attempt to cross the Czechoslovak border after the communist putsch of 1948 (as defence during the trial, he referred to an invitation to build film studios in Israel, and the failure to obtain a passport). People close to him (Dušan Hubáček, his family and close collaborators) initially had assumed he would not leave the country if allowed to participate in cinema business in post-war Czechoslovakia. But even if he was not convicted at the beginning, and submitted his own proposal for nationalisation of cinema industry directly after the war, he was excluded from the industry altogether. During his imprisonment, he was convicted again for collaboration, and this time sentenced to one year in a labour camp. After an early release on health grounds he attempted to illegally cross the border to Austria again, and this time successfully. He spent the rest of his life in exile (Munich, Germany), made several unsuccessful attempts to make movies again, had a share in restaurants (one of them called “Goldene Stadt”), and tried to run an import/export business. He would have contacts with Czechoslovakia through fellow-exiles or compatriots visiting Munich, would meet former filmmaking colleagues at film festivals abroad, but his Czech family would not have regular information of his whereabouts and living conditions.

Abroad, he lacked the backing of the large family business and political and social connections, and could not afford to employ people that he could manage and assign tasks to. Again, this is one of the points made by the author of his biography, supported by testimonies of Havel’s friends and family: he was good at steering others and giving orders but not so good at doing things himself. As the biographer concludes, he could not be successful without a structure of an established business, and without connections and finances he was not able to build a new structure abroad.

The biography is centred on Miloš Havel and his life and work, but since his life was happening in the intersection of Czechoslovak film business as well, the book can be perceived as an insight into the whole industry, too. While some details on his entrepreneurship, especially in connection to political representation and financial backing, remain unclear, the reader will understand the type of businessman Havel was. On the other hand, his private life remains, despite all attempts to clarify it, rather enigmatic. His homosexuality was something of an open secret. His family and friends knew or assumed it, but in public, he would be accompanied by female Czech film stars, marry a long-time family friend, and deny any implications as absurd. In all the political regimes he lived in, homosexuality was illegal, and Havel was often investigated, even arrested, but was never convicted. In the end, his sexual orientation was most likely the reason for his falling out with his brother’s family and sparse contacts with them during his exile.

Similarly unclear remains his moral profile vis-à-vis the political establishment, especially the occupying force during the war. Havel’s family restaurants and bars, as well as his private residence and his family’s country house, served as meeting places for film people and the cultural and political elite both between the wars and during the Second World War. As Czech official life intertwined with the German one after 1939, so did the guests at those places. His short membership (1926-1927) in the National Fascist League (Národní obec fašistická), his connections to Freemasons, Czech and German intelligence, and the disclosure of one of his friends as a double agent just add to the ambiguity, which, on the one hand, does not allow us to paint his character simply black or white. On the other hand, as the author of his biography argues, this ambiguity probably allowed him to help the domestic film industry, and to ultimately save it from German hands.

There have been several biographies published in Czech film studies in the past years, and I had the pleasure of reviewing two of them (Jiří Horníček’s 2000; Petr Bilík 2011). Both offered a very detailed account of their subject’s professional and private life, but in my opinion, both failed to place these “great men” within a wider historical, social, and cultural context. In this respect, I especially appreciated Wanatowiczová’s endeavour to not just describe Havel’s life in full, but to assess his significance within the historical circumstances of these turbulent times through his private life, and to attempt a description of personal qualities and beliefs.

While bulky and full of footnotes, the book reads easily, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to a reader outside of the field of cinema studies or even outside academia. It also introduces practical annexes – a chronology of Havel’s life, of the films made in his production companies, and short biographical information on lesser known personalities mentioned within the book, listed alphabetically. Krystyna Wanatowiczová’s book represents a well-researched and very accessible biographical study.

Anna Batistová

Independent scholar

anna.batistova@gmail.com

Bibliography

Bednařík, Petr. 2003. Arizace české kinematografie. Praha.

Bednařík, Petr. 2010. “Adaptace literárních děl v protektorátní kinematografii.” In O Protektorát v sociokulturních souvislostech, edited by Dagmar Magincová, 31-40. Hradec Králové.

Bilík, Petr. 2011. Ladislav Helge. Cesta za občanským filmem. Kapitoly z dějin československé kinematografie po roce 1945. Brno.

Doležal, Jiří.1996. Česká kultura za protektorátu - školství, písemnictví, kinematografie. Praha.

Horníček, Jiří. 2000. Miloš Havel a český filmový průmysl. Praha (unpublished thesis).

Gustav Machatý. Touha dělat film. Osobnost režiséra na pozadí dějin kinematografie. Brno.

Klimeš, Ivan. 1989. “Národně obranné tendence v hraném filmu za protektorátu." Film a doba 1: 53-76.

Suggested Citation

Batistová, Anna. 2016. Review: “Krystyna Wanatowiczová: Miloš Havel – český filmový magnát.” Ghetto Films and their Afterlife (ed. by Natascha Drubek). Special Double Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 2-3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2016.0003.25

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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