Marek Najbrt's amazing Czech- and German-language period drama Protektor demonstrates that WWII Nazi horrors can still provide untapped thematic ground and fresh insights, even after 70 years of cinematic exploration.
Set in Prague between 1938 and 1942, the picture begins with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and dramatizes the disintegration of a marriage as it succumbs to external despotic pressures. The two partners are Hana (Jana Plodková), a Czech film actress who has achieved local stardom but soon becomes unemployed because she is Jewish, and Emil (Marek Daniel), a radio broadcaster whose oratorical skills soon catch the attention of Hitler's propaganda machine.
Najbrt approaches the movie as a cerebral meditation on two diametrically opposed but equally dangerous responses in the face of genocide. Hana seems almost recklessly drawn to personal risk. A self-possessed hedonist who obsessively slips into a movie theater in disguise to watch her own films, she makes no distinction between cinematic drama and the drama that surrounds her -- and gets a charge out of all of it. This intoxication culminates in her decision to befriend a kinky, opium-addicted photographer; she has him snap clandestine photos of her standing in lines with gentiles, next to signs that formally ban Jews from local establishments and brandish anti-Semitic slogans. Emil, on the other hand, personifies the denial inherent in collaboration; he copes with the despotic regime by eventually broadcasting as the propagandistic voice of Nazi Czechoslovakia -- despite the administration's full knowledge of his Jewish wife and their encroaching admonitions that if he wishes to retain his job, he must file for divorce from Hana and/or turn her in.
All of this is never less than engrossing. Much of the originality of this movie lies in the subjects -- real eccentrics driven by fascinating, complex pathologies -- and in the four-barreled performances by Plodková and Daniel, who convincingly inhabit their meaty, deliberately paradoxical characters. Najbrt's visual presentation is also interesting and effective. In conveying Hana's perception of the world as a kind of filmscape, he establishes jarring Brechtian contrasts between the artificial presentation of the world in the films of the period and the day-to-day realities of Nazi-occupied Prague. While the predominant aesthetic of Protektor is drab and sepia-toned, it periodically bursts into hyper-stylized life with giant intertitles behind the characters and other devices that shake the audience to heightened awareness, calling attention to the ways the then-nascent film medium molded individual perceptions of the period. This doesn't score points for ingenuity; Marco Bellocchio's Mussolini biopic Vincere used comparable visual tropes to make similar thematic points -- but it worked there and feels equally effective here.
The film's final act both disappoints and inspires. It's a letdown in the sense that it hinges on a narrative construct (involving an attempted assassination and a bicycle) that is almost impossible to swallow, but it also witnesses Najbrt bringing the two main characters back to a point of tangency in the final moments with tremendous subtlety and grace. Their arcs re-intersect with an almost mythically tragic resonance, sounding cautious notes about the preceding events, and prompting each viewer to reflect on how he or she might respond to the duress of equally complex and demanding circumstances.