Tag Archives: Prague

Protektor (2009)

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.

This Czech film is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s World Cinema series

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Beauty in Trouble (2006)

“Comrade teacher, how many kids did you brainwash with your communist crap before allowing those salvation charlatans to throughly soak you?”

Sometimes I come across a film that is a complete surprise, and the 2006 Czech film, Beauty in Trouble (Kraska v Nesnazich) falls into that category. When the film arrived from Netflix, I couldn’t recall exactly why I’d added it to my queue. Anyway, with a rating of three stars, I didn’t expect much, so I was really surprised to find myself enjoying this story of two dysfunctional families and the intervention of a wealthy good Samaritan who has more on his mind than just being charitable.

The story is set mainly in Prague after the devastating 2002 flood, but there  are also a few contrasting scenes in sunny Tuscany. The film’s ‘beauty’ is Marcela (Anna Geislererova)–a woman somewhere in her thirties who dresses like a 13-year-old about to go to the disco for the first time. Marcela is married to Jarda (Roman Luknar), and they have two children–a girl on the brink of adolescence and a young boy who suffers from asthma. Since the family didn’t have flood insurance, they are struggling to make ends meet while still living in a house damaged by the flood. Jarda has taken to a life of crime, and he and his mates have established an ad-hoc chop shop in the garage. Stolen cars arrive, then Jarda creatively re-arranges them, and the family live on the proceedings. Meanwhile Jarda locks up his religious nutcase mother Libuse (Emilia Vasaryova) as he works so that he doesn’t have to listen to her sermons. Marcela isn’t thrilled about Jarda’s life of crime either, and she’s sure that he’ll eventually be caught, but Marcela’s complaints are silenced by noisy sex–the one thing that Marcela and Jarda seem to have going for their relationship.

One day, Marcela packs up the children and moves in with her mother Zdena (Jana Brejchova) and her mother’s peculiar boyfriend, the cadaverous ‘Uncle’ Richard (Jiri Schmitzer), so soon there are five people squashed in a flat meant for two. A sense of the absurd descends on the film at this point–there’s Marcela holed up with her children while her mother-in-law sleeps in the car outside, doggedly determined to persuade Marcela to return home. But the flat is hardly a refuge, and Richard vacillates between pointedly groping Zdena in front of everyone and lording it over the visitors when Zdena is absent.

But Marcela’s problems snowball when Jarda’s life of crime comes crashing to a halt after he’s caught for the theft of an expensive car. The stolen, computerized Volvo belongs to Evzen (Josef Abrham), a wealthy middle-aged man who lives in Italy but is in Prague to sell a house he’s just inherited. As fate would have it, Evzen is waiting at the police station when Marcela arrives. In this clever scene, both Evzen and Marcela seem to be invisible to each other for just a few moments, and then Marcela begins some rather obvious stretching exercises, shoving up her boobs even further out of her push up bra, and bending over to reveal one of her sexy tattoos. These simple actions grab Evzen’s attention (as they were intended to), and before long, he’s wining and dining Marcela, offering her money and allowing her to live in the house he’s just inherited.

Evzen seems to be a very nice man. He’s kind and generous, and that generosity extends to Marcela and her children. Evzen is everything that Jarda isn’t–he’s refined, gentlemanly and more importantly, he’s loaded. It looks as though Marcela may have hit the big time, and while Marcela’s slightly deranged mother isn’t thrilled by the relationship, her mother’s boyfriend, can’t believe Marcela’s luck. In one great scene, Evzen takes Marcela and her family to a posh restaurant, and the meeting throws the characters and their main concerns into the spotlight. While Evzen’s age appalls Marcela’s mother, Richard is practically rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of cashing in on Marcela’s good fortune, and he chalks up the disparity in Marcela and Evzen’s age to something he’s read about:  ‘they call it fuck buddies.’

Beauty in Trouble is a character-driven drama, and so most of the film’s strength comes from the collision of these strongly-drawn, disparate characters, their contrasted values, and their poisonous relationships. In spite of his urbanity, Evzen, at first, seems a little naive, insulated by his wealth and privilege from the desperate lives that the Marcela and her family lead. He’s lived in Italy since 1967 and even carts around a copy of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being which he is reading in Italian. Not only does this subtle prop indicate Evzen’s divorcement from Czech society, but there’s also a hint that he’s reading the book to ‘bone up’ on Czech culture for his trip.

Richard is around the same age as Evzen, but they are complete, and startling opposites. Whereas Evzen generously basks in the safety and glow of impeccable grooming, wealth, and good food, Richard ‘s unattractive bitterness seems to coalesce around hanging on to the very little he has–hence one of the bitterest scenes occurs over a package of diabetic biscuits, and the message is that these precious biscuits cannot be easily replaced when they are gobbled down by Marcela’s children. When Richard first appears, he  makes a few remarks that are more than a little inappropriate to Marcela’s daughter, but at this point it’s not certain if he’s just eccentric. As the story plays out, however, Richard’s behaviour is a major impetus for Marcela’s life and the choices she makes. He dominates the screen, and in one great scene after another, he spews forth bitter diatribes. Lording it over everyone who makes the mistake of visiting his tiny apartment, those caught in his crosshairs get his lectures and his views on life whether they want to listen or not.  To Richard, Czechoslovakia is over–ruined by communism and now the new belief system–religion, and anyone with any brains will get out while they can.

But apart from the tale of Marcela’s choices (which are influenced by her bitter circumstances), the plot also carries a sly undercurrent–a morality tale if you will concerning the nature of charity. Evzen’s motives towards Marcela are never ‘pure’, but the money he passes to her boomerangs back via Libuse and her corrupt, manipulative preacher. Makes me think of the Marquis de Sade’s maxim: No good deed goes unpunished.

From director Jan Hrebejk.

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