Marek Najbrt navigates the rocky demands of dramatizing moral dilemma with a smooth hand.

Mildly postmodern techniques, from rhythmic graphics and samplings of Gershwin to a stylized semi-black-and-white look, dress up a complicated drama involving a Prague couple during Nazi occupation in “Protector.” Director and co-writer Marek Najbrt navigates the always rocky demands of dramatizing moral dilemma with a smooth hand, glossing over the many hiccups in a film that offers considerably less than meets the eye. Good fest exposure will bring the Czech Oscar submission to the attention of distribs, who may bite for theatrical and vid markets.

Brief prelude in 1942 Prague is a bit of a deceptive tease, suggesting an anti-Nazi assassination plotline that never actually transpires. Winding back to 1938, radio announcer Emil (Marek Daniel) is reporting on Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia; meanwhile, his wife, Hana (Jana Plodkova), is living it up as a movie actress apparently on the cusp of stardom, enjoying the presence of her co-star Fantl (Jiri Ornest) a little too much for Emil’s taste.

Emil is on the bottom and Hana on top in their relationship, but this soon changes, particularly after Fantl warns her, as a fellow Jew, to leave the country as soon as possible, and gives her a Swiss visa. Blithely confident Hana tosses the visa away, the first of several bad moves the two make over the following five years as the Nazis rule the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

Despondent Hana nearly kills herself on a set, and the film she had made with Fantl is banned by the Nazis. Very much structured on the geometry of a musical, “Protector” arranges a power shift for Emil and Hana, as she flounders at home as an unemployable thesp while Emil finds himself ascending through the ranks of the radio station as he earns the respect of the German bosses.

Najbrt and fellow scenarists Robert Geisler and Benjamin Tucek carefully balance matters so that Emil is never viewed as a collaborator, but rather as an employee with a gifted radio voice, promoted when other colleagues run afoul of authorities. Emil urges tactical approaches around the Nazis’ heavy hand on the air, though the film misses a real opportunity to depict these strategies in action.

Emil’s show, “Voices of Our Home,” proves so popular that it becomes his cushion against Nazi meddling in the matter of his mixed marriage. Bored out of her skull, Hana virtually throws herself at young, studly movie projectionist Petr (Tomas Mechacek), but the sight of an affair taking place in the bowels of an empty cinema is redolent of doom — probably the film’s best and most expressive touch.

A motif of bicyclists pedaling toward the camera in bold graphic display is finally paid off in a rather contorted though ultimately satisfying sequence that returns the action to the prelude. Auds will be forgiven if they miss the details of a subplot that lands Emil in hot water and the somewhat farfetched twist that leads to the pic’s ironic closing stroke.

Plodkova and Daniel throw themselves into the period and attitude, and are in sync with the film’s instincts as an entertainment. Supporting roles, falling more into stereotypes such as helpless victims and evil Nazis, are less inspired.

Bleached color and black-and-white dominate d.p. Miloslav Holman’s visual scheme, with Ondrej Nekvasil’s dazzling production design stealing scene after scene. Clever sampling of Gershwin melodies fits with Midi Lidi’s modish score.

Protector

Czech Republic

Production

A Falcon release of a Negativ presentation, in co-production with Czech Television/UPP/Soundsquare. (International sales: High Point Films, London.) Produced by Milan Kuchynka, Pavel Strnad. Directed by Marek Najbrt. Screenplay, Najbrt, Robert Geisler, Benjamin Tucek.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Miloslav Holman; editor, Pavel Hrdlicka; music, Midi Lidi; production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil; costume designer, Andrea Kralova; sound (Dolby Digital), Tomas Zubek, Marek Hart; casting, Katerina Oujezdska. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (Awards Buzz), Jan. 11, 2010. (Also in New York Jewish Film Festival.) Running time: 103 MIN. In Czech, German dialogue

With

Jana Plodkova, Marek Daniel, Klara Meliskova, Tomas Mechacek, Richard Stanke, Jan Budar, Jiri Ornest, Sandra Novakova.
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