This isn’t Hannibal, with Mads Mikkeslsen as the titular character, unemotionally murdering his victims then serving them with a vintage wine for dinner. It isn’t King Arthur, with Mads as Tristan, sending his beloved falcon out to scout for him, and fighting as gracefully and fiercely with a sword as you imagine that a knight of the Round Table would. This is Prag [Prague], when 42-year-old Christoffer (Mads) is called from his home in Denmark to identify and claim the body of his dead father — a man he doesn’t know, a man who left him and his mother when he was a boy of 12, a man whose face he cannot even recognize. It is one of Mads’ most powerful performances, understated yet emotional, restrained yet explosive.
Christoffer’s wife Maja (Stine Stengade) accompanies him to the Czech Republic because he “asked her to” — not because she really wants to go. And once there, the secrets and lies of his father’s life, his mother’s life, and his own marriage implode, leaving Christoffer exposed, vulnerable, confused, betrayed, and angry.
Christoffer does not know why his father left Denmark, nor why his father had no contact with him. He cannot even recognize him when he sees him in the morgue, since he has never known his father. He only knows that his mother never loved another man, never stopped talking about him, never explained why he left, and that they have a family plot: his father is to be buried beside his mother. That is why Christoffer has come to the Czech Republic: to bring the body of his father home to bury him beside his mother, who loved him all her life.
Christoffer’s own wife Maja far too readily accepts his suggestion that he go alone to the morgue, however, as well as to the funeral parlor, though he doesn’t speak the language, and has difficulty understanding what’s expected of him. Whenever he seems confused, distant, or unemotional, the people around him tell him that he should love his father, despite never knowing him. If he disagrees, they constantly tell him, “Life is hard: you don’t always get what you want.” It finally becomes such a joke to him that he begins to finish the line for them, thinking it’s a Czech-thing, just as he comes to regard the “importance” of his father’s funeral and burial when he never even knew him.
The death of a father he never knew makes Christoffer try to connect more with his own son, Thomas, who is confused by his father’s question via Skype in the middle of the night, “Do you think you know me?” Any young boy would be confused by that question, and Christoffer finally has to just settle for the boy’s answer. Not even Christoffer seems to know what he wants.
But Christoffer’s father is not the only one who had secrets. It seems his mother kept secrets about why his father left the family in the first place, and her own part in it. Worst of all, Christoffer’s wife Maja has a secret that disrupts his life more than he could ever imagine.
In fact, Christoffer knows his wife’s secret from the beginning of the film, but the viewer doesn’t: it’s only if you watch it a second time that you realize the import of everything he says to her before the secret is revealed to the viewer, and the nuances of the way he constantly watches her.
Just as Christoffer doesn’t know what he wants from his son, he doesn’t seem to know what he wants from his wife. He claims he does, but his behavior belies his words. His wife Maja doesn’t know what he wants either. The scene where she wants to have sex with him, and he seems to want intimacy from her but then he doesn’t want her to kiss him on the mouth, is one of the most poignant and startling of the film.
Maja keeps attempting to reach out across the chasm that has cracked their marriage — as does Christoffer — yet both of them keep blaming each other for the chasm’s existence in the first place, and pushing each other angrily away.
No matter how many moments of intimacy the two share, their love and marriage seems as tangled with secrets and lies as Christoffer’s relationship with his father, as was his father’s entire life, Christoffer learns. Soon, it becomes unclear whether or not Christoffer even wants to save his marriage. Maja doesn’t know what he wants; she doesn’t know what she herself wants. Each is hurt, angry, and desolate, but Christoffer has confused the anger and betrayal he experienced throughout his whole life from his father with the anger and betrayal he’s now feeling with his wife.
Some of the film’s most powerful moments are when the characters are together but cannot speak each other’s language, literally. Christoffer with his father’s housekeeper, Christoffer and Maja with the waiters at the hotel restaurant, Christoffer and Maja with the father’s housekeeper and her young daughter, Christoffer and Maja in a Czech bar listening to the cassette tape — in Danish — that his father left for him, given to him by the lawyer after the death.
Some of those scenes are slightly humorous, some are grim, some sad. The one with the cassette tape is almost horrifying: a father speaking via tape over the loudspeakers of a bar, to a son he’s never known, in a language that only the father, son, and daughter-in-law understand.
Whenever the characters find themselves in a situation where another person doesn’t understand them, they attempt to speak in English. To no avail. Few understand English, and those that do, completely miss its subtleties.
The inability to understand each other’s language is a metaphor for the entire film: no one is able to completely understand even his own emotions, wants, needs, or desires, let alone someone else’s. No one can communicate effectively. No one can completely touch — or be touched by — another. This inability gives the film its power and poignancy.
Directed by Ole Christian Madsen, and written by Madsen with Kim Fupe Aakeson, Prag [Prague] was nominated for 10 international awards — including best director for Madsen, best actor for Mads Mikkelsen, and best actress for Stengade — winning 4. Watch it at least twice, to catch all the subtle nuances of Mads’ performance. And to catch all the secrets you’ll miss the first time.
I’ve included Prag‘s official trailer — in Danish, with English subtitles — but it does have Spoilers involving the relationship with Christoffer and his wife Maja. You can rent Prag [Prague] on Amazon for 7 days, watching it as many times as you like, for only $2.99. You won’t regret it. And you’ll admire Mads’ acting even more than you might already.