Czech cinema used to be a big deal, until in 1968 the Soviets sent in the tanks. Some filmmakers emigrated (e.g. Milos Forman) and others went into internal exile (e.g. Jiri Menzel). However Communists also like movies. Some people even think the 1990s were a disaster for Central and East European filmmaking, because the death of their state-controlled movie industries. Nothing of the sort, of course. Admittedly there was a drop in output, but Czech cinema has done rather well for itself. It kept up its impressive record of Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations (to date 1966, 1986, 1991, 2000, 2003) and won in 1996 with Kolya.
This particular film is pretty good. It was one of those Oscar nominations and while I'd never rate it as worldwide best of the year, I've got no quarrel with it being a runner-up.
To get the obvious out of the way first, it's a Czech movie called Divided We Fall, set during World War Two. I was expecting snipers, death and Stalingrad-like horror. Nope. I was wrong. The protagonist is actually a middle-aged gentleman with a leg broken in three places, played by a lugubrious Czech actor (Bolek Polivka) who in real life has his own TV show. The war's most definitely taking place, but offstage. Polivka's character is shooting blanks in the bedroom department and in one scene shits himself. This is absolutely a story of civilians. There are no on-screen atrocities. The incidental music can be jolly. Of course the danger from the occupying Nazis is ever-present and very real, but that doesn't mean they're going for sturm und drang.
What it's about is the ordinary people. This isn't a black-and-white story of heroes and villains. That's interesting in itself, given that this is a country where even today historians struggle to tell apart the guilty and the innocent during wartime, yet Czech cinema has traditionally been almost Manichean in its view of that period. Moral ambiguities have been played down in the past... but not here. Polivka takes a job with the occupying Nazis and of course no one on the street will talk to him. He didn't want to do it, mind you. Meanwhile their best friend (Jaroslav Dusek) is an enthusiastic collaborator and has a German wife.
These should be villains, but it's not that simple. Polivka and his wife are also harbouring a Jew in their house, which of course will get them and probably their entire street executed should the Nazis find out. Dusek is a vulgar would-be rapist who doesn't have a problem with sending Jews to concentration camps, but he also thinks he's saving decent Czech people in his work with the Nazis and at times he's virtually a guardian angel for Polivka. His motives are dodgy, but that doesn't mean he won't save their lives. Compare that with Polivka's next-door neighbour, on the other hand, who becomes a proud leader of the resistance when the partisans arrive in 1945 and yet earlier had been a snoop who tried to turn in Polivka's house guest to the Nazis. Look out for that early scene where a starving David (Csongor Kassai) gets home, having escaped from a concentration camp, only for one of his former neighbours to bump into him and run off in search of Germans, shouting "Jew". Remember his face. You'll see him again.
The title's subtler than you'd think. That's pretty cool, actually.
The beginning's clumsy. It doesn't feel that way at the time, but in fact the film had been overrunning and those early montages are actually all that remains of a good-sized chunk of story and character development. You'll miss all that on first viewing. Polivka gets Dusek a job for a Jewish boss, who treats them well until the Nazis come for him and his family. Bye-bye. What's left of all this looks nice and I watched it happily enough, but it's barely plugged into the narrative.
WARNING: I'm soon going into spoiler-ish territory. It won't kill the film if you know what I'm about to start talking about, but it wouldn't hurt for anyone thinking of watching it to bail out now. In summary, this film is delicate, intelligent and an interesting piece of work. That should be enough. Anyone leaving now can come back to the review after they've watched it.
Okay, spoilers start here.
There's a Christ subtext. Polivka's character is called Joseph (Josef), his wife is Mary (Marie) and their Jewish lodger is called David, i.e. the Biblical ancestor of Jesus. Furthermore at one point Siskova tells the Nazis that she's pregnant, so if they don't want to get executed they have to make this come true. David fathers Mary's baby boy. This becomes downright magical realist in the final scene where Polivka walks past a group of people who'd died in the war, now resurrected and sitting together in the ruins, and shows them the baby. You don't need to know any of this to enjoy the film, but it's a peculiar subtext. I like it, but that's mostly because it's so loopy.
This film isn't trying to be a blazing masterpiece for the ages. Instead it's modest and good, with menace. It's dealing in moral ambiguities and the odd moment of understated existentialist humour, e.g. David's arrival means a problem with the pig. Note also that the man who suffers most in this film is the Nazi commandant who sends his own child off to die in the war and is last seen as a stroke victim. The film doesn't rub our faces in horror, but it's in no way downplaying the nastiness offstage and you can easily believe, for instance, that Kassai's David has escaped from a concentration camp. He's so gaunt! Look at those cheekbones. "She was given a club and told to beat our parents to death." It feels real and honest.
I keep seeing this being compared with Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, by the way, but mostly I think for the setting and subject matter rather than any similarity of tone. If it helps, the majority of the comparisons I've seen are rating this film as the better.