Based on true events, Murder in Polná is a two-part television mini-series from the Czech Republic. It dramatizes the infamous trial of Leopold Hilsner (Karel Hermánek Jr.), who was accused in 1899 of murdering a 19-year-old girl. The young man’s status as a Jew, and the rumours that the murder was a blood ritual to make Passover matzo, vilified the man. Rising attorney Aurednícek (Jaroslav Plesl) and a highly regarded professor (Karel Roden) believe Hilsner has been scapegoated for a crime he didn’t commit. Can they persuade an anti-Semitic jury that Hilsner is innocent?
(Note: The reviewer only had access to the first episode of this two-part series.)
This noteworthy mini-series depicts a notorious trial in an engaging and often galvanizing fashion. The most arresting moments are the courtroom scenes. Beyond the unconventional tenor of the case, many of the statements uttered here come verbatim from the trial. Not only is much of the material shocking to witness, but the disgust of the townspeople hissing at Hilsner also gets under our skin. These moments are thick with suspense and unease. Hermánek Jr’s gripping turn as the scapegoated Hilsner makes the whole process even more discomfiting.
Still, even with an extended running time for television, Murder in Polná sometimes feels overly expository. This is a series that privileges speeches over visuals. One wishes director Viktor Polesný would have let the images speak louder, perhaps through digging more thoroughly into Hilsner and Aurednícek’s psychology. Moreover, the initial murder is portrayed in a way that feels tasteless and exploitative. This brutal sequence of death begins the film on a sickening note; here, suggestion would have been preferred.