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Protektor -- Film Review

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PALM SPRINGS -- Young director Marek Najbrt, commendably, is not interested in wringing easy tears from the European experience of World War II. In the handsome drama "Protektor," he brings a cool, noirish slant to a story of Czech artists and intellectuals as they accommodate and to a lesser extent resist the German occupiers.

For much of the running time, the striking style keeps the proceedings at perhaps more of a remove than intended, dulling the impact of the film's final moments. But the art house-worthy feature -- the Czech Republic's official submission for the foreign-language Oscar, which received its U.S. premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival -- nonetheless is a resonant depiction of the war's effect on people in the arts and media.

The Prague-set story opens, amid a highly stylized montage, with mention of the 1942 assassination attempt on the notorious Reinhard Heydrich, the Third Reich's Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and a figure in numerous novels and films. The screenplay then jumps back four years to trace the fates of two fictional characters: radio journalist Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) and his actress wife, Hana (Jana Plodkov), a lithe, sad-eyed brunette whose career ends suddenly because she's Jewish. Her co-star and lover tries to get her to leave the country; her decision to stay put is the film's defining tragedy and mystery, an unfathomable combination of inertia, loyalty and vague hope that defines most lives to varying degrees.

Emil, meanwhile, benefits from the occupation, however reluctantly, after a colleague, Franta (Martin Mysicka), refuses to censor himself and loses his on-air job. Rising to celebrity status as host of the dubiously titled "Voices of Our Home," Emil increasingly must sideline Hana, already a victim of curfews and bans.

Miloslav Holman's deeply desaturated cinematography, with luscious black-and-white excerpts from Hana's film work, is such a powerful element that it distracts from the story in the early going. But as the pieces of the narrative come together, and photography itself takes center stage, the emphasis on surfaces makes more sense. Finding solace with a morphine-addicted projectionist (Tomas Mechacek), the unmoored Hana dons the blond wig from her last film and daringly poses around town for his still camera, draping herself beside signs forbidding Jews.

Making the most of her screen time is Klara Meliskova as Vera, the ultra-pragmatic -- some would say evil -- broadcast colleague of Emil's who appears, perversely, in angel wings at a Christmas party and who tells him with icy certainty when his career is on the line: "Don't count on me. I'm not suicidal."

If it takes awhile for the two leads to penetrate the surfaces and make their characters matter, the provocative reverberations of "Protektor" only deepen in retrospect. Although the visuals have the sharp clarity of black and white, this is not a simplistic morality tale. Would-be hero and martyr Franta is a figure on the margins of the story, not on a pedestal. Crafting a drama of messy, self-absorbed lives, of people whose love isn't enough to protect one another, Najbrt and his three screenwriters show that the betrayals of World War II are not ancient history but the stuff of a very modern age.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

Production: A Falcon release of a Negativ Film production
Cast: Jana Plodkova, Marek Daniel, Tomas Mechacek, Klara Meliskova, Martin Mysicka
Director: Marek Najbrt
Screenwriters: Benjamin Tucek, Robert Geisler, Marek Najbrt
Producer: Milan Kuchynka
Director of photography: Miloslav Holman
Production designer: Ondrej Nekvasil
Music: Midi Lidi
Costume designer: Andrea Kralova
Editor: Pavel Hrdlicka
No rating, 102 minutes