In its opening scenes, Julian Ševčík’s new film Masaryk details the much-loved titular character (played by top Czech actor Karel Roden) snorting coke and screwing supermodel Eva Herzigová, who portrays unspecified 1930s actress-turned-mistress to the Czech diplomat.
We know from the start: this may not be a cautious, respectful biography of the storied Czech figure, one of the most prominent and mysterious in the young country’s history.
While blandly titled A Prominent Patient for foreign audiences who may not be familiar with the lead character (including those at the recent Berlinale, where the film received a scathing review from Variety’s Jay Weissberg), the titular Masaryk has a double-meaning: it refers to both Roden’s Jan Masaryk and his father, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, whose presence looms over both the film and it’s lead character like an albatross.
T. G. Masaryk was the first president of the newly-formed Czechoslovakia in the years following WWI, and one of the most beloved figures in all Czech history: in a popular 2005 poll of The Greatest Czechs, he came in second only to King Charles IV.
His only surviving son Jan Masaryk (brother Herbert died of typhus during WWI), who served as the Foreign Secretary for the Czech government in exile during WWII and was murdered by communists in 1948, came in at number 50. During Jan’s life, as told in this new movie, he seemed to struggle with his role in his country’s fate in the years leading up to WWII.
Director Ševčík’s film, which he co-wrote with Petr Kolečko and Alex Koenigsmark, deals mostly with the late-1930s events leading up to the Munich Agreement and its aftermath, in which Europe’s leaders handed over most of the Czech lands to Nazi Germany without putting up a fight.
But as Roden’s Jan Masaryk scrambles around London to garner support for his country from dignitaries that include Lord Halifax (Dermot Crowley) and Neville Chamberlain (Paul Nicholas), we know all too well where this will lead. Eventually, even his own president and his father’s successor, Edvard Beneš (solemnly played by Oldřich Kaiser), fails him.
These events, which take up roughly half of the film, are related via flashback; a peculiar framing device has a suicidal Masaryk checking in to a New Jersey psychiatric ward while in the US following the Munich Agreement, and relating his woes to a German-immigrant doctor (Hanns Zischler).
These scenes, which take up an usually large amount of screentime for a framing device, are peculiar because in a film of otherwise such historical import, they appear to be wholly invented. They seemed to drive Weissberg over the edge, as he states that scribe Kolečko’s ‘alternative interpretation of history’ would “make Sean Spicer proud.”
But here’s the thing: truth or total fiction, they’re the best scenes in the movie. The script’s stark tearing-down of Masaryk’s mental fabric gives us an unusual and most-welcome window to the character, and an exploration of the man himself rather than the circumstances that came to define his life.
Rather than the familiar The relationship between Masaryk and his doctor comes to define the film, giving us a picture not about Masaryk’s struggle to save Czechoslovakia but about his struggle to repair himself as the states as war rages in Europe.
Zischler, an accomplished German actor who featured in Spielberg’s Munich, is excellent as the doctor, an initially stern man who comes to earn his patient’s trust and respect. His story, too – as a German immigrant in the US on the eve of WWII – lends the film some unexpected gravitas.
But it’s Roden, no stranger to portraying Czech characters of great historical import (he even played T.G. Masaryk last year in the TV miniseries Zločin v Polné) who carries the movie. His deft portrayal of Jan Masaryk from Czechoslovakia to London to the shores of New Jersey, through two languages (even on Czech screens, the majority of the film in in English) and from strong-willed sanity to madness and back, is one of the actor’s finest accomplishments.
Less effective is Spanish actress Arly Jover as Marcia Davenport, the American writer Masaryk meets while in the US (the two were reportedly planning to marry at the time of his murder in 1948). To American ears, her scattershot New England accent is… a distraction, in an otherwise first-rate production.
Masaryk recreates late 1930s period detail, across two continents and multiple cities and locations, absolutely exquisitely – this modestly-budgeted feature puts many Hollywood films to shame. Most of the foreign locales were generated using some creative post-production tweaking.
Other technical specs, including the elegant camerawork by Martin Strba (who also lensed Burning Bush for Agnieska Holland) and the sweeping score by Michał Lorenc and Kryštof Marek, are similarly first-rate. Only do a few late shots in New York City feel less than fully convincing.
Masaryk, which opens in the Czech Republic on March 9 after an awards-qualifying run at the end of last year, has been nominated for 14 Czech Lion awards.
Unless jurors choose to award the equally-exquisite (but predominantly foreign-produced) WWII drama Anthropoid, it ought to win many of them. This is one of the classiest Czech productions in years.