In 1938, the Nazis enter Prague and begin laying down the new law: toothless radio broadcasts, curfews for Jews and Teutonic humorlessness are the new order of the day. Radio employee Emil Vrbata's (Marek Daniel) wife Hana (Jana Plodkava) is an actress, but more importantly she's Jewish, putting her career to a halt just as she's getting ready for her big break. With his wife effectively confined to quarters, Emil decides to take the proffered protection of the Germans: if he agrees to spout propaganda on-air and keep an eye on any potentially dissident colleagues, his wife will be able to avoid entering one of the many ragged lines of Jews crossing Prague on their way to the train station. Marek Najbrt's second feature has a distinctly Czech tone and infinite patience: everyone has their justification for doing wrong, every single time. Ethically thorny and stylistically accomplished, Protektor nonetheless suffers from a shaky opening and non-impactful closer not up to the rest of the film's standard. A Czech Holocaust drama will be a tough sell to American audiences in summary, though this one is easy viewing.
Protektor gets off to a rocky start: Narbt and DP Miloslav Holman nail their period pastiche of Hana's first and only film, which resembles Weimar cinema of the time, but their decision to shoot the real world in a severe sepia (at first so smothering it could momentarily pass for black and white) is distracting and ugly to boot.
Emil suspects Hana of having an affair; she lovingly reassures him that he's just being paranoid and experiencing a typical male reaction to his wife being in close, faux-romantic proximity to her co-stars onscreen. As it happens, Emil's may be paranoid, but he's also right: Hana is having an affair, albeit with a co-star who flees the country as soon as his scenes are completed. She declines to follow him: what could possibly happen? But when the situation becomes clearer, Hana becomes dependent on Emil's protection.
For his part, Emil never overtly takes advantage of his wife: even when it's clear their personal relationship is over, his moral obligation to shield Hana (who can no longer flee) trumps his personal feelings, forcing him to act as a collaborator. Or does it? It'd be unfair to summarize more of the film; suffice it to say everyone's actions, motivations and self-justifications are mixed, and no one is either right or wrong. But every film must have an end, and while Najbrt commendably avoids the standard-issue bathos of the average WWII drama, he still can't come up with a final one-two-punch. Still, the strong central hour—full of beautifully assembled linking montages and a refreshingly offbeat sense of dramatic timing that could pass for comedy—makes up for a lot, marking Najbrt as a filmmaker to watch.
Distributor: Film Movement
Cast: Jana Plodkava, Marek Daniel, Klara Meliskova, Martin Mysicka, Tomas Mechaacek
Director: Marek Najbrt
Screenwriters: Marek Najbrt, Robert Geisler, Benjamin Tucek
Producers: Milan Kuchynka, Pavel Strnad
Running time: 98 min.
Release date: August 5 NY