Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Czech Protektor

Holocaust related films usually offer an example of nobility to counterbalance their horrors, but not here. For one jealous journalist, the German occupation of Czechoslovakia offers an opportunity to advance professionally, while tightly controlling his beautiful Jewish wife in Marek Najbrt’s ironically titled Protektor (trailer here), an alumnus of last year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, which opens in New York and Brooklyn this Friday.

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 (or traditional in any sense), whereas her husband is sufficiently Aryan to become the primary mouthpiece for the National Socialists’ Czechoslovakian propaganda machine. (Indeed, he bears a certain surface resemblance to Marcello Clerici in Bertolucci’s Conformist.) 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 under lock-and-key. The tables have turned, but 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 accidentally caught up in the plot to assassinate the brutal SS strongman Reinhard Heydrich, he never considers simply telling the truth. To rely on another shopworn aphorism, those with guilty consciences always feel they have something to hide.

Protektor is not another heroic rescuer film. Granted, 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 victim, particularly in light of the solace she finds in the emotional intimacy and the morphine provided by a lonely projectionist. 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 fully dimensional 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 reserved as the morally compromised Emil Vrbata. However, the true standout performance comes from Jiří Ornest as the seemingly rakish Fantl, who convincingly morphs into one of the films few tragically decent figures.

Alternating between vivid colors and elegantly stylized black-and-white sequences, Miloslav Holman’s cinematography is richly distinctive. It is a well crafted, striking looking period production, but its decidedly unsentimental perspective on occupied Czechoslovakia may leave some viewers cold. A somewhat cynical but intriguing film that delivers no heroics, Protektor is very definitely worth checking out when it opens this Friday (8/5) in the Lincoln Plaza on the Upper Westside and the Brooklyn Heights Cinema out in that other borough.