Charlatan is based on the true story of Czechoslovakian herbalist and healer Jan Mikolášek, who healed millions of people in his lifetime through his unusual practise of diagnosing via urine samples and his understanding of herbs. From the vantage point of his arrest under spurious reasons after the death of the president, whom he had treated, we go back through his life to see how he developed his gift. He is apprenticed to an older healer woman, with whom he somewhat loses favour when she witnesses him slamming a bag of kittens to death against a rock. (She had asked him to drown them in deep water so they didn’t suffer.) We also see his sexual obsession with his assistant František (a provokingly handsome Juraj Loj), and his grudging collusion with the Nazis, who are entertained by his strange gifts. And we see him praying at the feet of Jesus, his knees on boulders – presumably to punish himself for his sexual tastes, though this is never explained completely. We see him hobbling about in his own personal prison, comforting himself with a lone flower, listing its properties. He lays down, a broken and exhausted old man, and is bellowed at to get up.
It is a bleak and gruelling two hours, with all of human frailty and weakness viscerally depicted. The story is truly fascinating, but tonally, the script is strange. Are we supposed to root for this man who shows flashes of pure evil (the kitten bludgeoning; the near sexual assault of his assistant before František eventually relents; preparing a tincture to cause František’s wife to miscarry)? Does he help people to assuage his darker impulses? No one is all good or bad, but this protagonist is so complex, so unlikable, so cantankerous and flawed that he is an unsettling choice for a biopic.
Renowned Polish director Agnieszka Holland creates an immersive and claustrophobic world: the giant, deserted Soviet prison is used to great effect. Czech actor Ivan Trojan lives up to his name as a workhorse in the lead role, a charismatic face made for this moody film. However, some of the cruelty feels gratuitous and the plot is murky and oblique. The human capacity for good and evil is explored here in a memorable but miserable way.
Charlatan (Šarlatán) does not have a UK release date yet.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Charlatan (Šarlatán) here: