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Editors Choice

The Czech film, Protector, at the International Film Festival in Volokolamsk
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

The film, Protector, directed by Marek Najbrt was screened at the International Volokolamsk Film Festival in December 2010.

It’s 1938 and the Nazis are just one step away from invading and occupying Czechoslovakia. Hana is a young Czech film actress, Jewish by origin. She’s just appeared in her first feature film with an older Jewish star actor, who warns her that her career is over and that their film will not see the light of day since the Nazis will never allow its release. He hands her a forged passport and papers to get out of the country but she throws them away, not believing what he says about the imminent German invasion.

As the filming of the “film within a film” is on the verge of completion, we see the two actors riding stationery bicycles with a moving image in the background. As was the usual practice in film-making at the time, the illusion of motion is created when the moving image flickers in the background but the object in the foreground is static. Thus, the cyclist becomes a symbol of a man who is pedalling furiously but is actually going nowhere. That man is the Czech everyman of 1938 who desperately wishes to escape his tragic circumstances but in reality remains motionless, trapped by tyrannical forces. Throughout the film, we catch glimpses of the film’s protagonist, Emil, pedaling furiously, superimposed over the screen’s larger canvas. The film actually begins with a quote from Hitler: “A Czech is a cyclist who hunches his back when he pedals.”

Hana is married to Emil, a journalist, who is conscripted by collaborating Czech officials to serve as a radio announcer for the occupying German forces. A colleague at the radio station, Franta, won’t keep quiet and he’s taken away—presumably by the Gestapo—and later executed. Emil chooses to accept a job working as the mouthpiece for the Nazis in order to save his wife from being deported to the death camps. Emil’s boss at the radio station is a Nazi sympathizer who offers him a job with the agreement that no one will bother him about his wife as long as she remains holed up in their apartment.

Emil is on the verge of being fired for a “transgression” when Reich Protector, Reinhard Heydrich, is murdered by Czech partisans. Nazi soldiers do a house-to-house search and discover Hana is in the apartment. When they realize who Emil is, they take no action against Hana, despite the fact that the soldiers know she’s Jewish. Later the Nazis broadcast a description of a bicycle used by one of the partisans who had killed Heydrich. Emil has an affair with a gossip columnist and takes her family’s bicycle back to his apartment and attempts to hide it. This leads Hana to believe that Emil is now helping the partisans.

Now Emil’s boss orders him to prove his loyalty by reading a loyalty oath over the airwaves after the Heydrich assassination places all Czech citizens in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Hana has come down to earth after she escapes arrest during the houseto- house search. She packs her belongings and turns herself into the authorities. Emil decides not to show up at the radio station to read the loyalty oath and goes looking for Hana.

In the final scene, Emil finds her in a crowd of Jews being marched to the death transports. As he stands impassively, preventing the group from marching forward, Nazi soldiers club him in the head, pushing him off to the side of the road.

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