One of the most famous Czech victims of communism in the years immediately following World War II – along with Jan Masaryk, whose story was also brought to the big screen earlier this year – Czech politician Milada Horáková was falsely accused of a secret plot to overthrow the communist government in 1949.
Tried and found guilty in a famous show trial the following year, Horáková was sentenced to death, and despite pleas from across the world that included Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt and others, she was executed in 1950 at the age of 48.
In Milada, the new biopic from debut filmmaker David Mrnka that was shot in Prague throughout 2016, those pleas for Horáková’s sentence to be commuted are listlessly read off in the office of Klement Gottwald (played by Jiří Vyorálek) as the communist president furrows his brow and downs multiple shots of vodka.
We get the impression of what kind of film this is early on, after the fifth or sixth poorly-photoshopped newspaper comes spinning at the screen to convey a historical event. Every sequence in the movie transitions the same way, with a quick fade to black. Every scene is brimming with medium close-ups, every sequence of dialogue shot in over-the-shoulder cutbacks.
Despite a talented cast that includes Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer in the lead alongside some the Czech Republic’s finest actors, superb production design across authentic Prague locations, vivid cinematography by Martin Štrba and a heartfelt score from Aleš Březina, there’s an amateurish feel and crushing lack of creativity at the heart of Milada that sucks the life right out of the movie.
Less an involving biopic and more of a dramatized Wikipedia entry, responsibility for Milada falls to its producer-writer-director, David Mrnka, who was born in the Czech Republic but built a career in the TV industry in Australia and Los Angeles.
Milada is his feature film debut, in any capacity, and it’s no less an undertaking than the first feature film about one of the most significant events in the history of Czechoslovakia. At best, it’s a well-meaning attempt to bring Horáková’s story to a worldwide audience. At worst, an insult to her legacy.
Yet, good intentions bleed through the screen. Unlike the cheesy Lída Baarová, a similar biopic released last year, Milada is appropriately solemn and entirely well-meaning. It ends with a plea of its own, for the millions of people around the world currently living under dictatorships.
Shot in English (though screening in a Czech-dubbed version in most Prague cinemas) with Zurer – the glue holding this movie together – as Horáková and American actor Robert Gant as husband Bohuslav, the film also stars Vica Kerekes as her long-suffering sister, siblings Daniel and Karina Rchichev as Horáková’s daughter Jana at ages 6 and 13, and Jaromír Dulava as her father.
The film begins during Germany’s Munich Agreement annexation of Czechoslovakia – echoes of this spring’s Masaryk – as Horáková and others covertly assist the resistance. A key theme throughout the film, she puts her ideals ahead of herself and her family when slips a list of agents inside her daughter’s bag during a Gestapo search.
Both Horáková and Bohuslav get sent to separate concentration camps and prisons, but make it out years later after the war. Horáková briefly rekindles her political career, which is crushed during a communist coup in 1948. She is arrested as a traitor, imprisoned, interrogated, forced to confess, arraigned at the infamous show trial, sentenced to death, and executed.
These events, and many others, are relayed dramatically in rat-a-tat fashion with all the passion of an inventory list. The film’s key sequence – and what could have been a movie in and of itself – the trial is whittled down to about five minutes of screentime because this 130-minute film needs to cover every important event in Horáková’s life during a 12-year span and cannot afford to spend too much time with any of them.
A framing device set after the fall of communism in 1990 is actually one of the film’s most touching sequences, as adult daughter Jana (played by Taťjana Medvecká) finally receives the letters her mother wrote to her from prison and reads them before holding a press conference.
Good intentions notwithstanding, Milada is certainly not the definitive film version of Horáková’s story that the title implies. But as tedious as I found it, I do wish the movie receives a wide audience abroad; Horáková’s story, unknown to many outside of the Czech Republic, is certainly one worth revisiting.
Note: in Prague, the English-language version of Milada is currently screening at Kino Lucerna and Cinema City Slovanský dům.