Berlin Film Review: ‘A Prominent Patient’

'A Prominent Patient' Review from Berlin
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Jan Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to the UK at the time of the Munich Agreement, is given a ridiculously fictionalized treatment.

Set aside righteous indignation at the way Great Britain and France sold Czechoslovakia down the river with the 1938 Munich Agreement. Ignore startling historical license, a production designer seemingly unaware of the concept “period-appropriate,” and accents in English that defy geographic boundaries let alone comprehension. Even if you overlook all that, “A Prominent Patient” would still be a train wreck for its godawful script and muddled structure. Based on moments in the life of Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak ambassador to the Court of St. James just before World War II, Julius Ševčík’s film will appeal to Czech patriotism but hasn’t a chance outside home territories.

Jan Masaryk (Karel Roden) was the son of the founder of Czechoslovakia and a man dutifully aware of the legacy his name conveyed. He had a hellish time as ambassador in the U.K. when his nation was used as a bargaining chip in European appeasement, and was almost certainly murdered in Prague by the communists in 1948. Ševčík’s interest lies in the volatile years between 1937 and ’39, a period which sealed the fate not just of his country but the world. With so much drama already bursting from every angle, why invent nonsense that pales in comparison to reality?

About half the film takes place in “Vineland, New Jersey,” where Masaryk is institutionalized in 1938 for the second time, in a psychiatric hospital run by Dr. Hugo Stein (Hanns Zischler). This section is a complete fabrication, though co-scripter Petr Kolečko gave an intrview for Radio Praha saying that so little is known about Masaryk’s visits to the U.S. that it’s possible the ambassador really was in a mad house — which is like saying just because we don’t have photos of aliens taking tea in Buckingham Palace doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. In a further Kolečko quote that would make Sean Spicer proud, he states, “We haven’t created an alternative interpretation of history. The film’s interpretation is completely legitimate.” Well, no, actually, it isn’t.

It certainly is likely that Masaryk was deeply depressed following Britain’s fateful cowardice in the face of Hitler’s aggression. But giving him schizophrenic tendencies and putting him in a loony bin run by a gay German psychiatrist who fled the Nazis adds only cheap drama and fails to meaningfully convey the mental toll of exile. It’s at the Jersey shore, while on day leave to give a lecture at a country club, that he’s introduced to American writer Marcia Davenport (Spanish actress Arly Jover, sporting an invented accent that beggars belief), who’s immediately drawn to the unstable ambassador, though in truth, they didn’t meet until 1941.

Masaryk was indeed a ladies’ man, an element of his personality the film pushes beyond credulity. In London, he’s sleeping with Lady Anne Higgins (Gina Bramhill), wife of the assistant to Lord Halifax (Dermot Crowley), though for an aristocrat she’s styled like a cheap floozy. Judging by her screams, he must be a most skilled lover indeed, but in a very muddy bit of reasoning, he’s only using her as a way to get close to the Foreign Secretary, in the hopes to persuade him to convince Neville Chamberlain (Paul Nicholas) to stand up to Hitler.

It’s really hard to make the negotiations leading up to the Munich Agreement boring, yet that’s just what “A Prominent Patient” achieves, and little else. Constantly moving back and forth between 1938 and ’39 tampers with coherence and destroys the tension of the negotiations; Ševčík states that he wants audiences to draw parallels with Europe today, but it’s an unlikely takeaway given the script’s penchant for poorly-reasoned invention that undercuts the real consequences of appeasement. How some of the actors said their lines with a straight face will forever be a mystery.

Location work meant to stand in for New Jersey and the U.K. couldn’t look more Czech if it tried, and “period” details are laughably all over the place. Is the Mycroft Hotel in London meant as some Holmesian in-joke? Did no one think that naming Lady Anne’s husband “Henry Higgins” might cause sniggles? Michal Lorenc’s expansive orchestrations (was that a flugelhorn?) fill the screen in entirely expected ways.

Berlin Film Review: 'A Prominent Patient'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 15, 2017. Running time: 113 MIN. (Original title: “Masaryk”)

Production

(Czech Republic-Slovakia) A Bioscop (in the Czech Republic), Garfield Film (in Slovakia) release of a Beta Cinema presentation of an In Film Praha, Rudolf Biermann Slovakia, Czech Television, Radio and Television Slovakia, ZDF/ARTE production. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Oberhaching, Germany.) Producers: Rudolf Biermann, Julius Ševčík.

Crew

Director: Julius Ševčík. Screenplay: Petr Kolečko, Alex Königsmark, Ševčík. Camera (color): Martin Štrba. Editor: Marek Opatrný. Music: Michal Lorenc.

With

Karel Roden, Oldřich Kaiser, Arly Jover, Hanns Zischler, Paul Nicholas, Dermot Crowley, Milton Welsh, Gina Bramhill, James Flynn, Eva Herzigová, Jiří Vyorálek. (Czech, English dialogue)

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  1. Joseph Henson says:

    Dear Mr. Weissberg,

    I am so very sorry to begin my letter to you with what you may find to be a somewhat ‘muddled structure’, but I simply don’t know quite where to begin. There is simply so much to say with regards to the incongruities and grammatical fallacies within your ‘review’, as well as about your shamefully brainwashed American attitude towards the events prior to, during and after World War II, that I simply don’t know where to start.

    Indeed, you know so little about Europe’s history, its cultures and multitude of dialects that it is laughable, meaning your attempt to provide any modicum of commentary on these topics adds only cheap ‘click bait’ to your review. Which, I believe, is what will truly cause ‘sniggles’ to be heard across the united ‘home territories’ of Europe.

    I am writing this review in the hopes of not only teaching you the correct grammatical use of that phrase, which you seem to have a godawful train wreck level of knowledge about, but also to provide a little perspective for you in the future.

    My first confession is that I am indeed not an expert on any of these topics. But then again, neither are you. The key difference here is that I have no written an article criticising a film on things I know nothing about. You have.

    Do you know how ‘tense’ the negotiations preceding the Munich Agreement truly were? Do you know or care to comment on America’s position on world event’s at the time that perhaps led to, encouraged or ultimately caused Czechoslovakia to be ‘sold down the line’ by France and the U.S. Would you care to perhaps comment on the possible impact of America’s failure to join the League of Nation’s after World War I, which was of course the brainchild of your president Woodrow Wilson?

    No?

    Well how about this? Do you know what streets in the Czech Republic look like? How about in Slovaka?I definitely doubt the latter, given you don’t seem to recognise it now exists as a separate state. An omission that is indeed laughable and something I don’t know how you could write with a straight face.

    Because it is also a place where this film will undoubtedly well received. No, not just because of patriotism as you insinuate, but because people there are capable of concentrating on a film that doesn’t have a happy ending or giant fake explosions every thirty seconds.

    So, to conclude, I apologise again if the structure of this comment is too muddled for you to comprehend, but maybe in future spend less time reading about how great American is and telling people how the UK and the rest of Europe should be thankful you save us time and time again, so that you can read some history and grammar books prior to putting finger to keyboard for your next film ‘review’.

    Yours sincerely,

    Joseph

  2. Barbora says:

    Hello Jay!
    Have you ever been in the Czech Republic or Slovakia? Are you an expert on our history? Because I was actually born in what was then still Czechoslovakia and I am a proud Slovakian (you know we split at some point) and movies like this will never capture every single detail about somebody’s life. Pretty much every American movie about somebody famous needs to be partly made up as well, because there are some things that just nobody knows.

    The circumstances surrounding his death have to this day never been fully been resolved and it has never actually been confirmed that he was killed by communists. So maybe less Wikipedia next time and if you want to say your opinion about somebody’s else’s country, well maybe just don’t. Here, in Europe we make movies that don’t follow typical generic American structures and so I didn’t even blink twice about the non linear chronological progression of the film. Because, well, that is what makes movies interesting.

    So I think your review will be forever a mystery. Have a nice day!

  3. Martin says:

    Well I enjoyed the ‘muddled’ structure, as Masaryk struggled to cope with the betrayal to himself and his country. The production values are good, and accent authenticity is not a big deal when subtitles are needed to understand different sections of the film..

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