Milada (2017)

First biopic of Milada Horáková, who resisted the Nazis but was executed by the communists in Czechoslovakia, is an utter disappointment.

MiladaCzech Republic
2.5*

Director:
David Mrnka

Screenwriters:
David Mrnka
Robert J. Conant
Robert Gant

Director of Photography:
Martin Štrba

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.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

An unusually serious film from director Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy from start to finish.

Grand Budapest HotelUSA
4*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriter:
Wes Anderson

Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 100 minutes

The Grand Budapest Hotel, besides being a much more serious film than we’re used to seeing from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), makes many a direct play for the hearts of Central and East Europeans.

With its mixture of exquisite period detail, albeit slightly exaggerated, overt references to historical turning points in the region and a typically “Wesandersonian” presentation of the story as visibly but immersively fictional, the film is almost certain to be well received both behind the former Iron Curtain and around the world.

In 1985, an elderly gentleman looks straight into the camera and starts telling us a story that takes us back, first to 1968, and then to 1932, as the rise and fall of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious establishment somewhere in the Republic of Zubrowka, is displayed in all its alternately decrepit and extravagant excess.

The abovementioned Zubrowka, obviously named after one of the best vodkas I have ever tasted, Poland’s bison-grass infused Żubrówka, is almost as difficult to place as The Simpsons’ city of Springfield. The opening scene, set in a cemetery in the fictional city of Lutz, obviously refers to the Polish city of Łódź, and yet the name of the hotel refers to Hungary, although it is located in the “Sudetenwalt,” or Sudeten Forest, which suggests pre–World War II Czechoslovakia, or thereabouts.

The doubly encased storytelling mechanism (the man in 1985, a nameless author, shares with us how he came to meet the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa, in 1968, who told him the story – one that dates to 1932 – of how he came to possess the grand establishment) is further framed by the very first scene, in which someone opens a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, neatly divided into chapters. Also, the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel is not life-size but rather immediately recognisable as a small, detailed model; many other tricks that sometimes bring to mind Anderson’s work on the stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox continue to make it clear this is a tale enriched by reality rather than one seeking to emulate it.

While Mr. Moustafa is the proprietor in 1968, played by the wonderful F. Murray Abraham (who recently had an equally short but deeply satisfying role in Inside Llewyn Davis), he is but a teenage boy – first name Zero – in the story taking place in 1932, when he starts his work as a lobby boy, in service of the hotel’s famous concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Monsieur Gustave personally tends to every need of his guests, and often those needs require him to spend some time in their private rooms, especially if they are blond.

Monsieur Gustave is great fun, soaked as he is in his L’Air de Panache perfume. Although fastidious to the point of being obsessive, he also has a big heart, and while he has his doubts about Zero’s qualifications to carry out his duties, he quickly warms to the boy and teaches him everything he knows. He also protects him with his life, and his magnanimity, or even friendship, is rewarded when he is locked up after being framed for the murder of a former hotel guest, Madame Desgoffe und Taxis, simply known as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, enchanting as ever, even as she plays an 84-year-old woman).

The film presents itself as strictly removed from reality, but the traces of history are recognisable and remain potent despite being altered. The Nazi lightning symbol of the “SS” has been modified to appear as “ZZ” in this film, and the delicious pastries are provided by a fancy bakery called Mendl’s, very likely drawing its inspiration from the Austrian producer of gourmet foods, Julius Meinl. Sometimes, not unlike the approach taken by Joe Wright in his film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the lighting changes to indicate a shift in tone, done in such a way as to bring it closer to the theater (in other words, overt performance), and eschews any attempt to give the film an air of grittiness.

And yet, as Anderson has proved so often in the past, his characters can still elicit emotions in us even though they belong to a world so obviously different from our own. Friendship and family are two key themes in the films of the director, and here, too, despite the countless cameos (many well-known actors each appear only in a single scene, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban) and the film’s many moments of whimsy, it ends with a sudden rush of emotions as we come to realise how beautifully The Grand Budapest Hotel and its characters fit together, how much they have been through and how much we have enjoyed their adventures, notwithstanding the unspoken Nazi and communist uprisings that we can read between lines.

This film brims with creativity and ingenuity, as even a ride in a funicular or a bobsled can turn into something unforgettable (for the latter, think of the game of “hotbox” in The Fantastic Mr. Fox rather than bobsledding at the Winter Games). The emotions are also there, very competently handled by Anderson, whose direction of the young Tony Revolori, as Zero, elicits a performance that is flawlessly part of the film. There is also one of the most unusual escapes from prison you will have ever seen on film and a handful of small pans that produce, as Anderson learned so well in The Darjeeling Limited, moments of visual bathos that are as hilarious as they are unexpected.

A very different kettle of fish compared with his other films, this is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most subdued film to date, but he deftly handles the balance between the comical and the dramatic, yielding a work of beauty, comedy and mystery that is every bit as enchanting, funny and ultimately moving as some of his best films.