Divided We Fall
2000, PG-13, 122 min. Directed by Jan Hrebejk. Starring Martin Huba, Jiri Kodet, Csongor Kassai, Jaroslav Dusek, Anna Sisková, Boleslav Polívka.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., July 27, 2001
It's commonplace enough for well-intentioned filmmakers to tell stories of simple heroism during the Holocaust -- stories about flawed people attempting in some small way to hold back the juggernaut of chaos steamrolling across Europe. The challenge is to get the balance right, neither diminishing the horrors with crowd-pleasing mawkishness nor drowning in fatalism, diminishing the possibility of basic human decency to assert itself in the midst of mayhem. Czech writer-director Hrebejk succeeds at this task by firmly locating his Divided We Fall in the tradition of the Czech New Wave, which mixed farce plots with a tragicomic tone and political themes and featured Everyman heroes who are thrust into the limelight of history and survive (or not) by dint of sheer serendipity. (In the West, Jiri; Menzel's Closely Watched Trains, from 1966, is perhaps the best-loved example of this tradition, but Milos Forman is its best-known practitioner.) This approach sidesteps the constraints of genre and treats its subject matter prismatically. It's a breath of fresh air, especially in a summer of burly, unrelenting studio "event" films, with their marketing-driven production ethos and rigid conventionality. The story begins in 1939, as the Wiener family is unceremoniously booted from their stately villa by the occupying troops. After Wiener's employee Josef Cizek (Polívka) reassures the family's son, David (Kassai), that it "won't last longer than a few months," the film cuts ahead two years, to a time when the Wieners are being relocated to Poland. The Wieners' villa has been "cleaned and sterilized" for its new occupant, a Nazi loyalist (Huba). Cizek and his wife Marie (Sisková) are stuck in a state of moral inertia, stymied by their apparent infertility and noisome visits from Horst (Dusek), a unctuous neighbor who flaunts the valuables collected during his work in the confiscated-goods department of the SS office. But Cizek is jolted into taking a side when David escapes from his camp. At Marie's urging, David hides in the couple's larder (displacing a contraband pig in the process), and the Cizeks must keep him hidden from Horst's prying eyes. For most of the film, Hrebejk plays the situation for comedy; two or three set-pieces are worthy of a door-slamming Feydeau farce. Yet each set-up is just as suspenseful and sinister, and the humor doesn't attempt to leaven the fate that will befall all three conspirators if their ruse is discovered. Cizek is a particularly engaging Czech New Wave-style schlemiel, with a weary Basset-hound face and a seeming powerlessness against fate. Yet by film's end, his actions will affirm the ability of even the most ordinary men and women to be heroes, and the closing image is an emotional stunner. This a deeply humane and affecting movie, surprisingly gentle in spite of its black-comic tinge, and without the slightest hint of schmaltz. The only real drawback is Hrebejk's use of a slow-motion technique that's apparently meant to recall the golden days of silent film, but which distracts from the action and overstates his point.