Czech That Film is an annual traveling festival showcasing the best in contemporary Czech cinema in theaters around the U.S. A schedule of showings and events can be found here – www.czechthatfilm.com
Nazi movies are a dime a dozen and why not? World War Two is the historical event of the last century most of the world over, and, when the last big things in American history were the Civil War and the West, there was no shortage of westerns, either. Though, like with Westerns, the process of becoming a genre carries with it inevitable clichés, well-trodden paths and obvious drum beats. More importantly, it also carries the weight, so often elided in westerns, of working out your place in history, and history’s place in yourself. Perhaps there’s always a new Nazi film around the corner because we still haven’t exorcised the ghosts of that war, still haven’t resolved the great evil it embodied and unleashed upon the world. Not perhaps – certainly. At least, that’s certainly what lies behind the recent Czech film The Devil’s Mistress, currently being shown on a film tour of contemporary Czech cinema around the U.S. Though a fairly straightforward biopic of the silent film star Lida Baarová (Tatiana Pauhofová), Filip Renc’s film is only as it could be made in the Czech Republic – replete with the sense of doomed history, moral compromise, and the essential mysteries of motivation, love, and personal culpability.
The film begins with young Lida starting her career in earnest, having been a successful actress in the smaller Czech studios and now, with a contract in her pocket, leaving for Berlin to work for UFA, the biggest film studio outside of Hollywood. Her family, awed by the prospect of association with the great power of a revitalized Nazi Germany, looks forward to her success and the power and wealth that are sure to come with it, as does she. Early on, she meets movie star Gustav Fröhlich (Gedeon Burkhard), fresh off the success of Metropolis, playing opposite her in a big film part. They fall for each other, and, despite his wife, a Hungarian Jew stowed safely out of the country, and family, begin living together. Her continuing success and well-known beauty begin to precede her in German high society, catching both the attention of Hitler (played with admirable control and discretion by Pavel Kríz), and, more steadily, the Nazi head of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, in a brilliant performance by Karl Markovics. When Goebbels, a notorious philanderer, begins to pursue her in earnest, Lida certainly doesn’t mind the attention and, in fact, grows increasingly fascinated by and attracted to him in turn. What follows is perhaps one of the strangest love triangles in film history, or history itself, as Lida becomes forced to choose between two affairs, one with the charismatic Fröhlich and another with the brilliant, hateful Goebbels.
In the portrayal of this triangle lie both the film’s primary weaknesses and its primary strengths. Though the film hews quite closely to Baarová’s fascinating personal history, it generally relies on melodramatic conventions in the delivery. Small details of deep psychological heft, such as a miscarriage, are mentioned exactly once, get elided or pushed aside for the more obvious “why won’t you leave your wife” kind of conflicts, and the film never fails to go full melodrama when the opportunity presents itself – at the climax of a fight, Lida runs out of the home she shares with Fröhlich into the pouring rain, where she happens to find none other than Goebbels driving by, leaving her quite literally caught between the two of them. It helps that Goebbels is their neighbor but that’s enough coincidence to set up the triangle initially and not enough to carry it through to a staged intervention. This also gets at perhaps the most central flaw in the film; Lida’s personal motivations after landing Fröhlich are continuously murky. There’s room here for interpretation, but the performance and especially the script generally seem to read in the direction of a craven search for power and wealth, both of which are achieved early on. Lida’s narration repeatedly informs us that she was in love with Goebbels, but I never really got a sense of a real attraction or spark between them. Perhaps that’s too Hollywood for a shades-of-grey type of Czech film, but I found the idea of an honest to God love triangle between a morally complacent and generally disloyal actor and a depraved but sophisticated politician to be a fascinating one, and was hoping the physical attraction on screen would help supply a notion of what made Nazism so attractive across Europe at the time. It seemed like it was the era and the region in microcosm, so for the actual love conflict to be so limp was disappointing.
Generally, the problems of Lida’s motivations and character fit within a larger tone-deafness in regards to gender (this is a “theme” I will find throughout the tour). At one point, Lida considers how she could possibly repay a German crewmember who assisted in rescuing her. He hesitantly suggests letting him feel her breasts and she agrees. The moment plays comedically, though it’s not particularly funny, and passes without any comment on him treating her as an object and, more difficult still, leaves the viewer with a general feeling that she’s a very generous and understanding person, almost an ideal female type. Continuously, though Lida is complicated morally, her relationship to her gender remains very traditional in a persona that historically seemed anything but.
That being said, there’s still something incredibly special about this kind of movie having been made at all – a story that involves falling in love with Joseph Goebbels isn’t your usual popcorn fair. In that regard, the moral culpability at the heart of Lida’s story, the questions it asks on behalf of all of those who said Hitler had his points and who casually refused entry to refugees fleeing extermination, is what the film is about at its most basic. Although not always perfect, that it tangles at all with those issues, perhaps forced by the difficult history of Czechoslovakia under and following Nazi rule, is pretty remarkable. Lida, though sometimes callous, feels human, and is forced to face her culpability in the horrors of the Nazi regime.
All in all, unfortunately, The Devil’s Mistress is not very good and sometimes comes off as awkward and amateurish. Though, with a reputed budget of roughly two million dollars, perhaps I should revise and state that they stretched every penny brilliantly and could have done with not stretching a few pennies in the direction of rather corny effects like when a fire makes faces symbolizing both an unholy union and an orgasm. Even with awkward moments like that, the film still achieves a good deal as an examination of moral culpability in the face of history, especially one that often crushes our compunctions and excuses and strips us to virtually nothing. In that sense, The Devil’s Mistress has a clearer eye than most films.