Director: Agnieszka Holland (Czech Republic, Poland, Ireland, Slovakia). Year of Release: 2021
Czechoslovakia, 1957. Doctors vainly try to apply CPR, but it looks like president Antonín Zápotocký has died. This is bad news for Jan Mikolášek who has spent the past few years under Zápotocký’s protective custody. Very soon he is accused of using strychnine to kill a pair of Communist Party officials who were his patients.
Jan is a faith healer whose speciality is making diagnoses from people’s piss. Hand him a bottle of urine (clear bottles only, please), tell him the age and gender of the patient, and he’ll hold it up to the light and tell you exactly what’s wrong with them. In one case, he correctly identifies that someone has died in the few hours since they gave their sample.
Every day, including Sundays, there is a long line of people outside Jan’s house. Each is carrying a bottle of piss. He diagnoses each of them in turn, or at least as many of them as he can fit in in a day. When they arrive, he makes a point of assuring them that he is not a qualified doctor, but this doesn’t seem to cause anyone any concern at all. Jan charges for his services, of course, but if a patient is looking particularly poor, he slips them some cash, as he is a Good Man.
The trouble is that there’s something about Jan that the Communist authorities just don’t like. Maybe it’s the quackery, but it’s more likely that he refused to let his practise be nationalised and now he’s running quite a profit. After a visit from police thugs, the film is a run down to his trial. He’s not allowed to use his personal lawyer – quite possibly another ex-patient – as his influence is now running thin, and instead he is assigned a young duty lawyer by the state.
The prison scenes are intercut with flashbacks – mainly of Jan’s life in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. He gets by by flying the flag of the official Nazi car association, swastika and all, on his bonnet. Martin Boormann is another patient – Jan is an equal opportunity employee when it comes to sucking up to sections of state repression to save his own skin.
In the flashbacks, we witness Jan’s burgeoning relationship with Frantisek, his unqualified assistant who can offer nothing but absolute loyalty. Although the film was shown as part of Monday LGBT film night, there is no real sign of an emotional or physical relationship between them until the film is over halfway through. After that, it goes up a few gears, mind.
Look, here’s my problem with Charlatan, or maybe I should say here’s my problems. First it is “loosely based on a true story”, which is always slightly problematic, especially with films that are trying to make a point. You get the feeling that the director is using the “true story” bit to claim authenticity, even when what we see on screen strongly diverges from what actually happened.
So, director Agnieszka Holland appears to hold some sort of Totalitarianism theory – not just that the Nazis and Eastern European Communists were bad, but that they were bad in the same way – all uniforms and repression and being in a bad mood all the time. Now you can make an argument out of this, but lets see what Holland is positing as an alternative.
Did I mention that Jan can diagnose any ailment under the sun just by looking at a bottle of piss? Despite the film’s title, the film does not doubt for a second that this is what really happened. At any time, this would lead us to doubt the credibility of some of the other scenes. In a time when esoteric hippies have joined hardline Nazis in rejecting Covid vaccines, it is downright irresponsible to suggest that you don’t need science as long as you have some good instincts.
The more I read about the real story, the more it becomes obvious that Charlatan is making it up as it goes along. It seems that the real Jan Mikolášek was not tried for strychnine poisoning but for profiteering. The idea that he was gay is just a hypothesis, which makes you wonder why this has been brought up at all. Although we hear that homosexuality is illegal under Nazism and Communism (as it was under Western capitalism at the time), this is not why Jan is persecuted.
You do not have to be a fan of the Eastern Bloc to feel that this is a film with a hidden agenda – well, several hidden agendas. And it feels like a dishonest attack on a system for which there would be many legitimate means of attack. By playing fast and loose with the truth, by asking us to choose between state repression and anti-scientific nonsense, Charlatan loses any claim to authenticity. It’s a shame really, because the camera work was pretty good.