History through reality TV: Czech Television’s Holiday in the Protectorate
By tjmsubl, on 3 July 2015
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.
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.
Holiday in the Protectorate certainly suffered from the problem that it did not always approach its subject matter in the most responsible way. Yet I would argue that the reality TV format offers a number of opportunities for both its actors and the audience to reflect upon history in various explicit and potentially sophisticated ways. That this has not happened is more a failing of the editorial choices of the filmmakers, rather than a flaw of the concept itself. One of the main criticisms levelled at the show was that none of the situations, including those in which the family were subject to the raging of the Gestapo, played by professional actors, cannot approximate the actual fear that citizens of the Protectorate would have experienced. As one historian put it, the family reacts as if their lives were threatened, while all that is threatened is their one-million-crown prize. Nevertheless, wanting the show to recreate the actual emotional conditions of the Protectorate seems to me to miss the point. Of course the threat of deportation, or worse, being killed on the spot for minor misdemeanours, cannot be replicated; it should not be the aim of the show to try to do so, but to make the family realize that historically this would have been the case and to reflect upon that realization. The family – and with it, the audience – knew very well that the course of history is playing in their favour. The question is how could the show have effectively harnessed this knowledge to fulfil its self-proclaimed educational intent?
It is precisely this dissonance between knowing the historical outcome and trying to empathize with how people at the time would have felt that consitutes the most interesting aspects of the programme. At one point, the mother reflects upon the “threat” of her children being dragged away to the Reich, well aware that within the fictional world of the show this cannot happen, yet projecting what it would have felt like for a mother at the time. At another point, her nephew admits that the simulated reality allows him to be brash with the Gestapo, something he knows would not have been possible, though he evidently enjoys the “heroism” that the retrospective re-enactment allows him. At such moments, the show is at its strongest as it opens up and lays bare the gap between history and its representation. The reality TV genre, unlike fictional narratives that aim to maintain the illusion of a self-enclosed world, is through the confessions of its protagonists inherently self-reflexive and this can be put to good use when dealing with a historical subject. The biggest advantage of Holiday in the Protectorate was the presence of members of a generation who remember the period from their childhood. The chatty grandmother – though less so the somewhat surly grandfather – thus naturally became the most interesting character on the show, as she was able to comment on the authenticity of the setting and situations in comparison with her personal memories. In this way the show possessed the potential to actively portray and reflect upon the transmission of memory across generations, though it did not live up to this potential.
Throughout the programme, the filmmakers seemed hesitant as to whether they wanted to encourage the family to embody their historical roles or to allow them to step out of the fiction and comment on the situations as their present-day selves. Not once were viewers shown a scene where the other family members question the grandparents as to what they remember of the period or whether they recall similar dilemmas which could aid the protagonists with their decision-making. This omission was all the more striking given the participation of a nine-year-old child, who was clearly traumatised by some of the situations he witnessed, such as when the actors playing the Gestapo beat up a man in front of the family. Only more self-reflexive aspects could also have mitigated the otherwise unbridled national sentiment that the situation provoked in the family members – the term ‘German swine’ was thrown around with an uncomfortable frequency – and aspired to doing more than just documenting whether the protagonists managed to fulfil the mundane tasks they were set.
Holiday in the Protectorate stages many situations which draw attention to the problem of how present-day values colour our interpretation of historical events. Even though some of the family members, such as the grandmother, seemed to have internalized the scenario completely, they nevertheless acted in ways that were only available to them with their historical knowledge and contemporary practices. This was the case when the mother interrogated the teacher on the content of the lessons he gave her sons, or when towards the end of the show, as the end of both the war and the family’s stay in the “past” is nearing, the grandfather declared that he was part of the underground resistance. It is only in highlighting such moments, by exposing rather than attempting to conceal the fact that historical knowledge can only be accessed by the protagonists via their own experiences, that the show could have fulfilled its educational remit. As it was, it mainly fulfilled its aims of entertaining. And if reality TV is understood only as entertainment, then it is too much to expect of Holiday in the Protectorate to be a good example of public history. Both public broadcasting and the docu-reality genre nevertheless possess the tools fulfil such a function.
Veronika Pehe is a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.