Czech That Film Tour 2017: The Devil’s Mistress, by Dayne Linford

18 Apr

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.

4 Responses to “Czech That Film Tour 2017: The Devil’s Mistress, by Dayne Linford”

  1. A_Freudian_Fan April 19, 2017 at 12:50 am #

    Modern Czech movies are mostly crap. Unlike e.g in Romania, the grants seldom go to progressive filmmakers (if there are any). The director of Devil’s Mistress, who got the biggest grant (0,6 million USD) in 2015, is a schlockmeister and a supporter of our Trump-like pig of a president.

    Watch Czech classics from the 60s and early 70s, even some stuff from 70s and 80s (“normalisation” era). Soooo many great movies there!

    • Dayne April 19, 2017 at 8:54 pm #

      Thanks for the comment! I admit I’m a relative newcomer to Czech film lately (there was a showing of a Czech new wave film in Austin a week or so ago that I would’ve loved to see, but alas), but the mixture this cycle was pretty interesting. On the note of Trump-like politics (I have no clue as to Renc’s personal politics), there was a general note of pretty crass sexism throughout the tour, with some notable exceptions.

      I’m guessing from the “our” in your comment that you’re Czech? I’m actually very interested to hear any recommendations you have, there’s something very interesting about the politics, even in this movie which wasn’t always up to snuff. But to make a Nazi movie in which you’re relationship as a viewer is really tenuous, in which there’s clear notes of national complicity, then bureaucratic horror following the end of the war, that’s pretty unique to me, growing up on American WW2 movies, which are all about what sad heroes we are. Especially as mass entertainment, that’s quite interesting. At the very least, even if Renc is behind Trump style nationalism, they acknowledge the horror of the Holocaust. Our administration can’t even decide whether it thinks it actually happened or not. T_T

      Renc said in a Q&A that it was something like 2 million USD they got for the budget. What are your figures from? I’m still impressed they pulled off as much as they did for so little money, keeping in mind something tiny like “Get Out” was made for 4.5~ million here, nearly twice what Renc suggested and almost five times what you’ve posted.

      I’d also like to ask what you think, personally, concerning the Slav/Czech ethnic (am I right in the characterization?) divide there. It came up a lot in the movies I watched and I know a little, but still felt a little lost trying to place it through the tour.

      Thanks again, and for any future responses!

  2. a_freudian_fan April 20, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    Thanks for your reply, Dayne!

    Yes, I am Czech, and I am proud of great Czech movies. That’s why I mostly avoid contemporary Czech cinema. I have not seen The Devil’s Mistress and I am not planning to, but I’ll try to answer your questions anyway.

    All Czech articles on the Internet say that the grant for The Devil’s Mistress was 15 million CZK out of a total budget of 80 million CZK (0,6 million USD out of 3,2 million USD), which is nevertheless an unprecedented support in the Czech context. It even caused some outrage and raised suspicion about the (anonymous) voting by the grant commission.

    If you’re sensitive to sexism, I am afraid you might be taken aback by some scenes and jokes in Czech movies. But it’s not an all-pervasive attitude. Vladimir Körner (screenwriter) or Vera Chytilova (feminist director) are notable examples of authors who have been very critical of gender injustice. I personally regret the fact that „political correctness“ has become a dirty word before it could have done more good in Czech culture. On the other hand, I am glad to be spared of some of the absurd consequences of hypercorrectness we see in America.

    You can find great think pieces about the Czech historical experience on the Internet. Let me just say that we are a small sea-less country in the heart of Europe, always torn between the East and the West and often feeling trodden on by both. The last time the Czech state (kingdom at that time) waged an armed battle on behalf of itself was in 1620, and we lost our freedom for three centuries. Our view of history, therefore, tends to be fatalistic, cynical, more often grey that black & white. And most of us roll our eyes at the flag-waving patriotism of American war movies.

    Did you mean Slovak/Czech divide? Slovaks and Czechs are neighbouring nations with very similar languages. If Slavs are a family, then Czechs and Slovaks are „brothers“, while other Slavic nations are more like „cousins“ to us. After WW1 and the fall of Austrio-Hungarian Empire (in which Czechs had been subjugated to Austria and Slovaks to Hungary), we came together to form „Czechoslovakia“ with the capital in Prague. Since the beginning, however, Slovakia was the less developed of the two states and felt, often justifiably so, underrepresented and exploited. That might have been one reason why, in 1939, Slovakian government sided with Nazi Germany and proclaimed independence as the „Slovak State“. After WW2, we came together again and remained as „Czechoslovak Republic“ until 1991. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, old gripes resurfaced and the Slovaks wanted more autonomy. Finally, we agreed to part our ways. It was a peaceful separation – something to be proud of, in my opinion, however sad we felt about it – and have been on friendly terms ever since.

    However disappointed I am with contemporary Czech cinematography, I am very excited about your Czech That Film Tour 2017 and curious to know your reactions to Czech movies. And I will be glad to recommend you better ones. For example, when it comes to war movies, it might be interesting to compare „Anthropoid“ (Ellis, 2016) with „Assassination“ (Sequens, 1964), or at least to compare their final siege sequences (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6AtDvq25xU ).

    Looking forward to your discoveries!

    Kamil

    • Dayne April 22, 2017 at 12:02 am #

      Hello, Kamil,

      Thanks for taking the time to educate me, that region generally is notoriously complex and I’ve tried to fill in some holes left by my American education, but clearly have missed quite a few, down to misidentifying the nationalities! Clearly, the Cold War is largely ignored in our education *sigh*

      It’s funny, but a lot of what attracted me to the Tour (besides a general chance to see new movies) was a love of Czech photography, mostly focusing around the avant-garde interwar period. That work is incredible! Most of the film’s I saw didn’t carry that same aesthetic, but it’s been nearly a century, so I can only blame myself for that 😉

      Thanks for the clarification as far as Slav/Slovak and Czech, I got tangled up in some cursory information regarding the conflict in Bosnia and some research I’ve been doing in Slavic pre-Christian mythology on a completely unrelated note. It really helps for me to know that and keep my ducks in order. Part of why I was curious about it was because of the way several films, being set in the Communist era, treated the construction of the Czechoslovak Republic during that time. Following WW2, did the Slovak portion of the population assert itself nationally in terms of political power or remain relatively disenfranchised? One of the films I watched, Teacher, which will have a review out soon, seemed to have a lot of subtext regarding this, which is part of why I was curious.

      I’m very interested in seeing the movies you recommended. A lot of films from that region have been largely ignored or at least downplayed compared to the big French and Italian movements of the last half-century, so I’m excited to expand my appreciation of European cinema generally, especially among the Eastern countries. I might even do a write-up if I can find them and do so.

      It’s funny that you came down so hard on Renc in your previous comment, as he shared so much of what you expressed as being the Czech perspective on history during the Q&A session I was able to attend with him. He was fairly particular about the nature of Czech society being self-deprecating and fatalistic. Having only seen him in the Q&A and knowing nothing else about him, though, I can’t say how that reflects on him personally. With your clarification about how much of the budget was state-sponsored and how much private, that matches with what he said the total budget was, though. Still stunning they accomplished as much as they did with so little, though I think that’s more a comment on the bloat of American filmmaking than anything else.

      On sexism and political correctness, it’s hard to say these days where I come down on that, so I’ll hold any comments on American hypercorrectness, though that’s definitely something I’m hearing from all sides. For the films I watched, though, sexism was definitely a major element throughout the Tour, with some films coming off better than others. An American writer criticizing Czech films for sexism is definitely the pot calling the kettle black, though, so it’s hard to say what that means socially. It was just a pattern I saw with these particular films. I can say I’m very interested now in the filmmakers/writers you mentioned. In many ways, these reviews are much more difficult to write than regular reviews, since I lack so much context!

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