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For those who wonder how Adolf Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia practically without firing a shot, Julius Sevcik’s A Prominent Patient (Masaryk) offers a depressing look at the politics of appeasement in Europe’s darkest hour. The story of the reluctant diplomat Jan Masaryk, son of the first president of Czechoslovakia and a self-professed bon vivant and madman, is whittled down to three crucial years before the Nazi invasion of his country as he shuttles between London, Prague and the Vineland psychiatric hospital in New Jersey.
At Vineland, where he is called “Your Excellency” even while pilfering cocaine from the dispensary, the clinically depressed Masaryk grandly locks horns with a German psychiatrist in exile, Dr. Stein (Hanns Zischler), a fictional character inserted to make us understand that his trauma is not personal, but stems from the political betrayal of an underage country by the big cigar-smoking players like Britain and France.
With all that going on, one would think there was ample material for a fascinating pre-war thriller, or at least a new historical take on the period, but the screenplay is missing a lot of pieces and the humdrum staging looks numbingly like jazzed-up Euro TV fare. The film will be most appreciated by local audiences and history buffs who are already aware of the characters and events which ushered in World War II. A bright spot is Karel Roden’s authoritative, deeply felt performance as a lucid, far-sighted madman who tried to prevent the war.
Masaryk (Roden) is introduced playing a Czech anthem on the grand piano, beautifully, in a house he has broken into. When apprehended by the owner, he simply requests he be taken to Vineland, the only place he feels truly at peace. The time is October 1938, which a few viewers might know fell between Hitler’s annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Flashbacks to champagne parties in swinging Prague and London tag Jan as a good-time boy, a heavy drinker, a coke addict and, despite being a short, balding intellectual, a very successful ladies’ man. Eva Herzigova towers over him as his first dance partner. His stormy affair with a British politician’s wife flies by, and then he has a highly unconvincing encounter with American writer Marcia Davenport (Arly Jover) while he’s on a break from the sanatorium to lecture on politics and the state of the world.
Perhaps they fall at his feet because he’s the Czech ambassador to England, a fact that’s a little hard to mesh with his lifestyle. But that’s part of his psychological complexity: He’s always been more inclined to jazz than politics, but being the only son of Tomas G. Masaryk, founder of his country, he has been groomed to follow in his footsteps. On his deathbed, Masaryk Sr. instructs Jan to heed the advice of his presidential successor, Edvard Benes (Oldrich Kaiser.) But Benes is shown as hopelessly incapable of defending the country when Hitler casts his eye upon it. Jan’s anguish, anger and feeling of impotence is more than understandable faced with the arrogance of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Paul Nicholas in a viciously negative portrait), who along with the faceless French government carves out the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia as a bone for Hitler’s ravenous appetite. Soon afterwards, the whole country is swallowed up.
A patriot in spite of himself, when all is lost Jan encounters Benes, now heading the Czech government-in-exile, and heroically casts his lot with his country. His tragic end will come much later, under the Communist government that stepped in after the war.
Sevcik, the director of the atmospheric period thriller Normal, struggles to dominate this mass of material and to give it a vaguely contemporary edge. More depressing than the utterly bleak psychiatric facility Jan retreats to in New Jersey are the dark Old World interiors, where privilege and entitlement reign and entire countries are sold down the river, just to buy a few more months to rearm before war breaks out. It’s a sad story, and one without a happy ending.
Production companies: In Film, Czech TV, Slovakia Radio and Television in association with ZDF/Arte
Cast: Karel Roden, Hanns Zischler, Oldrich Kaiser, Arly Jover, Paul Nicholas, Dermot Crowley, Milton Welsh, Eva Herzigova, Emilia Vasaryova
Director: Julius Sevcik
Screenwriters: Petr Kolecko, Alex Koenigsmark, Julius Sevcik
Producers: Rudolf Biermann, Julius Sevcik
Executive producer: Rudolf Biermann
Director of photography: Martin Strba
Production designer: Milan Bycek
Costume designers: Katarina Strbova Bielikova
Editor: Marek Opatrny
Music: Michal Lorenc
Casting director: Margareta Abena
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
World sales: Beta Cinema
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