Most war movies, particularly World War II movies, present themselves in a real documentary like style, which is difficult to digest and places the viewer in an uncomfortable situation. The best example might be Polanski’s The Pianist, where we follow the life of … (Adrian Brody) during the Wolrd War as he runs and hides from the Nazis and is aided by a sympathetic German soldier. Protekor takes a radically different path delivering a highly stylized vision of Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia.
Protektor follows the life of Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) and Hanna Varbatova (Jana Plodkova), a married couple living during the Nazi occupation. Emil is a Czech who works at national radio broadcast station; an opening quote tells us that Hitler thought Czechs are people who hunch over while they ride their bikes. His wife Hanna is Jewish actress with a decent amount of fame in Central Europe; we all know what Hitler thought about Jews. After Czechoslovakia is occupied Emil find himself pretty much between a rock and a hard place. Because of his job at the radio station Emil is of certain use to the Nazis. They will let him be, even give him certain privileges, as long as he broadcasts only what they tell him to broadcast; of course all they want him to broadcast is Nazi propaganda. This is of course not an easy thing since his wife is Jewish. Nevertheless Emil is promised that his wife will be left alone as long as they are not seen in public together. Thus he soon becomes not a collaborator but a conformist to Nazi rule. For Hanna life becomes increasingly boring. She has curfew hours; she is not allowed in certain parts of town, she barely gets to see her husband. And worst of all she is not allowed in the movie theater. This of course does not stop her from doing any of the above. During one of her nightly escapades she meets a nice Czech projectionist named Petr, who allows her to stay in the theater late at night and then joins her for adventures into the “Jewish free” zones, including the wedding of a Nazi officer. Life for Emil is not getting any easier either; most of his friends have labeled him as a collaborator and abandoned him; he also sympathizes with his wife’s frustration but really wished she would behave better. A man in his situation sooner or later will need to relive some stress. And thus he meets Krista in a ball. Krista is a German sympathizer and she is of course convinced that Emil will leave his Jewish wife for no other reason that Hanna is Jewish. What follows is a typical love triangle story with a small subplot of mistaken identities and a plot to assassinate the Nazi general in charge of the occupation.
But it what it is about is not the film’s strength; it is how it goes about it. As I said the film is delivered in a highly stylized fashion. The photography is still mostly grays and earth tones but they are not the grays of a war movie; the film has deep shadows and sharp highlights like in an old noir film where certain bright colors stand out from the rest of the palette. Like wise long shots are replaced by short, hasty, angled, takes. And realistic down-to-the-core acting is replaced by a quirky elegant form of acting like movies in those times used to take. Plodkova shines in the role of Hanna. And Daniel delivers an amazing co-performance with perfect chemistry as Emil. Rarely do actors work so well together, usually one outshines the other.
To top it off: the whole concoction is supported by the director’s (Marek Najbrt) ability to deliver dark humor as if he had worked alongside the Cohen brothers all his life. This is the third movie I’ve seen in the Czech Republic, the first one in theaters, and I have to say their humor is growing onto me. As a czech explained; "Dark humor is ten babies in a barrel. Morbid humor is one baby in ten barrels". They know how to take suffering lightly or rather seriously enough that they are find the smallest strands of joy within them.