'Lost in Munich' ('Ztraceni v Mnichove'): London Review

Courtesy of Lucky Man Films
A witty flight of fancy with a deceptively serious heart.

A racist parrot ruffles diplomatic feathers in this multi-layered Euro-farce about wounded national pride and the perils of low-budget film-making.

Part irreverent history lesson and part insider movie-business satire, Lost in Munich is the latest genre-twisting comedy from playwright turned film-maker Petr Zelenka, best known for his 2008 adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, which became the Czech Republic’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. Following its world premiere at the London Film Festival last month, this witty farce has just opened in Czech theaters, with neighboring Slovakia to follow later in November. While the locally specific subject and jarring shifts in focus may be barriers to crossover appeal, Zelenka has an engagingly cynical humor which cuts across national borders. Further festival exposure could be a stepping stone to niche theatrical interest.

Though the setting is contemporary Prague, the title refers to the Munich Agreement of September 1938, or the “Munich Betrayal” as many Czechs still bitterly call it, when France and Britain caved in to Adolf Hitler’s demands to annexe large parts of Czechoslovakia along Germany’s southern border. Playing on these lingering national resentments, the first half of the film takes place in 2008, when a 90-year-old parrot that once belonged to France’s pre-war premiere Édouard Daladier is brought to Prague for a news conference. Unfortunately, the talking bird still retains snippets of dialogue it picked up in Munich, and soon begins spouting derogatory anti-Czech phrases, adding fresh insult to ancient injury.

Seizing an unguarded moment, a desperate journalist (Martin Myšička) in the midst of a marital breakdown kidnaps the parrot, sparking a full-blown diplomatic crisis between France and the Czech Republic. Thus Lost in Munich begins as a light-hearted absurdist comedy, but deftly switches track midway through into mock-documentary mode, at which points it gets much more interesting. The parrot story is revealed as an unfinished movie within a movie, and the second act becomes a fake retrospective post-mortem on this ill-fated drama, which eventually implodes due to on-set feuds, illicit love affairs, bogus co-production partners, exotic allergies and fatal accidents.

Paying explicit homage to Francois Truffaut’s classic behind-the-scenes film-set comedy Day for Night, Zelenka’s mischievous mix of farce and tragedy is a much smarter animal than it first appears. Behind its zany premise and sometimes bumpy tone, Lost in Munich eventually emerges as a sardonic commentary on the Czech people’s simplistic self-image as eternal victims of more powerful European neighbors. Raising questions about the semi-fictional nature of historical truth, the film also draws parallels between Munich and later national disasters, including the Soviet invasion of 1968: “the Czech nation didn’t participate in its own history.”

If this all sounds dour and heavy, Zelenka wraps it all up in levity, irony and warm-hearted charm. There are also plenty of wry insider jokes about the precarious nature of low-budget film-making, the political horse-trading that defines modern Europe, and the snob value of upmarket French meat products. Lost in Munich is unlikely to take much business from Judd Apatow in the multiplex laughter league, but it is both entertaining and educational, a largely successful experiment in navel-gazing meta-comedy.

Production company: Lucky Man Films

Cast: Martin Myšička, Marek Taclík, Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, Jana Plodková, Jitka Schneiderová

Director, screenwriter: Petr Zelenka

Producer: David Ondrícek

Cinematographer: Alexander Surkala

Editor: Vladimir Barak

Music: Matouš Hejl

Sales company: Lucky Man Films, Prague

No rating, 105 minutes