Film Reviews

Laughter à la Czech

Who would have imagined that at this late date -- more than half a century after the end of World War II, after The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler's List, Au Revoir, Les Enfants, Pierre Sauvage's documentary Weapons of the Spirit, and Jan Kadar's amazing The Shop on Main Street -- a film could arrive with a new take on the Nazi roundup of Jews and the Gentiles who risked everything to resist it?

But Divided We Fall -- which swept the Czech Film Awards last year and was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar -- is such a film, and by a director born 21 years after the end of the war, no less. Young director Jan Hr*ebejk has succeeded on two fronts: He has walked the incredibly fine line between tragedy and farce without ever tipping into tastelessness, and he has forged a film in which viewers are cajoled into a more forgiving point of view -- one that may be too forgiving for some.

The opening minutes of the film give us the back-story in a few deft scenes. In Czechoslovakia in1937, Horst Prohaska (Jaroslav Dus*ek) and Josef Cizek (Boleslav Polívka) are happily employed by a Jewish businessman named Wiener; in 1939 the Wiener family is turned out of its home and moves in with Cizek and his wife, Marie (Anna S*is*ková); and in 1941 the Wieners are relocated to Theresienstadt, which, unbeknownst to them and their hosts, is no more than a way station to extermination.

Two years later all the Wieners are dead except for David (Csongor Kassai), a young man who managed to escape. He heads home and takes refuge with the Cizeks in a hidden room behind a closet. The couple would be subject to immediate execution if David were found; the situation is even more perilous because Horst, now working for the Nazis, makes a habit of dropping by unannounced.

It quickly becomes clear that Horst's visits have less to do with any suspicion than with his designs on the comely Marie, who isn't the least bit interested. And things become even more complicated when Josef, whose surly manner has already made him suspect, takes a job with Horst and his Nazi bosses in order to mask his hiding of David. His new status as a collaborator earns him the loathing of his neighbors, to whom he cannot possibly risk explaining his reasons.

We won't give away further plot complications, which push the story into something resembling sex farce, but it should be apparent that, were it not for the gravity of the setting, the story could just as easily be a comedy as a drama, with everybody play-acting, doors opening and shutting, and the repercussions of lies multiplying geometrically. And remarkably Hr*ebejk has managed to bring out the comedy in ways that only heighten the tension.

Divided We Fall is by no means perfect. There are moments when Hr*ebejk seems to overplay his hand, as though he's lost faith in either his material or his audience. The heavy-handedness of the title -- which states the film's position so explicitly that it might as well have been Good Czechs Everywhere Must Pull Together to Defeat the Nazi Oppressors -- is one minor cavil. Likewise the shot at the end of the opening credits -- of a terrified resident cowering before the Nazi flag -- and the vision of Marie's face superimposed on the Blessed Virgin Mary are a bit much.

But these are isolated moments in a movie that is otherwise gripping, thrilling and even funny without sacrificing complexity of character. Even the worst of Hr*ebejk's characters is given his or her due. When after the war a mother encourages her children to slap the face of a local Nazi leader who has been devastated psychologically by the loss of his family and physically by a stroke, we understand her vengeance but feel some twinge of sympathy for the man nonetheless.

"You wouldn't believe the sorts of things such abnormal times cause normal people to do," Josef remarks early on. He is referring to the abnormally awful things, but within Divided We Fall's two-hour running time, we also see some of the abnormally brave things they do as well.