This story goes to the heart of the difficulty of living in twentieth century Central Europe: great power actions force small countries’ citizens to face large unpleasant facts and make momentous decisions about their lives.
Protektor revisits the painful history of the effect that the Nazi occupation had on the people of Czechoslovakia, particularly the generation of young adults who came of age in the first free, independent and short-lived Czechoslovak Republic (1918-39).
The ‘difficulty’ lies not so much in the history and politics per se. Those abstract concepts only isolate individual citizens, making what had been a small nation a holding pen of second-class people. Each individual must make personal decisions to save his own livelihood that bear grave consequences for his family, friends and neighbors—not to mention for himself, when conditions change.
This would be a good film for those who look in retrospect at periods like Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich or even the McCarthy era or the American civil rights movement, certain that they would have acted with fearless resolve had they been there.
The movie opens with a Hitler mot translated into Czech about the Czech character:
‘Čech je cyklistou, jenž se nahoře hrbi, dole však šlape.’—A Czech is a cyclist who hunches over as he pedals.
The same ‘light hearted,’ jocular attitude clearly carried over to that nation’s next guardian in the east: Czechs are laughable Svejks who deserve whatever they get because theirs is a little country that cannot protect itself. The high-principled West did not do much to help matters in either instance.
Bicycling moves the plot forward. These Czech bicyclists do not hunch over but ride upright, though their motion forward lends only an illusion of moving away from one thing or toward another. It was not just Franz Kafka’s Josef K.
Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) works for Czechoslovak state radio in Prague. His wife Hana Vrbatová (Jana Plodková) is a film actress who just finished shooting her breakout starring role, with more on the way.
Unfortunately for the gifted, beautiful—and Jewish—Hana, it is late 1938. By the following spring, Nazi Germany had incorporated the former Czech lands into the Third Reich as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
Emil is a regular, everyday guy, popular at work. When a colleague, Franta Vrana (Martin Myšička), decides that he must continue to ‘call it as he sees it’ as a radio broadcaster, despite instructions and warnings from German and Czech Nazi higher-ups, Emil gets an option. Franta is finished. Emil can take Franta’s place, or leave the station; if he takes the job, the Nazis also will leave Hana alone.
Franta had dismissed Emil’s suggestion that if they were smart about what they did, they would give themselves ‘a chance to express our views pretending we mean the opposite’ in a way their listeners would understand. This safely cautious view turns out to be Emil’s first step on the slick slope of collaboration.
On the other hand, once the Germans occupy the country and take over its institutions, Franta’s former girlfriend Věra (Klára Melíšková) jumps on the bandwagon. She even ends up marrying the Nazi radio station overseer Tomek (Richard Stanke).
The Nazi race laws result in the withdrawal of Hana’s film from cinemas, and she must lie low at home. In a sense, Emil, jealous of his wife’s success and her attractive middle-aged (and Jewish) costar Arnošt Fantl (Jíří Ornest), is guiltily relieved. Hana discovers a secret new life when she starts sneaking out during the day to private film screenings with Petr (Thomás Mechácek), a former doctor who works in a morgue, a morphine-addicted cinephile.
This story imitates life, shot in the muted colors of yesteryear with snippets of Gershwin. There also is a haunting, original McCartneyesque period song that serves as the film’s theme, Když zavřu oči (‘If I close my eyes’ which the subtitles render ‘Like Alice in Wonderland’), by screenwriter Robert Geisler/music by Jan Budař.
Emil increasingly becomes beholden to the successive chain of concessions he finds himself compelled to make, hand-in-hand with Hana’s willful blindness.
The marriage frays along with Emil’s role as Hana’s ‘protector’ as each is led unto temptation. They struggle to keep things that could never be the same the way they always were, down to the film’s surprisingly abrupt resolution.