Culture, Travel & Sport

A spy drama set in communist Prague: HBO’s The Sleepers

Almost 30 years after the  Velvet Revolution ended communist rule in former Czechoslovakia, The Sleepers, a spy drama produced by HBO Europe, is bringing viewers a reminder of what Cold War intrigue looked like in Prague during the turbulent times that resulted in the fall of the communist regime.

Directed by Ivan Zachariáš and Ondřej Gabrie, the miniseries tells the story of a Czech dissident couple, Marie and Victor (played by Tatiana Pauhofová and Martin Myšička), who decide to return to their homeland after spending a decade in political exile in London.

Marie is first seen being treated in hospital after a car accident. Waking up from a coma, she realises that her husband has disappeared without trace. She decides to find out if Victor’s disappearance is just a coincidence, or something that was politically motivated.

“I think about three of even four years ago when we were thinking about the shows we were going to do in the Central and Eastern European region, where we have been producing drama series for about eight years, what came into our mind was that we really should do a project that marked the anniversary of the changes of 1989,” wrote the Prague Monitor, quoting Anthony Root, one of the series’ executive producers, pointing to the historic importance of HBO Europe’s timing.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival earlier this year, Mr Zachariáš pointed out that the period in which the series is set was a time when Czechoslovakia had started moving towards becoming a democracy, “which obviously is not that simple. That’s basically what this TV show is about.”

“It even has a connection to the present day,” he told Variety in an interview, reminding people that democracy always has to be fought for, not least at a time when Czech public life is facing serious challenges.

“[1989] was a big year. It was a huge change, when the communist system finally broke down,” said David Nykl (pictured above), a Czech-Canadian actor who appears in the espionage thriller as a British diplomat. He was born in Czechoslovakia but left his home country with his family in 1968 when Soviet troops invaded to crush the Prague Spring. He recalled that creating the show, and directing it in the Czech capital, posed some serious cosmetic challenges. “Back in 1989, it was an older, decrepit-looking Prague,” he said. “It’s beautiful now,” he points out.

According to Nykl, The Sleepers is “a series about identity, about who you are, and the potential for being more than what you appear to be.”

The series certainly looks the part.

Like the award-winning Chernobyl, also produced by HBO, the producers have managed to get many of the small details spot on. From the decor in Prague’s apartments to the clothes worn by Czechoslovaks, there is an authenticity to the series that was until recently sadly lacking in productions set in communist-era emerging Europe.

The strength of the series however is not based entirely on its accuracy as a period piece: the struggle for influence in Central and Eastern Europe which it depicts is as relevant today as it was in 1989.

It’s well worth a watch, and – without giving too much away – offers a genuinely unexpected twist in its final episode.

HBO Europe’s The Sleepers is currently streaming on HBO Go.