Veronika Pehe considers the controversy over the recent Czech reality TV show “Holiday in the Protectorate” and reflects on the potential of such popular cultural forms to encourage audiences to engage with traumatic histories.
In May of this year, a new show on Czech Television, the public service broadcaster in the Czech Republic, sparked a controversy even before its premiere. The premise of the “docu-reality” programme is that a real-life three-generational family is sent back in time and for two months has to live in conditions replicating those of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia. The fact that the programme was – ironically, according to director Zora Cejnková – called “Holiday in the Protectorate” did nothing to improve its reception even before it started. Interest from foreign media was strikingly high and mostly marked by outrage. The Times of Israel, for instance, wrote that ‘fortunately for the family, they will not be treated like the 82,309 Jews who lived in the Protectorate’ and the British comedian John Oliver ridiculed the concept of the series on his show.
Screen grab from “Holiday in the Protectorate”. Photograph: Guardian/public domain.
The criticisms seemed to stem mainly from the idea that the format of reality TV is not appropriate to this particular subject matter. Yet the concept was not entirely unprecedented: in 2000, Channel 4 broadcast The 1940s house, in which a present-day family re-lived the conditions of the Blitz. The project of Holiday in the Protectorate was more controversial perhaps because of the necessary presence of the Nazi occupiers – in this case, actors impersonating the Gestapo, who periodically turn up to terrorize the family. Yet the notion that we cannot deal with a subject such as the Nazi occupation through the format of popular television rehearses an argument about the suitability of particular cultural forms to certain types of subject matter. It thus reproduces unhelpful distinctions between high and low culture, which is predicated on the premise that certain types of (low) culture are not dignified enough for portraying certain historical facts. However, the boundaries of the permissible are negotiable and historically contingent. While in the decades following the Second World War, a comedy about this period would have been unthinkable, the passage of time has made such depictions acceptable. The Czech Republic has its own example, Jan Hřebejk’s Protectorate-era drama Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat, 2000), which is narrated with a generous dose of humour. The format was deemed appropriate enough by the film industry abroad for the picture to be nominated for an Oscar. Yet such accceptance has not reached reality TV, even though this genre, which seeks to mediate various extraordinary experiences through the reactions of “real” people, is now part of our everyday cultural experience. There is no point in trying to prevent reality TV from dealing with certain subject areas; rather, we should demand that these areas be dealt with responsibly and well, in particular on public service television.