Marek Najbrt’s superior Second World War drama begins with a crisp montage of bicycle chains, spokes and gears. A pedal powered score wheels the audience into 1942 and the aftermath of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia.
Nicknamed the “Butcher of Prague,” Heydrich virtually annihilated the Czech resistance in two weeks after first arresting and executing the premier, Alois Elias. However, the darkly ironic twist to Heydrich’s assassination was that it wasn’t ordered because of his barbarity, but because his policies of increased wages, rations and an improved social security system were winning over the Czech workers and peasants. The only way to breathe life into the corpse of the resistance was to provoke the Germans into a savage spate of reprisals. Heydrich’s death did just that.
One such beneficiary of the Nazi occupation is radio journalist Emil Vrbata. As the increasingly draconian measures against Czechoslovakian Jews alienate them from all levels of society, Emil is able to progress at the expense of his Jewish colleagues. He becomes the star turn of “Voices Of Our Home,” but whose home is he representing? Is it his Czechoslovakia or the Third Reich of his new German director?
Crossing Emil on his meteoric rise up the media gravy train is his Jewish wife, Hana, on her way down from movie stardom. Just as she was about to get her big break, her film is pulled from circulation, closing the door on her wild parties and a possible affair with her co-star. The previously jealous Emil now rejects his wife’s proposal of divorce and vows, “I’ll protect you.”
For all his good intentions, Emil and Hana become desperately alienated as the man takes advantage of his position with various sexual encounters. “I’m not doing it for myself,” Emil tells Hana and himself as he cosies up to the Nazi snake coiled ever tighter around the Czech intelligentsia. Emil’s protection of his wife “is contingent on his own collaboration, it is underpinned by a lie,” explains director Najbrt. “Emil acts against his own beliefs, which in turn causes failure.”
Hana, deprived from the oxygen of celebrity, is slowly suffocating on the air meant for mere mortals. She ventures outside, taking on the role of a lifetime as an Aryan princess flaunting the anti-Jewish laws in her cinematic disguise. This is quite safe, as no one ever saw her movie. Hana becomes a poster girl for defiance as she’s finally famous, her still life film photographed by Petr, a morphine-addicted projectionist.
“Protektor” adds a new dimension to the Heydrich assassination, namely the media’s involvement with his regime and death as both Emil and Hana become entwined in his grisly story. Miloslav Holman’s divine cinematography is an arresting counterpoint to Emil’s terrible pact with the devil. On the surface, Emil is gliding effortlessly, much like he does when he is rowing. His actual reality is more akin to riding his bike, peddling furiously to stay alive. “An average rower can never be a champion,” we are told, but under the Nazis, men like Emil prove they could.