Marek Najbrt’s Protektor, a period drama set before and during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, nearly swept the 2010 Czech Lion awards, taking home prizes for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Robert Geisler, Benjamin Tuček, Marek Najbrt), Best Actress (Jana Plodková), Best Film Editing (Pavel Hrdlička) and Best Music (MIDI LIDI). It was also the Czech Republic’s official submission to the 2010 Academy Awards.
Yet, despite all the prestige, Protektor left me cold upon a first viewing. I warmed up to it significantly upon re-watching, but this is still a film caught between artistic and narrative visions, with Najbrt’s direction reeking of artistic pretension while the (excellent) screenplay attempts to push through the narrative singlehandedly. It isn’t a complete success as either art or drama, though it frequently comes close.
Protektor stars Marek Daniel as radio producer Emil Vrbata and Jana Plodková as his actress wife Hana. During the Nazi occupation of the Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, radio commentator Franta (Martin Myšička) is dismissed for his political leanings and Emil is asked to take his place (and, wink-wink, promote the Nazi agenda.) Why should Emil comply? “Your wife,” the German producer (Rišo Stanke) reminds him, “she’s a Jew.”
That’s a great setup for a wartime drama or a political thriller, with Emil forced to tow the Nazi line in order to protect his wife, and Hana – once a beloved actress – now rotting at home in-between stealth trips to the cinema.
And beneath the traditional storyline are some wonderful thematic devices, like Hana riding a stationary bike for a shot in a film, pedaling rapidly but going nowhere.
A purported quote from Hitler opens the movie: “A Czech is a cyclist who hunches over as he pedals.” (“Čech je cyklistou, jenž se nahoře hrbí, dole však šlape”) Something was lost in this translation, which intends to say (I think) that a ‘Czech is a cyclist who cowers up top but treads underneath.’
It wouldn’t surprise me if other aspects of the film don’t translate well, either; I was particularly confused during the contrivances surrounding a stolen bicycle, which seem, well, overly contrived.
One of my initial concerns with the film was the way Emil and Hana are portrayed: during the course of the film, they never quite win our sympathy, we’re never rooting for them. Najbrt paints them as everyday people, warts and all, neither good nor evil, who make decisions to try to cope with the situation they find themselves in.
An accurate reflection of reality, perhaps, but not one that makes for a compelling film. The acting, however, cannot be faulted: Plodková and Daniel are equally impressive as the husband and wife coping with oppression.
The production design is flawless: a tangible WWII-era Prague is brought to life through vivid sets and costumes. Cinematography by Miloslav Holman is gorgeous, and frequently so desaturated it seems to be in black & white. Also great: original music by MIDI LIDI, perfectly anachronistic but memorable and well-suited to the material.
Protektor is neither the film I expected to see nor the one I wanted it to be, with director Najbrt frequently sacrificing a terrific screenplay in favor of style. Still, it’s a very good one, with a truly memorable and haunting final scene.