By Ryan Keating-Lambert
New historic drama Charlatan directed by Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, The Burning Bush) is turning heads everywhere for its tender portrayal of historic Czech healer Jan Mikolášek who cured hundreds with plant-based remedies during occupied Czechoslovakia.
The film is a joint Czech-Irish-Polish-Slovak production which premiered at this year’s Berlinale International Film Festival and stars Ivan Trojan as Mikolášek, Trojan’s real-life son Josef as the younger Mikolášek, and Juraj Loj as his assistant and lover František. It’s also one of the few Czech-language films to tackle a queer relationship on the big screen.
To celebrate the film’s Czech premiere, I sat down with producer Kevan van Thompson (JoJo Rabbit, The Zookeeper’s Wife) to discuss making the film, and releasing it during COVID-19. Based in Prague, Kevin has made 35 films now, both in the Czech Republic and across Europe, and had his start in the industry at a young age. Attending drama school with Gary Oldman, Kevan ended up feeling much more comfortable behind the camera rather than in front of it.
How did you first come across Charlatan?
Producer Sarka Cimbalova and I have been friends for quite a long time. And she was having a problem raising all the money needed so she came and had a chat with me and I said I’d try and help. I brought in co-producers to work with us, and that’s pretty much how we got the money to make the film at the level that it is. It was hard work but Sarka is probably the hardest working person I’ve ever met.
What drew you to the story originally?
Well, I’ve wanted to do a Czech language film for a while. I try to give back to the community and I feel what I haven’t been doing is making local movies. And the fact that Agnieszka was directing and the subject matter is something I’ve also been trying to make a film in English about – about how oppressive it was here in those days and for me the even more exciting thing was if it was about something between ’68 and ’80. The history of this place before I arrived here.
What was it like working with Agnieszka Holland and this amazing cast?
I have a huge amount of respect for Agnieszka. She’s a very strong women who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, both on and off screen. And she knows how to work with actors in such a way that they love to work with her. And we were able to have such a good cast here – Ivan Trojan is just an incredible actor, and Agnieszka also brought out something really special in Juraj Loj – someone I’d never heard of before and I’m so pleased to have been a part of that.
I felt the queer themes in the film to be so fantastic and refreshing. It’s not often that you see these types of films. Do you think that we’ll see more films like this in the country’s future?
No, I don’t. I think that Czech filmmakers are in some ways quite conservative. They’re quite happy to put in things about drugs – there’s no worries about that. But when it comes to sexuality, they’re very much the type that has to have a gay character as a comedy character rather than as a serious person. I hope that changes. I really do because the whole of Europe needs to be pushing those boundaries a bit. I think Agnieszka took that just a little bit further than most films do going for general release. Her hook on it was really timely. And I think it’s interesting to see how things happening in Europe are pushing it back against the LGBTQ community.
Especially in Poland.
Poland is absolutely awful and Hungary is not really that far behind. And the UK… well, sometimes I despair because it’s a country that should be allowing more freedom of all sorts.
What else can people relate to in the film?
I think it’s a reminder and I think one thing that every generation, after something happens, needs reminders about. And we need to make films that tell these stories from now on. There have been a huge number of movies that I’ve been involved with about the holocaust or problems during the second world war. The Zookeeper’s Wife looked at Poland and JoJo Rabbit looked at Germany.
It’s interesting to see that working and I think for the majority of us, this film needs to show how gay men were treated and also how authorities treated them. It also shows the ambiguity of it. He treated powerful people and they were grateful for saving their lives, but in the end, it couldn’t save him from persecution. I think people can take a lot from that.
How did COVID-19 affect the project?
Well we premiered at Berlinale and then everything shut down the next week. We were supposed to premiere here in March but now with the restrictions and people being frightened, it’s now a six-month-old film which makes it difficult to sell. But we do have high hopes for it in the end!
This isn’t the first film from the WWII era that you’ve worked on. Tell us a little bit about working on the recent Oscar-winning JoJo Rabbit.
It was unlike most films. Certainly Taika Waititi’s way of working is unusual and refreshing. And the fact that he’d come directly from Thor: Ragnarok to doing this little movie was pretty unique because most directors just don’t do that. The fact that he’s able to do that and give it all his concentration is wonderful.
The crew in Prague also responded to everything very well. I love working with the crew here. I think the one thing that might come out of COVID is that we’ll use a lot more local crew than we’ve ever been able to before, which will be fantastic because they’re so talented. Every day on JoJo Rabbit was fun!
Thank you for chatting to me today, Kevan.
Charlatan is now showing in Czech cinemas. Catch an English friendly screening today in Edison Filmhub.