Soon, there will be two films in New York theaters about the experience of Czech Jews during the Holocaust and the Communist terror that followed. Focusing on the Slansky trial of 1952, Zuzana Justman’s A Trial in Prague acts as something of a corrective to the exuberant but oversimplified Fighter, which premiered last month. Fighter opens a can of worms it can’t handle when its titular subject castigates his close friend for having remained a member of the Communist Party while it sent thousands of Czechs—many of them Jewish survivors—to prison and even to the gallows on trumped-up charges. After one heated exchange, the matter is dropped, thus slighting both history and the relationship between the two men.
A Trial in Prague is an account of Fighter‘s great unmentionable, the Czech “show trial” in which the party’s general secretary, Rudolf Slansky, and 13 other high-ranking Communists were imprisoned and tortured into confessing treasonous acts that they did not commit. Eleven were executed. The others were sentenced to hard labor and only released in the mid ’50s, after Stalin’s death. The show trials were Stalin’s way of sending a warning to the Eastern bloc countries not to follow the wayward path of Tito’s Yugoslavia. But as Justman’s documentary points out, the Slansky trial had a specific anti-Zionist tilt; at least in part, it was the Soviet reaction to the Cold War alliance between Israel (which had been supported by the Czechs) and the U.S.
Justman weaves the harrowing story largely from first-hand accounts by widows and children of the condemned. At first, the information comes at you pell-mell; if you’re not well versed in the history, it could be hard to keep track of who’s talking. The newsreels of the trial, however, are chillingly effective—it’s clear the confessions are made under duress. As Justman’s editing calms down, she allows two voices to dominate the film. One is Heda Margolius Kovály, the widow of Rudolf Margolius—the idealistic Rudolf, who survived the Nazi camps, believing in Communism as the antidote for fascism and anti-Semitism, as opposed to the cynical Slansky, who signed death warrants for many unjustly accused Czech citizens before he was caught in his own web. The other is Lise Ricol London, whose husband, Artur London, survived hard labor to publish the first major account of the period: In prison he’d kept a diary, written on cigarette papers. Lise London was such a fervent believer in the Party that when her husband was arrested, she filed for divorce. It took a face-to-face meeting just before he was shipped to the labor camp to convince her that he was innocent. The film is as compelling for these painful details as for the tough-minded analysis that ties them together.
Bounce: Behind the Velvet Rope is Steven Cantor’s mindless, shoddy (lurching zooms, no color correction, an entire reel out of sync) depiction of some very big guys who work as bouncers in New York and London clubs. In the face of the filmmaker’s condescension, the bouncers manage to articulate varied perspectives on their job. Anyone interested in techniques for crashing hot parties, however, would be advised to look elsewhere.