Award-winning screenwriter and director Ivan Fíla this summer added another titular feather to his cap – that of best-selling author – following the runaway success of his historical novel about the one Prague Spring leader who refused to sign the Moscow Protocol legitimising the Soviet invasion and onset of “normalisation”.
I met Ivan Fíla in a lively hookah bar in Prague to discuss his book “Muž, který stál v cestě” – or “The man who stood in the way” – a historical thriller centred around the seminal year of 1968, and the remarkable life story of the man in question, Dr. František Kriegel, a reform communist and later Charter 77 signatory.
That book grew out of extensive research over several years done while working on a screenplay, now more than halfway to becoming a movie, in terms of securing financing. But I began by asking Ivan Fíla about his own childhood, and how he came to flee Czechoslovakia some forty years ago.
“I was born in Prague. My mother was doctor and my father was an engineer. I grew up in Malá Strana – the best place in the world. During communist times, there were no tourists. It was very peaceful, very quiet, very grey. But just wonderful – wonderful memories.”
How did you get into film? I know you sat for the entrance exams at the FAMU (the Prague film school) and that Otakar Vávra was among those who questioned you…
“Yes, my big dream was to study at FAMU. I was eighteen, I think, and I went to the entrance exam and the questioner was Otakar Vávra, the famous director. And he asked me about 1968, what I thought about the Prague Spring. I immediately knew that’s it. I almost stood up and said, ‘Okay, thank you. I should rather go.’ But I told him my opinion and that was it. I was not allowed to study.”
“But, as a filmmaker, I worked here in Prague during high school. During the holidays, I worked for Barrandov Studio, and for Krátký film. I was actually an employee of Barrandov, an assistant director. So my dream was to write scripts and direct movies – and that never changed.”
I understand that you were also a semi-professional football player?
“Yes, I played for Dukla Prague and later for the Bohemians. I played in the first junior league. So, that was another dream of mine – not only to make films – also I was thinking about playing football — but at that time, there was no professional football; you could not be a professional player unlike abroad. There was a Socialist terminus.”
“So it was like a kitschy, kitschy American – Hollywood dream! But I liked it – it was a very important experience for me.”
While being banned from studying film in his home country was frustrating, it was the prospect of mandatory service in the Czechoslovak People’s Army that finally compelled Ivan Fíla in 1977 to flee to the West, at the age of 21.
“There was an order to into the military for two years, and I couldn’t survive two years under this regime. And I got permission to travel to Yugoslavia with a travel agency, and the lead guide of the group was my former girlfriend! We went there for two weeks. The very last day I decided to leave the group – it was already my clear plan, to leave for Italy, to Trieste. That was the plan.”
“I thought the problem would be with the Yugoslavian guards -- but it was the opposite. The Yugoslavians told me, ‘Go, if you like.’ The Italians asked for a visa and when I said ‘No, I’m an emigrant looking to escape Czechoslovakia.’ They said ‘You are not allowed in without a visa – no way.’ I had to decide at that moment whether to run or go back. I decided to run. And I ran for some 12 kilometres and they were behind me all the time. But I was quicker. I was in good shape!”
In time, you made it to Germany and got asylum there…
“Yes, but it was not my dream. I wanted to go to America. I got a transit visa through Germany, came to Frankfurt and saw Czechoslovak immigrant newspapers and saw some ads offering help to immigrants. It started well. I went to school and learned German. I got asylum and stayed there for a quite a long time.
And there you managed to study film…
Tell me about your early work – what was your first film, actually?
“My first film – that’s a funny story because my first film, graduate film, I shot in America. It was called ‘Harley Heaven’. There’s a beach town in Florida called Jacksonville, which was and still is famous for one long weekend in April when Harley Davidson riders from the across whole world came for three days. It was a crazy place. Maybe 100,000 people, driving their Harleys on the beach.”
“And we made a documentary about a guy from Cologne of Czech origin who owned 35 Harleys, and his dream was to go to Jacksonville and joint the party. So I made a documentary about him, and my professor in Cologne paid for that movie! He was so enthusiastic about the subject. He said, ‘Here, you’ve got 35,000 Deutschmarks’ – quite a lot of money at that time – ‘Go there make the movie.’ So we signed an agreement in an elevator, just one piece of paper, and I went to Florida.”
They talk about the importance of a 30-second “elevator pitch”, but you got a contract!
“Yes, yes. The pitch came before, but we signed the contract in the elevator!”
Was it difficult for you to adjust to life in Germany, even though you finally had a chance to study formally?
“It was always difficult for me to make my movies – in America, in Germany, here in Prague – because I’m not the one who would go for being a hired director. I always wanted to make my own movies based on my own ideas, my vision. And it was difficult because you always have somebody above you, dictating what to do. So I was fighting very hard with every movie. And it never changed!”
“It was always difficult for me to make my movies – in America, in Germany, here in Prague – because I’m not the one who would go for being a hired director.”
Directors who get to a certain level can demand ‘final cut’, but you’re talking about control from the script right to the final product.
“Yes, because I write my scripts myself. I think this is the hardest part of filmmaking. Not the work itself, but when you finish the script and give it to your producers, or whoever decides whether it’s good or not –this is really hard because you get a lot of ‘notes’, a lot of comments.”
“When I was working for DreamWorks, there were 25 people around me all the time. The script review is very hard because everybody has something to say, everybody wants to see his or her idea put into the script. And you have to please all of them. This is very difficult. Once it’s approved, green-lighted, it’s okay. In production, it’s a little bit easier. And then there’s a problem with the final cut, sure.”
After graduating from film school, Ivan Fíla worked for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as a film journalist while developing his own projects. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when allowed to return to Prague, he began pitching documentaries to the German public-service broadcaster ZDF.
“And I came on the 28th of December 1989 with a 16mm camera and made a 90-minute movie for ZDF on immigration. It’s called ‘Steps in the Labyrinth’. I talked to very famous people who had stayed here, such as Jiří Dienstbier (who secretly published the newspaper Lidové noviny) and Václav Havel and people like me who were immigrants, like Pavel Tigrid (among the most important personalities of Czech exile journalism, based in Paris) and Jiří Gruša (a writer and poet who distributed samizdat and was a Charter 77 signatory) who was later an ambassador to Germany. And I contrasted the thoughts of those people as to why it was better to leave the country or to stay.”
With several documentaries to his credit, Ivan Fíla turned his hand to feature film. His debut film Lea, released in 1997, won awards at European festivals and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in the U.S. He got a contract with the famous Hollywood-based talent agency William Morris – and caught the eye of a major filmmaker and producer.
“So I came to Hollywood one day. They had called me in the middle of the night – I was in Frankfurt – and on the phone was Steven Spielberg! He liked my movie and invited me to L.A.
My producer was Wendy Finerman, who produced Forrest Gump. It was like a dream! Flown first class to L.A.; picked up by a huge limo and driven by Wendy to Amblin Entertainment, a production company run by Steven; they paid for a room in the Four Season Hotel in Beverly Hills. So it was like a kitschy, kitschy American – Hollywood dream! But I liked it – it was a very important experience for me.”
A few years ago, Ivan Fíla was approached about making a movie about Dr. František Kriegel, a brave man of principle who, for most of his life, was a dedicated communist. He had joined the International Brigades in December 1936 to fight Franco’s nationalists in Spain, rising to the rank of major. After the war, he served in the Czechoslovak People’s Militia in the Communists coup of February 1948, and rose in the ranks of the Ministry of Health.
Following a party purge in the 1950s that saw him politically side-lined, he was named Chief Physician at a Prague hospital and – fluent in Spanish – went to Cuba in 1960 as an adviser to Castro’s government on medical care. By the time Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary in January 1968, he had become a leading proponents of the Communist Party’s reformist, democratic wing.
History will remember Dr. Kriegel as the one Prague Spring leader who stood up to Brezhnev and refused to sign the Moscow Protocol legitimising the Soviet invasion and onset of “normalisation”. Under threat of torture, a lifetime of hard labour in a Gulag, or execution, he told his Soviet interrogators, “Send me to Siberia or shoot me dead.” But he would not sign.
“Some three years ago, my producer Miloš Šmídmajer came to me and asked if I’d be interested in making a movie about František Kriegel – the only hero in 1968. I thought this theme is so important for Czech and Slovak society – and there was the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring last year, in August – and I thought it would be wonderful to save all the ideas that came up in the script in a book. Not just transforming the script into a novel but creating new chapters with new information we got from the secret Russian archives. That was crucial for the work.”
“In Moscow we found some 36,000 pages from the KGB on František Kriegel, starting in 1936, KGB documents, before he went to Spain (to serve as a doctor) in the Spanish Civil War. And it was fascinating. We were not allowed to bring out pages or make photocopies. My friend who is an historian secretly took pictures on his iPhone and brought it out. So we got a lot of information on František Kriegel and Gustáv Husák, Ludvík Svoboda and all the so-called ‘heroes’ from 1968.”
I’ve seen the script, and at the end, it notes how one of the people around Dr. Kriegel was one of the most diligent, enthusiastic collaborators with the StB secret police.
“Oh yes. His name was Václav – he was the biggest spy during the communist times, with 3,600 reports alone on people around Charter 77. Nobody had a clue – not even Václav Havel, Pavel Kohout – none of the people at the centre of Charter 77 knew. It came out after 1989.”
And he was mainly driven by jealousy, the green-eyed monster, over a sexual relationship…
“Yes, a sexual relationship. After 1968, the secret police visited him and told him the truth, showed him some pictures. It’s a Greek drama! I made a greater figure of him in the book. I think I would change the script now.”