The awarding winning Lost in Munich (Zelenka 2015) is a fast paced mix of documentary and farce. Director Petr Zelenka takes an absurdist look at the Munich Agreement of 1938, lauded as a diplomatic victory at the time, but still seen by Czechs as a total disaster and a betrayal. In the opening sequence newsreels of the machinations of the major powers are revealed alongside the turmoil in Czechoslovakia in the ten days leading up the Munich Agreement .
A switch to 2008 – burnt out journalist Pavel is sent under protest to a Munich anniversary event. Its star’s a 90-year-old grey parrot, a witness to the Munich Agreement, who’d lived with Edouard Daladier, the French prime minister. In the voice of Daladier, the parrot quotes his master creating havoc before flying off. Pavel kidnaps the parrot. A diplomatic scandal with the French is triggered by the parrot’s incendiary statements. And there’s more mayhem until Pavel comes to an agreement to silence the parrot ‘without coercion’– a nod to the fait accompli of Munich.
Fast-forward to 2014 – Pavel and the parrot become the story of a Czech-French film in production. There’s a constant search for the ideal mock up parrot poop. The French co-producers insist on casting a famous French actor who doesn’t have a web-site. Other inexplicable things occur. Martin Myšička, playing himself portraying Pavel, develops allergies to feathers, bright colours and everything on set, ending up being rushed to hospital. The parrot gets its own caravan, an agent and goes on strike. Mysterious money troubles emerge. The crew take it as a betrayal of the French and seek retribution.
Myšička realises it’s the story of Munich that’s making him sick. ‘Look at the raw facts,’ he says – ‘Munich was not a tragedy for the Czechs, but a diplomatic victory.’ Czech president Beneš did not capitulate to the major powers, he had a plan to save the country from the destruction of war. The film production descends into crisis and a skeleton crew of six people, as the film’s narrative’s turned on its head. All this disparate disorder’s deftly integrated, culminating in a final satisfying twist that pulls it all together.
Lost in Munich entertains, while doing much more – revealing the human impact of the unfolding tragedy not just on the main players but also on the Czech people as a whole. A triumph for its writer director Zelenka.
In the following debate ‘Munich, Tragic Myth or Diplomatic Victory?’, Historian Vít Smetana appreciated the subtle touches – the name of the French Ambassador in 1938 used in the film – a man who was so disgusted of the sell-out he wept in front of President Benes. He challenged the revisionist view because not least ‘Beneš was not so ingenious as to have thought it all through’ and his every action was under duress. The British were leading the process but the betrayal of the French – dishonouring the existing treaty – was felt deeply by the Czechoslovak people. Deladier flying back to Paris turned up his collar expecting abuse, having sold out France’s best ally in Europe.
Fellow historian Peter Neville explained that, for Beneš, Munich was the ‘greatest trauma in his life’. It wasn’t just the British and the French, but the backing off by the Poles and the betrayal of Yugoslavia and Romania – Czechoslovakia’s Little Entente allies. Following the outbreak of war, Beneš formed a government in exile in London, and pressure from his side successfully resulted in agreement that post-war Czechoslovakia would not be bound by Munich. He’d wanted Munich declared illegal, but Churchill wasn’t prepared to go that far.
The screening of Lost in Munich is part of Projecting Czech History 1918 – 2018. For more information see http://www.czechcentre.org.uk
Vít Smetana is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Contemporary History and author of: In the shadow of Munich (2008).
Dr Peter Neville is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and author of Hitler and Appeasement: The British Attempt to Prevent the Second World War (2008)and Eduard Benes and Tomas Masaryk – Makers of the Modern World (2010).