A folk-medicine expert with an alleged gift treated over 5 million people, including many celebrities but critics call him a charlatan.
The new Czech-Irish-Polish-Slovak biopic Charlatan (Šarlatán) takes a look at the life and career of Jan Mikolášek, a herbal and faith healer who practiced in what is now the Czech Republic throughout the first half of the 20th century, but has largely been forgotten.
The film debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020, and finally hit Czech cinemas on August 20, 2020.
Over the course of his career, Mikolášek claims to have treated 5 million people, some 150,000 per year, with his unusual method of examining urine in glass bottles under strong light, and prescribing herbal teas or ointments. People would wait in line for hours to see him at his offices, while others would send bottles of their samples in the mail.
Clients allegedly included many celebrities such as King George VI of England, who sent a sample by mail, as well as artist Max Švabinský, musician Josef Bohuslav Foerster and actress Olga Scheinpflugová, the wife of writer Karel Čapek. Czechoslovak presidents Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš are also reported to have used his services.
Whether he had a natural gift for healing or he was a con man that preyed on the gullible is a debate that has raged on not only during his life but until the present day.
The film, by director award-winning director Agnieszka Holland and starring veteran Czech actor Ivan Trojan, focuses on Mikolášek’s career in the late 1950s, with flashbacks to some formative incidents. Like most biographical films, it is a blend of fact and fiction. The film leaves the viewer with more questions than answers about who the man really was.
In real life, Mikolášek began to run into trouble after Czechoslovak President Antonín Zápotocký, whom he had been treating, died in 1957, and the new regime cracked down on him for his unapproved methods and his refusal to fall in line with the communist political system. Not only was he successfully making money in an enterprise not controlled by the state, but he claimed to heal with divine guidance, in clear opposition to basic tenets of the atheist state. He also was not an actual medical doctor, having never attended any formal higher education.
While the film stops at the end of the 1950s, Mikolášek actually lived all the way to December 29, 1973, when he passed away in Prague at the age of 84. He is buried in Olšany Cemeteries (Olšanské hřbitovy), not far from Czech occultist Pierre de Lasenic.
Mikolášek, was born in Rokycany on April 7, 1889, when Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the seventh of 13 children. Rokycany, in the Plzeň district, is best-known as the furthest town liberated by US forces at the end of World War II, and where the US and Soviet armies finally came together.
His family was involved in gardening, which exposed him to plants at an early age. He claimed that as a young man a vision appeared to him, and told him to heal with herbs. A statue depicting this vision stood in front of his office near Jenštejn, where he worked from 1947 to 1959. Another story he used to tell was that when he was a child, a Roma woman read his hand, and predicted he would become a healer.
His work as a gardener took him to Vienna, where he met Valentin Zeileis, a theosophist who explored the idea of treating illness with electricity. Zeileis first recognized young Mikolášek’s talent for understanding nature, and encouraged him to explore it.
After his military service in World War I, he returned to Rokycany to pursue gardening, when he encountered Josefa Mühlbacherová, who practiced the folk art of urine analysis and herbal medicine, attracting patients from as far away as Austria on a daily basis. She took Mikolášek on as an apprentice, and made him swear never to abuse his knowledge.
His first successes were allegedly with his own family, curing his brother’s kidneys and sister’s leg infection with herbs. Around this time, Mikolášek came up with his motto: “Nature can work miracles through medicinal herbs, but that is only half of healing. The other half is the belief in healing.”
He eventually opened a practice in the small village of Bědovice, in the Hradec Králové region. This proved inadequate and he moved to the village of Hradečno, near the Prague satellite town of Kladno.
Sometime after the German occupation took over in 1938, Mikolášek was taken by the Gestapo to Petschek Palace (Petschkův palác) in Prague to prove his skills. He had to diagnose 29 people from their urine samples. He passed the test and began to treat some top Nazi officials including Martin Borman, who had gallstones. After the war, this led to his arrest by the Revolutionary Guard, which sent him to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg camp for displaced persons.
His fate changed when Antonín Zápotocký sought his services to save his leg from amputation, and had him released from the camp. Luckily for Mikolášek, the leg responded to treatment and was saved.
Mikolášek moved his practice again, this time to Jenštejn, another satellite town of Prague. He began building a villa on a high outlook, and held his practice from two rooms in an inn called U Cafourků from 1945 until the villa was ready in 1947.
He practiced from the villa for 12 years, seeing up to 200 patients per day. Elderly people from the area still recount that Mikolášek was generous, and paid to send them, when they were children, to the mountains for vacation to benefit their health. He also made large contributions to the Red Cross.
He refused to get a phone, so village boys made pocket money by delivering messages that came into the village phone in the town hall.
He paid for lighting and sewerage systems in Jenštejn. While he turned down most invitations to balls and events, he often sent some form of financial support. He also sent gifts to local newlyweds, usually a painting from a known artist.
His practice also benefited the town, as people traveled long distances to see him and often had to stay overnight to get in line first thing in the morning. By 7:30 am, there would be enough people waiting to fill the whole day. Urine samples were sent to him from Prague hospitals, and many government figures came for treatment.
This all changed after Zápotocký died, and the Czechoslovak Ministry of Health announced a fight against charlatans and other irregular medical practitioners. Negative articles condemning Mikolášek appeared in the state-run press, condemning him for owning a villa and an expensive private car, and questioning his lack of medical qualifications.
This culminated in him getting into trouble over alleged tax evasion, overpricing of herbs and illegal construction. The District Court in Brandýs nad Labem sentenced him to three years in prison, confiscation of all of his property, a ban on activities and the loss of civil rights for five years. What happened to valuable items like a gilded clock from King George VI and the large statue of his vision remains a mystery. The villa for decades has been a care home for the elderly, with only a few of its original elements left.
Mikolášek was released from prison in 1963 or ’64, but never returned to his previous practice. Instead, he was forced to rely on the kindness of former friends. He lived with Dr Karel Urbánek in Prague until his death in 1973. He is buried in the Urbánek family tomb in Olšany Cemeteries in section VI 16 in grave 13a, located along the side of a dividing wall, along with his mother and Dr Urbánek. A small plastic information sign is now near the grave, part of a program that allows the public to donate money for upkeep.
He claimed until the end that he legitimately healed people. “I have not defeated millions of enemies, like many of those who have attained immortality. I was just an herbalist, and my job was to alleviate suffering and prolong life. But even if I modestly estimate that I have extended the life of at least one person in a hundred by one year, then it turns out that I saved 40,000 years of life for this beautiful country, and I am happy because I know that I have lived a different, but useful life,” he said.
Main photo: Ivan Trojan in Charlatan. Courtesy of Cinemart