Engendering an experience both visually slick and narratively sprawling, the apropos-of-nothing professionalism of Protektor often feels more like branding than filmmaking. A Nazi occupation pseudo-noir with the gray, pasty flesh-tones of a withering early-century lobby card and a soundtrack full of thumping orchestral remixes, the movie is nothing if not tonally sellable, even if the digital sheen often seems at odds with the domesticity of the central story. Therein, director/co-writer Marek Najbrt follows the lackadaisical marriage of a Czech journalist, Emil (Marek Daniel), and a Jewish actress, Hana (Jana Plodková), through the political turbulence of Prague in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. Hana’s career is overturned after Hitler’s invasion necessitates the shelving of her breakout performance in the story’s prologue; Emil, meanwhile, is appointed the new broadcast voice of Axis-approved Czech radio after his predecessor refuses to read propaganda, and becomes an unlikely celebrity.
Emil’s vocation somewhat hilariously fictionalizes the high demand for vestiges of pulchritude in war-torn Europe; round-cheeked and monotone, with a pair of perpetually weary eyes, Emil is precisely the kind of pushover one would expect to be reciting whatever the Nazis feed to him. Originally taken on as a convenient shelter for his unauthorized spouse, and rationalized as an opportunity for subtle anti-Hitler stances, Emil’s role as the ubiquitous “voice of Prague,” and its various social perks, are eventually confronted with voraciousness. This also shuttles him back and forth between the roles of husband and impartial protectorate to the svelte, dark Hana throughout, responsibilities he complicates with marital disinterest and sexual dalliances under the sultry red standby lights of radio-studio instruments; Hana herself spends a fair chunk of World War II hiding out in their apartment and scandalously pressing her luck by blowing off steam with local dope pushers and artists.
But despite the featuring of Nazi-radio and film fame as prominent plot devices, and the complicated attention Najbrt pays to integral images and symbols (such as a dreamily revisited bicycle motif that figures tragically into the third act), Protektor exhibits a disappointing dearth of media-related ideas. Najbrt cues us into the recognizable milestones of this period, for example, with curiously distanced, chic devices. Intermittent montages show Emil and Hana bicycling frantically against blown-out, chroma-keyed photographs with superimposed text suggestive of headlines (“Beware of Jews without stars”); we can intellectualize a connection between these interludes’ artificial coldness and the interpersonal alienation experienced by the characters, but the spinning language feels more like a narrative convenience. It’s kinetic filler.
In another scene, the restless Hana dons the blond wig she wore in her unreleased starring role and tours Prague with a photographer friend, posing in ponderous snapshots beside the myriad “No Jews Allowed” signs that have been plastered on storefronts. That we understand this tirade through the prism of her deteriorating marriage and not as an act of political defiance per se is daring; the film nearly treats the Holocaust as a tangential macrocosm of the couple’s connubial ennui. But whenever Najbrt attempts to draw his story’s drama out of the husband/wife dynamic, their jaundiced exchanges appear contrived. (Emil’s smug hissy fits climax clunkily: “Do whatever you want. It’s not my fault you’re not Jewish.”) We’re not invested enough in the broken household to allow the period particulars to serve as an inductive metaphor. When the film finally gets around to acknowledging the ambiguity over the title function, which could refer to either Emil’s halfhearted shielding of Hana or the ghostly Nazi Protector-General who governs occupied Czechoslovakia, the cleverness is muted by our fatigue with the couple’s desultory bond. The blurs that overtake the final frame are a fitting cop-out of emotional obscurity; the characters might only seem uncertain toward one another because their progenitors haven’t bothered to render their complex love beyond a surface of disconnect, jealousy, and doubt.