Starring: Tatiana Pauhofová, Martin Myšička, Jan Vlasák
Writer: Ondrej Gabriel
Director: Ivan Zachariáš
Production Company: HBO Europe
Capitalism and democracy won the Cold War, but they’re surely losing the peace. HBO’s entertaining new Czech drama, The Sleepers, is a parable of our present discontent with the aftermath of the Cold War. Since, as the espionage thriller reminds us, nothing truly changed after Eastern European countries such as Czechoslovakia peacefully transitioned out of Communism. The new order was built on more of the same broken promises and cynical lies that had accompanied the era of Soviet domination.
The six-episode miniseries follows the return of two Czech exiles to Prague on the eve of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. But, after a car accident, Marie (Tatiana Pauhofová) awakens from a coma to find that her husband, Victor (Martin Myšička), has disappeared. Her search for him raises questions about the noted dissident’s background and politics. Meanwhile, an international group of spies, police, and diplomats scramble behind the scenes to find him. Their efforts suggest this is more than just a missing persons case. England, Russia, and the Czechs are all vying for control in anticipation of the revolution.
The outcome of this global power struggle drives home the ambivalent message of a dark and brooding series. The Sleepers is a bit bleak. The cinematography manages the feat of casting the gorgeous city of Prague in grey and dreary tones. The characters are often shot against murky backdrops. The spare use of music artfully comments on nostalgia. And, the proliferation of silence interspersed throughout the dialogue reinforces the fact that there’s no answer to the question of who won the 20th-century’s great ideological conflict.
Understated writing and direction drive home this message: maybe the Cold War was never really worth it. Dense, at times slow, storytelling quietly pulls us toward the pathos of ordinary people caught in the transition. As a character piece, The Sleepers can be disquieting. Pauhofová’s Marie is empty and unsettled. Myšička’s Victor is vague and withholding. Jan Vlasák’s Vaclav, the operative who sees how it will all end, is tired and resigned. And the characters stay in these emotional states. In terms of plot, there are plenty of twists and turns. But, in terms of emotions, the characters don’t move very far from where they start. Their ends look much like Czech society after the Velvet Revolution — lonely and unfulfilled.
Such fraught storytelling may leave some disappointed. But I suspect that’s part of the point. Since we’re all a bit disappointed by the post-Cold War world. It’s hard to watch this dark and moving miniseries and not feel dissatisfaction with the political gridlock and economic inequities that have arisen from the broken promises of 1989 and 1991. That’s the universal appeal of this program. Fans of spy dramas will revel in the plot devices and hidden identities that keep us guessing. But there’s also something else deeper here for the rest of us. The Sleepers says out loud that which we sometimes dare to think. That no one believes in anything anymore. And that we’re each of us all alone.
Check out The Sleepers on HBO Go and HBO Now. It’s available on HBO Max on May 27.