Movie Review: Masaryk

Biopic of the Czech politician is likely more meaningful for a local audience

Masaryk (A Prominent Patient)
Directed by Julius Ševčík
With Karel Roden, Hanns Zischler, Oldřich Kaiser, Arly Jover, Eva Herzigová, Zuzana Kronerová, Emília Vášáryová
(only partly in English, some theaters have a subtitled version)

The early teaser trailer for the film Masaryk made it look a bit like it focused on politician Jan Masaryk's wild streak, showing him snorting cocaine, womanizing, eating in fancy places and dancing wildly to jazz music.

The film, which is being marketed in English-speaking markets as A Prominent Patient, actually takes a very serious look at the events leading up to the Munich Pact and the start of World War II, and the hard partying is more of a subplot.

Before the war broke out, Czechoslovakia was a pawn caught between an increasingly aggressive Germany and counties like the US, France and Britain, which where trying to avoid a war at any cost.

The film won 12 awards including Best Picture and Best Director at the Czech Lions, beating rival war-themed film Anthropoid among other contenders. The number of awards was a new record.

The English title gives a hint of the film's overall structure. Jan Masaryk, the son of Czech founding president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, quickly finds himself confined to a mental institution in the United States in 1939, and throughout the film he recounts incidents that led him there, many of which had to do with the increasingly impossible political situation and lack of international support, matched with his own fears that he was not as great a man as his father was.

There actually is little information on what Masaryk did at this time in the US, as he sought to be out of the public eye. The asylum plot is largely a bit of poetic license, though his womanizing and gambling is authentic.

Karel Roden, a prolific actor who was also in a small role in Anthropoid, holds Masaryk together with a strong performance that captures the many moods of the troubled character who longed to get out of his famous father's shadow. Roden won Best Actor at the Czech Lions for his work.

The younger Masaryk is surrounded by other historical figures who pop in and out as he recounts his sense of failure. Oldřich Kaiser won Best Supporting Actor at the Czech Lions as Edvard Beneš, who is overall not painted in a favorable portrait. Veteran British stage actor Paul Nicholas turns up a British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and is also painted with a thick brush as one of the villains. Nicholas looks the part and plays it well as a pompous and self-assured aristocrat showing little real concern for the entire nations he is manipulating.

The female roles though are all very much side characters. Even Masaryk's main love interest, Madla, played by model Eva Herzigová, has only a few lines and her big speech is about her new lingerie.

The accents on characters when they speak English is a bit of a drawback to the film. It makes a bit of sense that that the Czech and German characters would have accents when they are put in situations that required them to speak English. But some of the characters who should have been native English speakers also were a bit hard to decipher. Spanish actress Arly Jover plays American novelist Marcia Davenport but seems to be trying to feign an Irish accent and a thick one at that. Davenport was born in New York City. In real life, she was the half-sister of actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

If the name Marcia Davenport rings a bell, it is because there is plaque near Prague Castle marking a building where she lived in 1947–48.

There are also a couple of anachronisms in the film. Masaryk and Davenport in one scene drink absinthe by pouring it over a sugar cube and setting the cube on fire. This practice didn't start until the 1990s, when flaming drinks were a fad. Absinthe at the time would have been mixed with water poured over the sugar cube to make the green liquid turn cloudy.

For a Czech production, however, Masaryk is a very handsome film that makes good use of locations like the State Opera, Rudolfinum, Municipal House (Obecní dům) and Boscolo Prague hotel to stand in for a variety of classy settings. The filmmakers also found a truly ominous building to stand in for the asylum.

The look of the film including period cars and costumes to match the locations is one of its best achievements, and it is one of the best-looking Czech and Slovak co-productions in a long time. The pacing is also good, with tension mounting as the political situation collapses.

The film will likely be much more meaningful to a Czech audience, which will be well-versed in the controversy over what Jan Masaryk and President Edvard Beneš should have done, and whether they could have prevented World War II if their actions had been different, and if other countries lent support.

People less familiar with who the characters are might be struggling a bit to keep up, and also a bit lost by the end as the filmmakers assume people know the broad outline of Czechoslovak history.

Long-term Prague expats may spot some familiar faces from the local English-language acting scene in small roles.

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