Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Protecting Her

Jana Plodkova in Protektor
Directed by Marek Najbrt
With Jana Plodkova, Marek Daniel
In Czech and German with English subtitles; 102 minutes; released by Film Movement

As World War II is such a rich ore to mine, there’s no end to films dramatizing how people resisted, or actively collaborated with, the Nazis. Director Marek Najbrt’s smart, handsomely mounted Protektor explores how the former Czechoslovakia dealt with the 1938 German invasion and annexation that preceded a world plunged into war.

Emil (Marek Daniel, a perfect everyman), a Prague radio reporter whose voice has become familiar through his regular broadcasts, is married to famous movie actress Hana (a subtle Jana Plodkova), who initially doesn’t even blink when the Nazis take over: nothing changes for her while she keeps working in front of the cameras. Since she’s Jewish, however, soon she loses her “star” status, reduced to a nobody without a career.

It is through Emil’s increasingly desperate attempts to save face with the Germans that Hana is left alone as more stringent (and murderous) anti-Semitic policies are implemented. But when the local Deputy Protector, the region’s head Nazi, is fatally wounded in an assassination attempt, Emil finds himself as a suspect after he borrows a bicycle following an extramarital rendezvous that matches one used in the attack.

Najbrt understands his own country’s cultural history by showing how the Nazis censored, used or even ignored film or radio celebrities depending on their ability to be useful propagandists. As the film progresses, Emil’s and Hana’s careers move in opposite directions: as Hana’s film career slumps, Emil is a rising star: even Germans immediately recognize him by his voice. In English, at least, there are multiple meanings to the film’s title, as Protektor (which refers to Emil as well as the Nazi leader who is murdered) can also be read as Protect Her.

Throughout the movie, Najbrt shows a stylized visual refrain of Hana onscreen bicycling as if on a sound stage, with headlines spelling out the Nazis’ worsening war against Jews. In fact, the film opens with Hitler’s own belittling description of a Czech-as “a cyclist who hunches over as he pedals”--before Emil is seen frantically pedaling towards the camera. While effective at first, this bicycle metaphor is overdone and ends up getting a flat tire.

The director more firmly explores the corrupting use of power. Emil has limited power while he is able to protect his Jewish wife, while Hana herself quickly loses her own “celebrity” power. Emil is initially willing to recite the censored script given to him, but refuses to heed his own supervisor’s recommendation that he divorce Jana, whose own willfulness isn’t making things any easier on their increasingly stressful marriage.

Despite his attempts to keep Hana out of harm’s way, Emil will only go so far with his cozy relationship with the Germans, since his own conscience doesn’t allow him to become a full-fledged collaborator, only to do enough to keep himself and Hana safe, an instance that becomes less likely as the war progresses.

Although there’s much familiar about his story of collaborators and Jewish protectors, Najbrt outstandingly shows how Prague, one of Eastern Europe’s cultural capitals, dealt with being overrun by Hitler. Miroslav Holman’s muted photography and Ondrej Nekvasil’s authentic set design recreate a world in which danger gradually moves from the public sphere of radio and film studios to private homes, where one must hang a portrait of Hitler to try and convince the Nazis of one’s loyalty.

This tragic tale climaxes with an ingenious closing image, as the latest rounded-up Jews, shown on their way to Auschwitz, slowly disappear from view before the final fade out: it’s the Nazi ideal made literal. Although it’s almost too superficially brilliant, the image lingers in the mind, giving this strongly detailed drama a potent and bitter aftertaste.

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