What is the duty of the documentarian to the subject? Perhaps inadvertently, Helena Trestikova and Jakub Hejna’s knotty and engrossing non-fiction portrait of Lída Baarová, Czech actress and one-time mistress of Josef Goebbels, is as likely to provoke questions about the form itself as about the remarkable life it outlines. It forces us to notice how hard-wired we are to expect a biographical documentary, especially one composed largely of interviews with the person being examined, to humanize, perhaps even to exonerate, and certainly to create a degree of empathy, because “Doomed Beauty” does the opposite.
The Lída Baarová who emerges here is a remarkably unsympathetic creature, an unrepentant egoist, drowning in a sea of self-pity over events that happened half a century prior against a backdrop of suffering incalculably greater than her own, for which she seems to have had little regard. Ensnared by her own testimony, it’s not only hard to pay respect to this querulous figure, it’s difficult even to cough up the baser coin of pity — which is partly what makes for such gripping viewing.
It’s not simply a matter of Baarová being given enough rope to hang herself. Without troubling the norms of the interview/archive-footage-based film too much, experienced documentarian Trestikova and editor-turned co-director Hejna make many authorial decisions about what to include and how to edit, that purposefully illustrate the hypocritical, self-centered, and callous sides of Baarová’s personality. Splicing together a carefree picnicking scene from one of her early German films with footage of Goebbels addressing a Nazi rally so that their eyelines almost match is one example. But even less subtly, there are merciless on-camera sequences, like when the chain-smoking octogenarian lights the filter end of her cigarette or swigs ungracefully from a bottle of Becherovka (a 76-proof herbal Czech tipple). At these times, old and frail and deserving of our natural pity though she is, Baarová is almost grotesque.
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Shorn of meta-textual intrigue, her story would still be a compelling one; it’s doubly so when accompanied by her own compromised retrospective commentary. Born in 1914, Baarová screen tested in the 1930s and rapidly became a star in her native Czechoslovakia. “I always felt every role I played,” she breathes dramatically.
In the mid-’30s, she was lured to UFA (the studio most associated with Germany’s booming film industry) where she again built a following, this time working in German (“I am so gifted when it comes to languages!”). She met Hitler, who was “sweet,” invited her twice to tea, and had, she claims, a photograph of her on his nightstand. And she met Goebbels who fell so in love with her, she asserts, that he wanted to leave his wife and children. It’s merely one of many breathtaking moments when Baarová relates Kristallnacht, the notorious pogrom against Jewish homes and businesses, to the fact that mere days before, Hitler had insisted Goebbels break up with her to avoid a scandal in the upper Nazi ranks. As the images of broken windows and violent arrests play out onscreen, Baarová waxes nostalgic in voiceover. Goebbels, she sighs, behaved “like a young man wretchedly in love,” inferring that his broken-heartedness contributed to the viciousness of the night.
It’s a story of terrible timing as well as colossally poor judgment: missing her chance at a Hollywood contract, she returned to Czechoslovakia (she claims that not becoming the big Hollywood star she could have been was her “only regret,” which is pretty jaw-dropping). Apart from a short stint in Italy, where she hung out with Mussolini’s son, Baarová remained at home through the war until she was arrested and imprisoned as a collaborator — a charge of which she entirely acquits herself. Afterward she again fled, this time from the new Communist regime, to Austria where she lived in exile, aside from a brief happy spell in Italy working with Fellini and De Sica, until her death.
That the filmmakers describe that death with the terse caption, “Lída Baarová died alone in 2000,” speaks volumes. Is the “alone” really necessary? What does it add except another layer of condemnation, when the woman herself had said earlier, “I need a friend, rather than a judge”? And yet the terrific “Doomed Beauty,” though it is undoubtedly not objective in the traditional documentary sense, somehow emerges as the more truthful film because of these manipulations: It is truthful to Trestikova and Hejna’s experience and assessment of the mass of contradictions, vanities and follies that was Lída Baarová, a woman who consistently managed to be on the wrong side of history over the course of her long life. Not everyone is redeemed in this world, and perhaps not everyone deserves to be.