2018 is the year of anniversaries in Czech history with the Prague Spring (1968), the communist takeover (1948), the National Socialist annexation of the Sudetenland (1938) and – most significantly – the founding of the First Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. An award-winning film that ties the legacy of the First Czechoslovak Republic together with the traumatic events surrounding its disintegration is Julius Ševčík’s ‘A Prominent Patient’. Starring Karel Roden as Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder and first President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the film traces the First Republic’s final years between 1937 and 1939 through the younger Masaryk’s eyes, starting with his father’s death and ending with Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.
We first encounter Masaryk sitting in a stranger’s house in suburban East-Coast America, smoking and playing the piano. When he’s arrested, he demands to be taken to a psychiatric clinic. His psychiatrist Dr. Stein (Hanns Zischler) is a German refugee, who wants Masaryk to continue his work as Czechoslovak ambassador under President Edvard Beneš (Oldřich Kaiser). Masaryk, however, would rather revel in drugs and close himself off from the outside world. He feels as though he’s failed to protect the country his father founded after all his diplomatic efforts to avoid an annexation of the Sudetenland to Germany are thwarted.
Whenever Masaryk lies on Stein’s couch in therapy we see his memories in retrospective: his father’s death, Masaryk as Czechoslovak ambassador to London, and his and Beneš’s manifold diplomatic efforts to convince France and Britain to support Czechoslovakia against Nazi-Germany. Only slowly, Stein can encourage Masaryk to venture out again and continue his lecture series…
The intersections between real historical figures and the psychological drama played out in fictional parts are enticing throughout the film, and Martin Štrba’s sleek camera work captures the spirit of the era with jazz parties, beautiful costumes and a perfectly designed stage-set. No doubt, ‘A Prominent Patient’ is a high-quality film that balances the difficult task of mediating a great historical narrative with complex psychological insights – and does so within a narrative that will appeal to the layman and the expert of Czech history alike.
Through Jan Masaryk’s eyes, we’re reminded of one of the most deeply set traumas in modern Czech history. Though they’d pledged to support Czechoslovakia, France and Britain sided with the Third Reich when Hitler demanded the annexation of Czechoslovakia’s border regions, which were largely populated by the country’s over 3-million-strong German minority. On 29 September 1938, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy signed an agreement that the Sudetenland would go to Germany. The Czechoslovak government had no say in the matter. Ševčík chose to show this national tragedy through Jan Masaryk’s personal one. As the son of one of Czechoslovakia’s key historical figures, Masaryk has to grapple with his father’s tremendous legacy and the accompanying expectations of him. A far cry from being an ordinary ambassador, Masaryk’s honoured but also burdened with his surname. He’s a prominent figure from a country, the film repeatedly tells us, that no one knows. Working closely with this juxtaposition, ‘A Prominent Patient’ retains the momentum and the tragedy of Czechoslovakia’s powerlessness in 1938, which became a reality despite all the diplomatic efforts of its leaders. It’s both a new psychological drama and a history film, fit for a great commemorative year like 2018. Yet, by perfectly ticking all these boxes, Ševčík’s masterfully composed scenes also ignore the more complex bits of history that have been glossed over to preserve the myth of an innately democratic and benevolent First Czechoslovak Republic.
The Munich Agreement was a tragedy, no doubt. And, no doubt, Ševčík has sketched a complex image of Jan Masaryk and his relationship with Beneš, which deserves its accolades. But, eighty years on, providing a more critical view on the First Czechoslovak Republic, on its pitfalls as well as on its great men, may provide a fresher and thus more varied perspective on history and its complexities. ‘A Prominent Patient’ is a good and thought-provoking film. For that, it should also be a place to initiate discussions about what we remember – and what we choose not to.