// Silver-screen and real-life illusions collide in “Protektor,” drama about the moral weight of collaboration. Set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, this luscious-to-look-at sophomore feature from Marek Najbrt observes a marriage, and a country, under siege. In Prague, at the outbreak of WWII, radio reporter Emil is married to Hana, a famous film star who is initially oblivious to the Nazi threat. Hana’s Jewish heritage precipitates her fall from the height of her career to the bottom of the social ladder. In order to protect her, Emil compromises himself, collaborating with the new Nazi-controlled state radio station. Conditions worsen as restrictions on Jews are systematically increased, and the assassination of the Third Reich Deputy Protector brings their malingering marriage to a crisis, and Hana’s fate closer to that of the other Jews around her.For the gorgeous Hana (Jana Plodkova), a rising Jewish starlet, the occupation stifles the release of her breakthrough movie and the fame she craves. But for her insecure husband, Emil (Marek Daniel), a lowly reporter for a Prague radio station, the arrival of the Nazis proves a career boon: recognizing that a familiar radio voice could be a useful propaganda tool, Emil’s German overlords are willing to overlook his Jewish wife. For the moment.
The Prague-set story opens, amid a highly stylized montage, with mention of the 1942 assassination attempt on the notorious Reinhard Heydrich, the Third Reich’s Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and a figure in numerous novels and films. The screenplay then jumps back four years to trace the fates of two fictional characters: radio journalist Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) and his actress wife, Hana (Jana Plodkov), a lithe, sad-eyed brunette whose career ends suddenly because she’s Jewish. Her co-star and lover tries to get her to leave the country; her decision to stay put is the film’s defining tragedy and mystery, an unfathomable combination of inertia, loyalty and vague hope that defines most lives to varying degrees. Emil, meanwhile, benefits from the occupation, however reluctantly, after a colleague, Franta (Martin Mysicka), refuses to censor himself and loses his on-air job. Rising to celebrity status as host of the dubiously titled “Voices of Our Home,” Emil increasingly must sideline Hana, already a victim of curfews and bans.
Dipping in and out of luminous black and white, “Protektor” has a distancing glamour that prevents the story from digging in. Burdened by a central relationship so lacking in passion that its fate becomes negligible, the film’s narrative feels trivialized by jaunty musical fragments and repetitive cycling and rowing motifs that belabor Emil’s metaphorical treadmill of appeasement. Glimpses of torture and episodes of betrayal slide by so slickly that we never feel their weight, and the plot’s last-minute embrace of the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich only precipitates some complicated business with a stolen bicycle that is as confusing as it is unnecessary.
Bathing everything in a retro-noir sheen, Miloslav Holman’s photography sings. As Hana holes up in an empty cinema to mainline opiates and her unreleased movie, the film regards her increasingly reckless behavior without approval or censure. At this moment, surfaces are all that matter, and no one must see what lies beneath.
Directed by Marek Najbrt; written by Mr. Najbrt, Robert Geisler and Benjamin Tucek; director of photography, Miloslav Holman; edited by Pavel Hrdlicka; music by Midi Lidi; art direction by Ondrej Nekvasil; costumes by Andrea Kralova; produced by Milan Kuchynka and Pavel Strnad; released by Film Movement. In Czech, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Jana Plodkova (Hana), Marek Daniel (Emil), Klara Meliskova (Vera), Martin Mysicka (Franta), Richard Stanke (Tomek) and Tomas Mechacek (Petr).
PROTEKTOR by Joseph Jon LanthierEngendering an experience both visually slick and narratively sprawling, the apropos-of-nothing professionalism of Protektor often feels more like branding than filmmaking. A Nazi occupation pseudo-noir with the gray, pasty flesh-tones of a withering early-century lobby card and a soundtrack full of thumping orchestral remixes, the movie is nothing if not tonally sellable, even if the digital sheen often seems at odds with the domesticity of the central story. Therein, director/co-writer Marek Najbrt follows the lackadaisical marriage of a Czech journalist, Emil (Marek Daniel), and a Jewish actress, Hana (Jana Plodková), through the political turbulence of Prague in the late ’30s and early ’40s. Hana’s career is overturned after Hitler’s invasion necessitates the shelving of her breakout performance in the story’s prologue; Emil, meanwhile, is appointed the new broadcast voice of Axis-approved Czech radio after his predecessor refuses to read propaganda, and becomes an unlikely celebrity.
Emil’s vocation somewhat hilariously fictionalizes the high demand for vestiges of pulchritude in war-torn Europe; round-cheeked and monotone, with a pair of perpetually weary eyes, Emil is precisely the kind of pushover one would expect to be reciting whatever the Nazis feed to him. Originally taken on as a convenient shelter for his unauthorized spouse, and rationalized as an opportunity for subtle anti-Hitler stances, Emil’s role as the ubiquitous “voice of Prague,” and its various social perks, are eventually confronted with voraciousness. This also shuttles him back and forth between the roles of husband and impartial protectorate to the svelte, dark Hana throughout, responsibilities he complicates with marital disinterest and sexual dalliances under the sultry red standby lights of radio-studio instruments; Hana herself spends a fair chunk of World War II hiding out in their apartment and scandalously pressing her luck by blowing off steam with local dope pushers and artists.
But despite the featuring of Nazi-radio and film fame as prominent plot devices, and the complicated attention Najbrt pays to integral images and symbols (such as a dreamily revisited bicycle motif that figures tragically into the third act), Protektor exhibits a disappointing dearth of media-related ideas. Najbrt cues us into the recognizable milestones of this period, for example, with curiously distanced, chic devices. Intermittent montages show Emil and Hana bicycling frantically against blown-out, chroma-keyed photographs with superimposed text suggestive of headlines (“Beware of Jews without stars”); we can intellectualize a connection between these interludes’ artificial coldness and the interpersonal alienation experienced by the characters, but the spinning language feels more like a narrative convenience. It’s kinetic filler.
In another scene, the restless Hana dons the blond wig she wore in her unreleased starring role and tours Prague with a photographer friend, posing in ponderous snapshots beside the myriad “No Jews Allowed” signs that have been plastered on storefronts. That we understand this tirade through the prism of her deteriorating marriage and not as an act of political defiance per se is daring; the film nearly treats the Holocaust as a tangential macrocosm of the couple’s connubial ennui. But whenever Najbrt attempts to draw his story’s drama out of the husband/wife dynamic, their jaundiced exchanges appear contrived. (Emil’s smug hissy fits climax clunkily: “Do whatever you want. It’s not my fault you’re not Jewish.”) We’re not invested enough in the broken household to allow the period particulars to serve as an inductive metaphor. When the film finally gets around to acknowledging the ambiguity over the title function, which could refer to either Emil’s halfhearted shielding of Hana or the ghostly Nazi Protector-General who governs occupied Czechoslovakia, the cleverness is muted by our fatigue with the couple’s desultory bond. The blurs that overtake the final frame are a fitting cop-out of emotional obscurity; the characters might only seem uncertain toward one another because their progenitors haven’t bothered to render their complex love beyond a surface of disconnect, jealousy, and doubt.