Zdeněk Toman (played by Jiří Macháček) kept his Jewish identity secret in order to advance his career in postwar Prague. (Photo/Courtesy EBIJFF)
Zdeněk Toman (played by Jiří Macháček) kept his Jewish identity secret in order to advance his career in postwar Prague. (Photo/Courtesy EBIJFF)

With Iron Curtain falling, secret Czech Jew played both sides

What if Oskar Schindler had been a greedy, philandering, two-faced jerk? And a Jew from Czechoslovakia?

Then he’d resemble the anti-hero title character of “Toman,” a 2018 Czech film set in postwar Prague and based on true events and real people. The film screens at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, March 7 in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.

Clocking in at 2½ hours, “Toman” opens a window onto the savage Communist takeover of Eastern Europe and its ruinous impact on a society already traumatized by World War II.

It’s not a fun ride. Re-creating the period with superb sets and costumes and justifiably dour acting performances, “Toman” tells a story of byzantine bureaucracy, black marketeering and, ultimately, an Orwellian nightmare come true.

Zdeněk Toman, who served as Czechoslovakia’s head of intelligence from 1945 to 1948, was Jewish, as was his wife. Both spent the war years in exile in London. Once back in Prague, where Jews were considered scum, Toman kept his identity secret to advance his career. Meanwhile, thousands of Jewish refugees clamored at the Czech border seeking sanctuary.

In the film Toman is a scrounger, a fixer and an indispensable man, or so he hopes. Jiří Macháček plays him as an amoral, unfeeling quasi-gangster who never cracks a smile and is never without a cigarette in his mouth.

As he amasses a small fortune in black market contraband, Toman’s genius is his ability to play all sides — Soviet puppet masters, Czech party apparatchiks (some of whom are Crypto-Jews like himself), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee trying to save Jewish lives, and his wife, who gets little attention and less love from her skirt-chasing husband.

There is a “Mad Men” quality to this male-centric world: cigarettes, booze, backroom dealmaking. But as the film makes clear, there was much frantic political wrangling in those days. The Iron Curtain is ready to descend, and spies are everywhere.

To maintain his cover, Toman plays hardball with the JDC over Jewish refugees, extorting a cash price for each person allowed into the country. Yet invoking his authority as a government official, Toman keeps the borders open, allowing many Jews to find shelter in Czech refugee camps, even if he pockets bribe money for himself.

Just as he reaches the peak of his power and influence, things fall apart. The last 30 minutes of the film depict Toman’s ignominious crash and the resulting cascading tragedies. Without giving away too much, it’s safe to say the Communists were not nice.

“Toman” can be gripping at times, and some scenes are truly compelling. But the storytelling jerks from scene to scene, leaving the audience too often bewildered as to what just happened. It almost plays like the longest trailer in cinema history.

Also problematic, for a non-Czech audience or for those who did not grow up in a dismal Warsaw Pact dystopia, much of the political and cultural nuance is lost in translation.

What is not lost in translation: Led by the USSR, Eastern Europe’s Communist regimes were pitiless, their secret goon squads brutal, their creed viciously anti-Semitic. No matter how dead-eyed Toman tries to present himself, that Jewish spark of humanity is enough to give him away and destroy him.

As some nations around the world, especially a hyperaggressive Russia, mutate into authoritarian regimes, “Toman” serves as a sobering reminder that this approach failed dismally the last time around.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.