Monday's selection, "Protector" (9) was one of my favorite films of the festival so far. A highly stylized and fresh depiction of a certain aspect of the Czech experience of Nazi occupation, this film crackles with inventiveness. And, like the best films about wartime experience (including another wonderful Czech film that I wrote about a few years back, "Divided We Fall"), it shows how war sometimes asks of people more heroism than they possess.
The story centers on Hana, a beautiful rising film actress, and her jealous journalist husband, Emil. The Nazis invade just as Hana is completing her first film star turn and, because she is Jewish, the censors prevent the release of her film. The power balance suddenly shifts in the marriage, as the Nazis quickly impose anti-Semitic laws that prevent her from working or even going to the cinema. Meanwhile, Emil's fortunes improve, when the most popular radio journalist is pulled off the air for refusing to cooperate with the Nazis and Emil makes a deal with the devil to become the voice of the Third Reich. He does this, ostensibly, for Hana's sake--rather than divorcing her, he has vowed to protect her.
The idea of protection figures potently in the film. The Nazis refer to themselves as protectors of the Czechs--their country becomes a "protectorate" and the head of the Reich there, Reinhold Heydrich, becomes the "Reichsprotektor." Emil promises to protect Hana, who formerly protected him. Yet none of this actually feels like protection--it's really about power. The protector in each case is given license to steal--in Emil's case, as compromises pile on top of each other, he feels himself to be making so many sacrifices on Hana's behalf that he loses respect for her and easily succumbs to various female admirers. Hana, for her part, bored at home and robbed of the spotlight, sneaks into the local cinema and takes up with a morphine-addicted projectionist. She engages in little acts of artistic rebellion as the projectionist photographs her all over Prague in places forbidden to Jews, wearing the bleached blond wig from her starring role that no one has seen. She considers herself to be in hell, and she is in a way--but not, of course, compared to other less protected Jews.
The artistry here makes everything fresh and suits the nature of the story, which is all about likable but vain artists robbed of the attention they desire and forced to make decisions where the stakes go beyond artistic compromise. Bicycles are a potent recurring symbol--Hana pedals furiously on a stationary bicycle in her film, and Emil pedals furiously in his efforts to appease the Reich and grab what he can for himself. The score has a pedal-powered feel that sounds like a very good remix of the most innocent 30s and 40s music, revealing its darker edge. There is much to admire, and much to think about--particularly because war is arguably just a more extreme version of how people behave most of the time.