by Geoffrey Churchman

Director Agnieszka Holland’s movie from last year Mr Jones, set around the Stalin-mandated Ukraine famine of the mid-1930s (see our review), was sufficiently impressive to make us want to see her latest, about Czech berbalist-healer Jan Mikolášek. The movie, selected as the Czech entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards next year, is “loosely based” on real events and the central character (as it happens, born 13 days before Hitler) cured hundreds of people using plant-based remedies.

Mikolášek was succesful enough to renovate an old mansion for his practice in the Prague suburb of Jenstejn in 1936 and reportedly there were long queues who waited their turn to get their diagnosis — from his inspecting a small bottle of their urine — and a prescription of what to ingest or apply.

Jan Mikolášek treated rich and poor alike, and when the Nazis moved into Czechia in 1939 he accepted powerful Germans among his patients during the occupation, including Hitler’s chief of staff, Martin Bormann. When Stalin’s forces replaced the Nazis in 1945, Communist officials likewise sought him out as their healer. Was he for real? The Nazis decided he was, when at Gestapo headquarters in Prague he succesfully diagnosed the ailments of 29 people from bottles of urine specimens.

Ideologically, however, Communists don’t like someone who becomes wealthy from private enterprise, and being a Christian doesn’t help in their athiest ideology. Mikolášek’s most famous client after the war was the Czechoslovak president Antsonín Zápotocký, but after the latter’s death in 1957, it was time for the Communist bosses to move in. They both feared and resented someone who they called a Charlatan, operating outside state medicine and owing nothing to the Communist dogma.  So, there was a concocted show trial of both Mikolášek and his live-in assistant František Palko for supposedly having poisoned a Communist functionary with strychnine, the active ingredient in rat poison.

These are the facts with which the director creates the movie and uses the technique of regular flashbacks to different events in Mikolášek’s life, some of which seem almost as concocted as the Stalinist show trial. Being speculation and supposition they can be accepted as such, but the willingness to believe it all gets tested at times.

Mikolášek is depicted as having a strong sense of morality, such as being forced to participate in a firing squad in World War One, and out of his own volition giving money to patients who were too poor to fulfill his remedies. He is also depicted as having a gay relationship with his assistant Frantisek, based on conjecture that grew from the failure of Mikolášek’s marriage and that they lived in the same house.

The movie ends with both prisoners about to be led to the courtroom to face the judge’s verdict. However, it’s probably not a spoiler to say that Mikolášek wasn’t executed as the Communist bosses wanted, as he died in December 1973.

Acting and character studies are good and the contrast of summery carefree enjoyment in the 1930s with the trauma of Communist imprisonment is effective. An official media release with director’s notes is here

A young Jan Mikolášek and his teacher, Mrs Müllbachova.

Charlatan (118 minutes) is screening at the Shoreline.