The day of her execution is now the Czech Republic’s Commemoration Day for Victims of the Communist Regime.” That might sound like starting with a spoiler, but any film about a Czechoslovakian democracy advocate set during the late 1940s is sure to end in tears. Of course. Milada Horáková’s story is still worth telling, perhaps now more than ever—and it is told relatively well in David Mrnka’s English language Milada (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Czech That Film traveling showcase of Czech cinema.
Horáková was always a trouble-maker, who bravely fought and was imprisoned by the National Socialists as part of the Czechoslovakian resistance. Her poor husband Bohuslav Horák loyally stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her, earning his own stint in a Nazi prison. Their family will later ironically note the Germans allowed them to visit Horáková in prison, unlike the Communists.
Inevitably, the film becomes something like a secular passion play, after Klement Gottwald (played like a truly odious viper by Jirí Vyorálek) and the Communists seize control in the 1948 Coup (that they call a democratic election). There is a short interlude of paranoia, as Horáková and her husband help other asylum seekers, knowing full well they too should be leaving. Alas, she is soon arrested and forced to endure sleep-deprivation and countless interrogation-torture sessions. Eventually, she will face the nation in a textbook show trial, but she remains inconveniently uncooperative throughout its duration.
It is important to remember Horáková and those like her at a time when a shockingly large number of people are willing—even eager—to voluntarily relinquish their freedoms, whether it be the right to free speech and a free press or the rights of gun ownership. The events of post-coup Czechoslovakia make it very clear once people surrender their freedoms to the state, it takes a full-fledged revolution to get them back.
Yet, Mrnka and co-screenwriters Robert J. Conant and Robert Gant clearly make an effort to focus on Horáková the wife, mother, sister, and daughter. They were blessed to have the active cooperation of Horáková’s daughter Jana Kánská, who provided personal family papers as well as her memories of key scenes, including her final meeting with her mother, right before her execution.
With that context, Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer creates a full-fledged, flesh-and-blood portrait of Horáková. She is not just a symbol. We believe all her pre-1848 frustrations and post-1948 pain and sorrow. Gant’s Horák is likeably earnest, but as a character, he is not given a lot dimension. However, the are some rich and complex supporting turns from Vica Kerekes, Vladimír Jarorsky, and Ivana Chylková, as Horáková’s sister, colleague, and cellmate, respectively. Tatjana Medvecká also lands a haymaker in her brief but pivotal appearance as Kánská in 1990, post-Velvet Revolution wrap-around segments.
One of the ironies of Horáková’s story is that she would probably be considered leftwing, even by today’s more extremist standards. She was a champion of feminism and labor causes, but she was also a free-thinker, which made her incompatible with the Communist regime. She upheld her principles when others cautioned expediency. There are not a lot of people like that on the political scene today, in any political party. Zurer’s passionate yet scrupulously restrained performance is also well-worth your time. Recommended for general audiences, especially Millennials who did not live through the Cold War era, Milada screens this afternoon (5/13) in Portland and this Friday (5/18) in Toronto, as part of the 2018 edition of Czech that Film.