Protagonist is one of those films that utterly defies description; yet is absolutely stunning, moving, and fascinating in so many unexpected ways.
Actually it’s quite easy to describe: the hard part is having your description do justice to the film without the description seeming a bit goofy. The IMDB description is as good as any: “Protagonist explores the relationship between human life and Euripidean dramatic structure by weaving together the stories of four men: German terrorist, a bank robber, an “ex-gay” evangelist, and a martial arts student.” Oh and there’s puppets. Ancient Greek puppets.
But what a seriously masterful documentary by Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu.
Each of the four men, including former German terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein, tell their life stories, and ultimately how they challenged the fate that life seems to have presented them. Interspersed with their stories are puppets presenting Euripidean plays and elements highlighting the eternal struggle to control our own destiny. In effect, the director Yu has made these four men Greek tragic heroes.
The entire conceit works exceptional well; helped immeasurably by sharp editing, excellent “casting,” and remarkably good puppetry.
Students of the Baader-Meinhof era will be especially mesmerized by the segments featuring Hans-Joachim Klein. Klein’s life certainly plays out like a greek tragedy: a Jewish mother who was interned at Ravensbruck druing the war; only to commit suicide two years after the war and four short months after giving birth to Hans-Joachim. A stern police officer father who loved Hitler, and later became a law-and-order cop, hated the student protests of the 1960s. Hans-Joachim was a fairly uneducated member of the working class who found a life among the radicalized students of the late sixties. His rough and tumble background made him an ideal enforcer for the radical groups he supported, and eventually he became a member of the terrorist group the Revolutionary Cells. Klein participated with Carlos the Jackal in the horrendous 1975 raid on an OPEC minister’s meeting, getting shot in the process. Later Klein was recruited to participate in a forthcoming hijacking of an Israeli passenger jet to Uganda. Realizing the true anti-Semitic nature of the mission–and mindful of his own Jewish heritage–Klein begged off the mission and renounced terrorism.
There is not an ounce of guile in Klein’s interviews. He is contrite and regretful of his time as a terrorist, and incredibly self-aware of where and how things went wrong.
I have heard many former terrorists renounce their past; yet Klein is the only one who seems utterly shattered by it and incapable of rationalizing any of his actions.
The director, Jessica Yu, has made another documentary that is–if possible–even harder to describe. Yet In the Realms of the Unreal is equally wonderful. Movies like these are what Netflix was made for!
Listen to an interview I conducted with Jessica Yu.
And watch this short clip from the film, where Klein explains how the radical movement embraced him: