First biopic of Milada Horáková, who resisted the Nazis but was executed by the communists in Czechoslovakia, is an utter disappointment.
Robert J. Conant
Director of Photography:
Running time: 125 minutes
Milada is about one of the most heroic characters of the 20th century and among her native Czechoslovakia’s most tragic figures under the country’s decades-long totalitarian rule. Filmmakers had avoided telling her story for a long time, but nearly 70 years after a show trial staged by the country’s communist regime and a decade after new footage of the excruciatingly biased nine-day trial was discovered, we finally have a film meant to share the full story with us. It is painful to watch – but for all the wrong reasons.
The film depicts nearly two decades in the life of Milada Horáková, an outspoken Czechoslovak lawyer who came of age at the same time as her country and was active in the resistance during Nazi occupation. Despite an initial death sentence, she was eventually imprisoned until the end of the war and elected to the Constituent National Assembly, but after the communist coup in February 1948, which she vehemently and vocally opposed, she was arrested and ultimately executed.
And yet, despite its basis in real life, Milada is an atrocious piece of filmmaking. First-time director David Mrnka clearly made an effort with period costumes, but whether because of a lack of money, of creativity, or of filmmaking experience (likely all of the above), the film commits one sin after another.
At a very basic level, the transitions between scenes are laughable. Mrnka seems to believe he has only two tools at his disposal: the spinning newspaper headline (to provide wider historical context, the way films did at the time) and the fade-out (to indicate the passage of anything from hours to years). Both of these processes are sorely overused and suggest an editor asleep behind the console.
The intention was never to borrow filmmaking techniques that were in use in the 1930s and 1940s, however, as we get five almost identical sequences of Horáková’s family in the car in 1948/1949, driving along the same road in the Czech countryside to visit family close to the border, while many of the shots are obtained by drone. Now, obviously, drones have no business in a historical film unless they are used, as in Milada’s final minutes, in the context of a shot whose existence is not tied to a specific moment in time. The use of the drone – not one, but FIVE times – is nauseating, onanistic and entirely inappropriate.
There is little to say about the copious use of the fade-out – a shake of the head and a deep eye-roll will suffice. But sometimes the fade-outs are so obtrusive that they terminate a scene before its emotional climax. The scene in which Milada is taken away by the State Security is staged in such a way that her husband, Bohuslav Horák, watches her being driven away as he hides behind a corner. When the car passes, we get a point-of-view shot from inside the car, which implies Milada sees Bohuslav’s shocked face. But before we get a reverse shot from Bohuslav’s POV, the editor presses the “fade out” button, ending the scene prematurely and completely forgoing a shot that would have taken our breath away.
Ayelet Zurer, an Israeli actress with a Czechoslovakia-born mother, stars in the lead. The entire cast is made to speak in a Czech-inflected English, but only the Czech players can do this convincingly. In addition, Zurer likely didn’t have enough time to prepare, as her accent is not only generally bad but also inconsistent: Sometimes within a single sentence she can’t decide whether to roll her r’s or to pronounce them the American way (Czech only has rolled/trilled r’s). Other non-Czech actors also struggle mightily with the accent, and Robert Gant, who plays Bohuslav, settles on something akin to a Russian accent, which, considering that his character is wholly opposed to Soviet influence, is very unfortunate.
Even the bookends, which feature Horáková’s daughter, Jana, collecting her late mother’s letters to her from the newly elected democratic government shortly after the collapse of communism, miss the mark completely. We are told that Jana fled to Washington, D.C., in 1968, where she has lived since then. And yet, when actress Taťjana Medvecká speaks English, there is not even a hint of an American accent in her speech; on the contrary, the accent is entirely oriented towards British English.
But what is most jarring in this production is the lack of introductions to major characters. Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founding father and a long-time diplomat, is shown on the night of what is widely assumed to be his murder (although oddly enough, the film presents his death in a very ambiguous way). But he is barely introduced, and those unfamiliar with Czech history are unlikely to know what or whom they are looking at. Other characters, from Alois Schmidt, who appears to be an associate of Horáková’s, to the callous state prosecutor Ludmila Brožová-Polednová, right up to the slightly comical Prime Minister Klement Gottwald, are either not introduced by name or sketched so superficially that the uninitiated will struggle to understand their role in the events.
Most bizarrely, Horáková’s alleged co-conspirators appear out of nowhere at the trial. We have never seen them before, and we can easily assume she had never met them before, but that is not historically accurate. The film ignores the fact that five of them had the same party affiliation as her. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no contact – not even a sympathetic or a fearful glance exchanged – between them.
Finally, the staging of the show trial does not make anything dramatic of the vulnerable position in which Horáková is placed: a slightly raised podium in front of a long row of judges and Communist Party officials, where the defendant is made to stand awkwardly in full public view. There is no creativity to the camerawork or the composition of the visuals. Instead, we basically get a colourised version of the original television footage.
Perhaps the only thing Milada does right is to suggest that, in some respects, the communists were far worse than the Nazis. This comparison remains a sore point in present-day Czech society. Nazis, and Germans more generally, were thrown out of the country after the Second World War; by contrast, the communists stayed and remained part of society after the collapse of their regime. But when we learn that Milada Horáková was allowed to see her family when she was imprisoned by the Nazis, while the Communists refused any and all contact, it is impossible to ignore the contrast. The film’s courage to speak the truth in this regard is commendable.
Despite the exemplary life and tragic death of its titular character, the film is an utter failure. It provides a vague outline of events, but the myriad fade-outs are simply farcical, and the mediocre performances and the badly structured narrative keep us at arm’s length from the flow of history that should have swept us off our feet.