Waking the Dead

The utopian fantasies that dominated the imagination of the past century may be dead and buried, but the age's central cataclysm lives on. Czech director Jan Hrebejk's comic drama Divided We Fall is the third World War II film I've reviewed in the past three weeks—and summer has yet to begin.

A more complicated national allegory than our own Pearl Harbor, Divided We Fall is restricted to the home front—albeit a defeated one occupied by Nazis, administered by traitors, and populated by informers. Heroism in this context is radically existential. "You wouldn't believe what abnormal times do to normal people," one character remarks. Thus, without quite intending to, a childless couple—not insignificantly named Josef and Marie—wind up sheltering former neighbor David, the last surviving member of a Jewish family and an escapee from the Terezin concentration camp. Originally, he is to stay a single night; he winds up living in their kitchen pantry for two years.

The setup recalls the one dramatized in Andrzej Wajda's 1995 Holy Week. Like the Polish couple who take in a Jewish acquaintance, Josef and Marie put themselves at considerable risk. Indeed, their lives are already complicated by the unwelcome attentions of their friend Horst, a Czech of German background, who is openly collaborating with the Nazis and even less discreetly lusting after Marie. (The sweet and demure Marie is herself yearning for a child.) Unlike Holy Week, however, Divided We Fall is not concerned with the tormented relationship between Gentiles and Jews. The emaciated David is scarcely an exotic other on which his protectors may project their fantasies. The Czechs themselves have more pressing concerns, living as they are in a state of subterfuge.

Living in a state of subterfuge: Anna Siskova and Csongor Kassai in Divided We Fall
photo: Martin Spelda
Living in a state of subterfuge: Anna Siskova and Csongor Kassai in Divided We Fall

Details

Divided We Fall
Directed by Jan Hrebejk
Written by Petr Jarchovsky, from his novel
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens June 8

The Wide Blue Road
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas, and Ennio De Concini
Milestone
Film Forum
June 6 through June 19

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures
Directed by Jan Harlan
Warner Bros.
Walter Reade
June 12

When Josef and Marie clear space in the pantry by bringing out and cooking up the smoked pig they had concealed, they're afraid they'll be busted for hoarding. (Fortunately for them, Horst shows up to partake of the feast.) To protect their newly vulnerable position, the lazy, shambling, sardonic Josef feels compelled to join Horst in collaborating—or, at least, in pretending to. (It's one of the movie's jokes that this opportunism will ultimately be reversed.) Horst secures Josef a position assisting the dangerously volatile German functionary installed in the house once owned by David's family; in appearing to serve the Nazis, Josef precipitates the contempt of the same neighbors who would likely have turned him in for harboring a Jew.

Josef is caught in the middle. This realistically cautious, in some ways cowardly, hero—a nervous intellectual whose natural inclination is to regard all events with a head-ducking mixture of disdain, dyspepsia, and alarm—is the film's most complicated character. (Veteran actor Boleslav Polivka's graceful performance is remarkable for its nuanced reactions and subtle double takes.) In one of the movie's most pointed scenes, Horst coaches him on the importance of maintaining the "irreproachable loyal expression" of blank zombie docility.

Although Divided We Fall has its share of tense moments and close calls, Hrebejk is more adroit at choreographing the slapstick of extreme situations: David has emerged from his closet to nurse the bedridden Marie when panic-stricken Josef, suspicious Horst, and their oafishly drunken boss unexpectedly drop by for a visit. Maria's quick-witted daring in hiding David beside her under the down blanket presages the more radical strategy, devised by Josef, which requires that she be made pregnant in order to elude official attentions even more unwelcome than those of Horst.

This complication may sound cute, but Divided We Fall is not at all precious. In its compassionate absurdism and underlying dark humor, the movie seeks to reestablish contact with the Czech new wave. Even the most grotesque characters have their human traits (and vice versa). The main idea is that everyone is in a constant state of fear—emphasized throughout by the use of blurry slow-motion at moments of acute stress. Nor is this terror mitigated by the carnivalesque liberation with which the war ends. The arrival of the Red Army (along with Marie's child) raises the escalating farce to near hallucination and then hysterical optimism.

Trafficking in everyday miracles, Divided We Fall ends with a modestly visionary scene of reconciliation. Time stands still—but only for a moment. As deeply ironic as Hrebejk and Jarchovsky's evocation of national rebirth necessarily is, the movie inspires a longing to follow these vivid characters into the next horrific stage of the Czech century.


Rescued from the dustbin of history by the dedicated connoisseurs at Milestone Films, Gillo Pontecorvo's first feature, The Wide Blue Road (1957), receives its American theatrical premiere at Film Forum this week. A tale of struggling fisher folk, set on a rocky Adriatic island that suggests a vacation paradise waiting to happen, the film is a first cousin to the sort of Pop Front-era Warner Bros. drama that might have involved truckers or migrant workers, featured John Garfield, and had a happier ending.

The oddest thing about this movie, which Pontecorvo had at one point reportedly disavowed but has now reembraced, is its glamour. A committed leftist as well as a belated neorealist, the filmmaker had hoped to shoot The Wide Blue Road in black and white and use nonprofessional actors. His producers, however, demanded gorgeous postcard color and imposed the international stars Yves Montand and Alida Valli as the headstrong fisherman Squarciò and his incongruously elegant wife. Their good looks are echoed by their no-less-striking brood: a nubile starlet of a daughter and two hilariously tough little boys.

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