Friday, January 15, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Protektor

A grave crisis can certainly also represent an opportunity, but capitalizing on it usually requires a certain moral flexibility. For one jealous journalist, the German occupation of Czechoslovakia offers such a chance to advance professionally while tightly controlling his beautiful Jewish wife in Marek Najbrt’s ironically titled Protektor (trailer here), the Czech Republic’s official Oscar submission for consideration as Best Foreign Language Film, which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Emil Vrbata is probably right to be concerned about his vivacious wife Hana. Having just completed her first film, her career is poised to explode. She also seems quite chummy with Fantl, her much older, but still charming, romantic co-star. However, her promising future is cut short by the Third Reich’s invasion.

The Vrbatas have a mixed marriage. She is Jewish, though not particularly observant, whereas her husband is sufficiently Aryan to become the primary mouthpiece for the Nazi Czechoslovakian propaganda machine. Though his nearly famous wife’s Jewish heritage is known to many, he is able to protect her, provided she stays confined to their apartment.

Suddenly, he is the one pursuing extracurricular affairs, secure in the belief that his wife is safely locked away in their flat. Indeed, the tables have turned and keep turning. Having made a deal with the devil, he understands the evil nature of his new masters only too well. As a result, when through ill-fated happenstance he is caught up in the plot to assassinate the brutal SS strongman Reinhard Heydrich, he never considers simply telling the truth. Again, to rely on shopworn aphorisms, those with guilty consciences always feel they have something to hide.

Protektor is not another heroic rescuer film. True, Vrbata shelters his wife from almost certain death, but his motives are hardly selfless. Likewise, Hana Vrbata cannot be simply dismissed as the standard issue noble victim, particularly in light of the solace she finds in the emotional intimacy and the morphine provided by a lonely projectionist. Indeed, there are a lot of competing motivations at play in Protektor, but altruism is rarely a factor.

Jana Plodková shows real star power as Hana Vrbata, literally shining in the gorgeously shot film-within-the-film scenes. It is a nuanced performance, maintaining the audience’s sympathies and credibility despite her character’s manifest flaws. Unfortunately, Marek Daniel seemed to take his direction from Hannah Arendt ‘s concept of the “banality of evil,” coming across rather stiff and boring as the compromised Emil Vrbata. However, the strongest impression might well be made by Jiří Ornest as the seemingly rakish Fantl, who convincingly morphs into one of the films few tragically decent figures.

Alternating between bold colors and some elegantly stylized black-and-white sequences, Miloslav Holman’s cinematography is quite distinctive. It is a well crafted, great looking production, but its decidedly unsentimental perspective on occupied Czechoslovakia may leave some viewers cold. A somewhat cynical film that delivers no heroics, Protektor is an intriguing selection for this year’s NYJFF. It is worth checking out when it screens at the Walter Reade Theater this coming Sunday (1/17), Monday (1/18), and Tuesday (1/19).