“If future generations ask us what we are fighting for [in World War Two], we shall tell them the story of Lidice.”
– Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy (1940-1944)
On June 10, 1942, the Czech village of Lidice in Central Bohemia was razed by Nazi forces in retaliation for the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich two weeks prior.
All 173 men over 16 in the village were executed; women were transported to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück, and children were taken to the Chełmno extermination camp, where the majority of them were subsequently gassed. 153 women and 17 children survived the massacre.
One male resident also survived. He was František Saidl, who managed to live, ironically, because he was serving a four-year prison sentence for the 1938 murder of his own son. Saidl’s own story is an absolutely fascinating fragment of this great historical tragedy.
So where did The Butcher of Prague (titled Lidice in Czech), director Petr Nikolaev’s admirable, well-intentioned, but ultimately underwhelming film version of these events, go so wrong? Glossy and overwritten, Lidice represents a Hollywoodized, Titanic/Pearl Harbor version of the massacre that somehow manages to make this fascinating real-life story feel incredible, and it loses dramatic impact by underscoring every last emotional cue.
Saidl here is renamed František Šima, and is played by Karel Roden; the film more or less follows his story, though there are what seem to be a number of deviations from his actual life.
At the outset in 1938, we witness his infidelity with a neighbor (Zuzana Fialová) and an outburst by his son, which leads to the son’s accidental death and Šima is sent to prison. His wife (Zuzana Bydžovská) and other son, Karel (Ondřej Novák), are left to fend for themselves in Lidice during the German occupation.
Lidice’s biggest miscue occurs as the film attempts to explain the reasons behind the Nazi targeting of Lidice for retribution following the Heydrich assassination. In an attempt to impress a pair of young girls, Karel and his friend Václav (Marek Adamczyk) pretend to be members of the resistance.
This leads to the discovery of a letter (in regrettably unfortunate, I-know-what-this-looks-like-but… Three’s Company fashion) by German forces, who turn their eyes to the small town for retaliation. It’s not that events like these did not or could not happen, but an air of incredulity hangs over the film’s presentation; too much is too clearly explained where simple explanations do not suffice.
The massacre itself, which occurs halfway through the film, is heartbreakingly rendered. Yet it feels too polished, too scripted; Lidice lacks the kind of matter-of-fact presentation that would allow the drama to really hit home.
Some sequences, however, do have appropriate impact. A concert lead by Heydrich, attended by Karel, is arresting. The most effective storyline in the film involves police captain Vlček (Roman Luknár), who begrudgingly collaborates with the Nazis and is forced to live with the consequences.
Lidice looks great. Shot by Antonio Riestra (Normal, Czech-Made Man), the film is deceptively beautiful to look at, though a grittier style may have better served the story. Visual effects, however, including some frequent use of post-production slo-mo, cheapen the film’s overall look. And one of the key scenes – the Heydrich assassination – is so poorly composed (mostly in close-ups) that one wishes it hadn’t been included at all.
Music, which includes an original score by Michal Hrůza, has the unfortunate tendency to become overbearing; while quite lovely in its own regard, it’s used as a crutch by the filmmakers to highlight every last dramatic element, begging the audience to feel something when such tactics should have been entirely unnecessary.
2012 marks the 70th anniversary of Operation Anthropoid and the Lidice massacre. For more absorbing portrayals of the events, see the 1966 Czech film Atentát and the 1975 British production Operation Daybreak, which was shot in and around Prague.