Film and TV

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 22 years after the end of the war, no less. Young director Jan Hrebejk 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 in 1937, Horst Prohaska (Jaroslav Dusek) and Josef Cisek (Bolek 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 Cisek and his wife, Marie (Anna Sisková); 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 manages to escape. He heads home and takes refuge with the Ciseks, in a hidden room behind a closet. The couple would be subject to immediate execution if David were found, and the situation is even more perilous since 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 suspicions 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 complications, which push the plot 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 -- with everybody play-acting and doors opening and shutting and the repercussions of lies multiplying geometrically -- as a drama. Remarkably, Hrebejk 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 Hrebejk 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, the rest of the time, gripping, thrilling and even funny without sacrificing complexity of character. Even the worst of Hrebejk's characters are given their 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 nonetheless feel a twinge of sympathy for the man.

"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 see some of the abnormally brave things they do as well.