movie review by
David Gurevich


(© 2001 Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.)

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Divided We Fall

What happened to Czech films? They were all the rage back in ‘68: Firemen’s Ball, Closely Watched Trains, Loves of a Blonde… the delicious mix of Mitteleuropa irony and the closely observed absurdity of human condition. The Soviet tanks was what happened, of course: some filmmakers left, like Milos Forman, while others, like Jiri Menzel, went into internal exile. We were reminded that there was still a Czech cinema a few years ago when Kolya won the Oscar for best Foreign Film. But a big chunk of the attraction of that candy bar of a film stemmed from the adorable child as its star… not fair. Now, finally, in Divided We Fall, directed by Jan Hrebejk, we have solid evidence that the Czech cinema is alive and well. Perhaps it was just in hiding – like David, a character in the film who escaped from the concentration camp; perhaps it had been there all along, and we simply did not see it. Now we do. Divided We Fall is the kind of movie that more than holds its own with Forman’s and Menzel’s master works. It was nominated for this year’s Oscars, and if it lost out to a Chinese fairy tale, this is a reflection on the venerable members of the Academy – not on the film itself.

The opening shots are not promising: all right, so we know it’s about the Nazis, Czechs-do-the-Holocaust – but too many characters arrive on the screen too fast, and leave just as fast. We need more time to acquaint ourselves with the prosperous Weiner family, who are first moved out of their villa in a small Czech town, and then shipped off to the Theresienstadt camp. Perhaps a few closeups of modern-day Sarahs and Moseses would help; a beautiful child playing a Moonlight Sonata; a jackboot on the Torah in the gutter… Not.

Right after this seemingly annoying sequence, we realize that this is not about the Weiners and the rest of the six million – this is about the rest of us. When Weiner Jr. escapes from the camp and shows up on the street of his hometown, begging shelter for one night only – what do you do? You know the penalty: execution on the spot. What do you do?

The question is poignant, for few of us are heroically inclined. Most of us are probably closer to Cizek, once the salesman for the Weiners’, who now uses an accident in order to stay at home and not work for the Germans. As played with perfect subtlety by a popular TV actor Boleslav Polivka, Cizek is a Czech Everyman, who adores his couch, his slivovitsa, and his shpikachki, or sausage. Cizek is a latter-date Good Soldier Sveik, who embodies the central Czech Complex that played out vividly in 1968: on the one hand, a nation of the people who accepted Russian tanks without putting up a fight, Hungarian-style – why endanger slivovitsa and shpikachki? On the other hand, it is the same predilection for quiet middle-class life that has kept the same Czechs safely inoculated against every political mania of the century, from Nazism to Communism.

And so Cizek willy-nilly shelters the poor Jew – mostly because he has already hesitated too long, and, should David be caught, won’t he, under torture, point to Cizek? Or, perhaps, he is really trying to avoid the anger of his better half – his lovely blonde wife Maria, who provides him with both the warmth of the home and the moral compass at the same time. Or, perhaps, underneath the comfort-loving bourgeois skin there is actually a conscience. Who knows what goodness lurks in the hearts of men? Hrebejk wont tell. It’s up to us.

And so David Weiner is "safely" ensconced in the Cizeks’ larder, struggling with the memories of his dead family (a rare moment where Hrebejk pushes too hard; I could have settled for less coherence and a more haunted look a la John Turturro in the otherwise forgettable The Truce). Most of the action is done by the Cizeks, who have to play the unbearable game of day-to-day survival. Thus the film turns into what I can only call a Holocaust sitcom. All the conventions of the genre are observed: a snooping Nazi friend shows up at inopportune times and puts the moves on Maria, poor Mr. Cizek takes a job with the Nazis to avoid suspicion and thus draws the neighbors’ disdain… but the stakes are different. Imagine Seinfeld and George paying with their lives for one of their faux pas. In the best Czech tradition, every scene is an amalgam of laughter and fear.

Just as the war draws to an end, a Nazi who fell out of favor with his superiors is about to be moved in with the Cizeks. I cringed: will Hrebejk go that far? Wouldn’t that be too much, having both the Jew and the Nazi in one apartment? No: Maria announces she is pregnant and needs the room for her baby. (Oof.) But they have not been able to conceive before – Mr. Cizek has low sperm count – what would they do? You’ve got it: the Jewish potency comes in handy. I was afraid the director would fall into the French-Italian menage a trois mode with attendant sexual ambiguities – but all Cizek wants is to survive, never mind where the child comes from! (Finally, the couple’s names, Jozef and Maria, come into play.)

In retrospect, the pacing of the film is excellent: starting slowly, settling into real-time sitcom mode – and then, as the Russian tanks come (liberators, this time), the film goes turbo. Perhaps too turbo. The last fifteen minutes are so stuffed with plot and consequence as to make your head spin: there’s blind vindictiveness as the Czechs turn on collaborators; bitter remorse from a next-door neighbor who refused David shelter – allegedly to save his Resistance friends (maybe); and a wholesale re-awakening of humanity as lions lie down with lambs. I gripped the arms of the seat and savored this roller coaster ride. The director had laid the basis with superb skill – except for the final scene. Emotional soaring and diving do not daunt me, but symbolism ex machina makes me reach for… well, all right, I’ve had a perfect hour-fifty-nine of laughter and tears and fears out of a two-hour film, and – as Joe E.Brown said in Some Like It Hot, and Hrebejk reminds us in this film – no one’s perfect. You must have generosity of spirit, or else Divided We Fall.

[rating: 4; of 4 stars]