“War is the most shameful thing on earth, whichever side one is on”
To dub or not to dub? That is the question for the Czech film industry. Perhaps if the issue was approached seriously, we wouldn’t be subjected to quite as much teeth-grinding while watching Filip Renč’s 2016 Czech historical drama The Devil’s Mistress (Czech: Lída Baarová). The film is based on the life of Lída Baarová, a Czech-Austrian actress who was the mistress of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Set in 1930s Czechoslovakia, the story follows Lída Baarová (Tatiana Pauhofová), a young actress trying to break into the German film industry. Her demure success in doing so is achieved when she becomes the mistress of Gustav Fröhlich (Gedeon Burkhard), a respected German actor. However, it’s not until she crosses paths with Hitler’s (Pavel Kriz) right hand, Joseph Goebbels (Karl Markovics), that she reaches her peak – with very little time to brace herself for the fall that follows.
Even though the film is primarily about the rise of the anti-Semitic thought among icreasingly contemptuous Nazis, it is also devoid of any visual representation of the war, as well as the obvious contemplation of the gravity of human nature – with its self-preserving denial of the atrocities it is capable of. The scenography feels like it has been plucked out of a low-budget TV production, prioritising melodrama over the atmosphere of the times. And so, a historical event of palpable proportions is reduced to a school play-sized iteration. Maybe that is why the story lacks any suspense at all.
To accompany this anticlimactic revelation, the characters lack any emotional development whatsoever. Lída is just as obstinate and scornful towards her critics on her deathbed, as she was when she was witnessing her Nazi lover’s cruelty. There is no bridge from point A to point B. We are simply expected to teleport there. As a result, it is skin-piercingly painful to sympathise with her. We are left to watch the lead character jump from one married man to the next, expecting the order of the world to shift to accommodate her self-interest. And so, whether that was the intention or not, a morally dubious character tears her way into the film’s emotional core, moulding her conscience to fit in. Interestingly, it is Lída herself who appears more sinful than some of the German soldiers marching into her life.
Moreover, the acting leaves much to be desired. It’s matched with rushed storytelling that tends to slow down to a crawling pace every so often, dwelling on truly traumatising scenes. The most memorable of these is the inevitable lovemaking, artistically blurred in the flames of a nearby fire, and with a close-up on Joseph Goebbels‘ twitching prosthesis. In the end, such horrors only distract from the action of checking one’s wrist watch every few minutes.
Still, the film’s most notable achievement is committing self-sabotage by showing Hitler conversing with Lída in Czech. While the fact that all Nazis speak Czech feels jarring throughout the film, it is only then that The Devil’s Mistress hammers the final nail into its coffin. Perhaps the Czech film industry could learn a thing or two from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006).
While the direction Filip Renč wanted to go in with this masterpiece is definitely somewhere in the sphere of feasibility, the film’s execution forces that image to float around bonelessly – never to stand with its feet on the ground.