The Lust for Power

Will Tizard from Variety on Opus Bonum selection The Lust for Power by Tereza Nvotová (world premiere).

The Lust for Power (Mečiar,Tereza Nvotová, 2017)

Lust for Power, Tereza Nvotová’s thoughtful exploration of one of Slovakia’s most notorious recent leaders, is well timed, to be sure. It would be hard to imagine a better year for looking back at how a populist chameleon managed to seize power, manipulate the system to remain in charge and return from the dead – politically, at least – with horrifying alacrity.

Her well-constructed documentary, which weaves together the tangled threads of Vladimír Mečiar’s rise and fall (and repeated variations on both), also forms an important historical record. It should be preserved while memories are still fresh, lest the nascent democracies of the region forget the object lessons of his often-farcical maneuvers and their effects on his countrymen and women.

In these days of renewed populist mini-Trumps and crackdowns on artistic expression and political opponents in Central and Eastern Europe, whether or not we have learned these lessons is another question. But Mečiar’s case remains our responsibility to keep in mind. Nvotová never lectures us as I’ve just done and strives to examine all sides of this complicated, messy son of Detva, a hamlet more unlikely than most to produce a future prime minister– especially one chosen to pilot his people through the dawn of the Velvet Revolution.

A task more ill-suited to this anti-Havel can scarcely be imagined, as Nvotová shows us through deft use of archival footage, news reports from the early ‘90s and accounts from former colleagues and rivals. Then, of course, there’s Mečiar himself, rolling around his comfortable, sizable (for Slovakia) villa, as unapologetic as ever and only a little less bombastic than the strutting caricature he made of himself while in office.

Never doubt the power of denial, the old saw tells us. A la Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Mečiar happily agrees to discuss his past with Nvotová. He reflects fondly on the days of his attacks on democratic institutions and his charades within the Interior Ministry, gathering blackmail files on his enemies. He reminisces upon the surreal episodes that grew out of his attacks on Slovak president Michal Kováč, culminating in the abortive alleged kidnapping of the president’s son in 1995, a stunt still legendary in the rogue’s gallery of Eastern European politics.

The writer/director never directly confronts her arrogant subject about his past as a similar filmmaker might in Western Europe or North America, which will frustrate some viewers. But Nvotová remains well in line with other Central European documentarians of her generation in going at his character issues obliquely and with a sense of irony, if not a touch of affection. Indeed, it seems apparent that he’s allowed the filmmaker into his personal refuge in part because he’s been charmed over by her non-threatening demeanor. If so, we all are the beneficiaries; few others have gained access to the fallen scoundrel and it’s surely worthwhileto hear his side of things, even if doing so will occasionally turn our stomachs.

The Lust for Power (Mečiar, Tereza Nvotová, 2017).

How else, we suppose, could anyone have recorded Mečiar nonchalantly comparing himself to Alexander Dubček – and in the same breath to Jozef Tiso, the head of the Nazi puppet regime of the wartime First Slovak Republic? Tellingly, the comparison is almost devoid of politics or even basic morality. To Mečiar, the two former Slovak leaders share something more important: Each ended up on the career and physical ash pile, just as he has, to his own disbelief. A philosopher king Mečiar was never born to be...

The dissolution of Czechoslovakia and Mečiar’s incredible seizure of the issue from any side that’s expedient, along with his recasting of the event as a great achievement of his own, is just as stunning. But can we really be surprised? He was, after all, a smarter Trump before Trump, even without a Manhattan real estate empire. His tactics might well have formed the playbook for the despots of today. Sadly, Mečiar’s moves have only been refined and expanded upon, along with his delusions of grandeur. So absurd is his devotion to a singular notion of himself as the victim-in-chief, that the inevitable laughs balance out the queasiness that audiences will share at reviewing his record in his presence.

Nvotová, who is also a Slovak actress and nonfiction filmmaker for HBO Europe, Czech and Slovak public TV, is wise enough not to allow his own rose-tinted account to stand unchallenged. She adds a narrative monologue into the mix, useful both as a refresher of the warped politics of his era and as background for those (perhaps luckily) not familiar with his story. Strange as it seems that this merits commending, it certainly does in the context of so many documentaries from the region inclined to drop audiences into the middle of messy socio-political landscapes with little to no effort made at providing background.

Mečiar’s family history adds further to the big picture, as does evocative aerial footage of the Slovak landscape, which serves as a literal and metaphoric setting in which we can more easily imagine phantasmagorical figures rising from small-town ambitions into an epic threat to all and sundry.

Nvotová’s script, co-written with Josef Krajbich and Barbora Námerová, is also circumspect, leaving it to us to decide what we think of her protagonist, his admittedly remarkable accomplishments and his current rather lonely existence in political exile.


Will Tizard 

Will Tizard is a Central & Eastern Europe correspondent for Variety. Variety is the premier film industry trade journal, covering the global production, distribution and exhibition sectors, plus TV, the web and the stage, and its reviews are an important source for buyers worldwide. He is a senior journalism professor at Anglo-American University in Prague, he is completing production on Buried, a documentary following the fight for the return of stolen Holocaust-era Judaica in Russia.