Protektor, a 2009 film from Czech director Marek Najbrt examines the corrupting effect of the Nazi occupation through the relationship of a radio broadcaster, Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) and his Jewish actress wife, Hana (Jana Plodková). When the film begins, it’s 1938, pre-Nazi occupation, and a few scenes establish the core relationship between Emil, a minor radio functionary and his glamorous actress wife. Pencil thin, and wearing a platinum blonde wig (think Jean Harlow), Hana stars and sings in Czech cinema as the leading romantic lady. Emil, in contrast, is a bit of a plodder who can’t help but feel jealous and threatened by his wife’s on-screen dalliances with the suave leading man, Fantl (Jirí Ornest). Perhaps Emil’s feelings of inadequacy are justified as Fantl, predicting the Nazi’s punishing presence, urges Hana to accept a fake Swiss passport and get out while she still can.
Fast forward to the Nazi occupation, and suddenly films which feature Jews cannot be screened, so this leaves Hana instantly unemployed. In a reversal of fortune, Emil’s star rises at the radio station when announcer Franta (Martin Mysicka) refuses to “cooperate” with their new Nazi bosses. The Nazis understood the importance of controlling the media, and so all radio announcements are first sent to Czech censors, and their versions are then sent to Nazi censors. During a radio station meeting, Franta wryly notes that the ‘censors are censoring the censors,’ and privately he tells Emil that “cooperation leads to collaboration.” Franta goes along with the programme for a while, but a “provocation” live on-air, leads to arrest and prison, and Emil rises in Franta’s stead becoming the “Voice of Prague.”
At first Emil’s reasoning, which after all may be genuine or a good excuse, is that his cooperation provides political security for his wife, but as time passes he becomes deeper and deeper involved in Nazi propaganda and is morally corrupted by the privileged partying crowd at the radio station. Meanwhile at home, Hana, depressed and driven crazy by her home imprisonment, sneaks out and establishes a strange relationship with a man, Petr (Thomás Mechácek) who works at the morgue and who runs ‘private screenings’ of Hana’s films at the local cinema. Petr has his own axe to grind against the Nazis as he was in his last year of medical school when it was closed down by the Nazi occupiers.
While Emil broadcasts propaganda by day and parties by night, Hana establishes a secret life with Petr as they create photographic acts of defiance against the Nazis. This strange activity essentially inserts Hana into a life from which she is forbidden. Ultimately both Emil and Hana’s activities are evidence of their parallel lives of self-destruction and denial of reality. While Hana’s self-destructive streak is literal and apparent early in the film, Emil’s self-destruction is not literal but moral in tone. Emil wants to cooperate with the Nazis in the spirit of ‘greater good’ and supposedly to protect his wife, and meanwhile Hana’s acts are both risky and frivolously sad. The film also cleverly parallels Emil’s role and abuse of his role as Hana’s ‘protecter’ with Reinhard Heydrich’s (the Butcher of Prague) role as the so-called Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Morovia.
The recurring motif of bicycling occurs throughout the film–a rather appropriate one given the significance of the bicycle and the assassination of Heydrich–an event which brought down massive civilian reprisals and removed any remaining veil of self-delusion of the Nazi master plan. One of Hana’s scenes shows her riding a stationary bicycle in the studio while she’s pursued by her screen lover, Fantl. The implicit idea is riding and exerting all of one’s energy and getting nowhere while the secondary idea of this recurring motif is that one cannot escape one’s fate. Hana and Emil’s increasingly tortured relationship is in the foreground, but in the background, we see quicksilver glimpses of torture, Aryan thugs and massive round-ups. Protektor effectively manages to blend an uneasy mix of dark fatalism with a sense of escalating madness, avoidance and self-delusion which ends in a stunning, unforgettable sequence.