Divided We Fall (Musime si Pomahat) is the third film I’ve recently watched from director Jan Hrebejk, so I suppose you could say that I’ve been on a Czech film bender. After watching and throughly enjoying Beauty in Trouble and Up and Down also from Hrebejk, I came across Divided We Fall. This director has a sizeable number of films to his credit, but sadly (and predictably) not many are available with English subtitles. Divided We Fall begins in Czechoslovakia just before the war, and with just a few scenes the film establishes how life quickly shifts over the course of a few years in this small village.
The story focuses on childless married couple Josef (Bolek Polivka) and his delicate-looking wife Maria (Anna Siskova), and when the wealthiest family in the area, the Jewish Wieners are ‘relocated’ from their villa, they stay, temporarily with Josef and Marie in their tiny apartment. But this state of affairs isn’t for long, soon the Weiners are shipped out–supposedly to join other ‘relocated’ relatives in labour camps. The Weiners’ son, David (Csongor Kassai)mentions in parting that a postcard from a previously deported relative states that the labour camps are decent places that have their own schools. David is puzzled by the postcard, however, since it referenced Uncle Otto–a man who’s been dead for years.
The viewer, of course, knows exactly what these ‘labour camps’ really are, and while Josef and Maria blithely wave off their houseguests, we know this is the last glimpse of the Wiener family. But life continues in the village. More Jews are shipped out, and their possessions are confiscated–sometimes to mysteriously reappear in others’ homes.
With the shift of wealth and power in the village, some people prosper. Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) for example, even sports a Hitler-like moustache, and he manages to look and act like the perfect little fascist. Horst is a former workmate of Josef, and both men were at one time employed by the Wieners. Horst seems more than comfortable with the deportation of the Jews, and as a collaborator, he works for the Nazis and helps organise the deportations.
One night, an extremely emaciated and terrified David Wiener (Csongor Kassai) shows up in the village and seeks temporary shelter from Josef and Maria. Circumstances intervene, and it becomes too dangerous for David to leave, and so he remains locked inside a tiny room. It’s a nerve-wracking situation; there’s no one they can trust for help, and as the war continues, a sense of paranoia reigns in the town. As Horst points out, everyone is under suspicion and in one hilarious scene, he even gives Josef lessons in how to look like the perfect little fascist bureaucrat.
But, and this is where Divide We Fall is at its strongest, director Hrebejk in conjunction with screenwriter Jarchovsky (the same team created the wonderful films Beauty in Trouble and Up and Down) shows the complexities of human relationships in this character-driven drama. Even though the film is set in the direst of times, the story transcends the brutality of the Nazis and instead chooses to focus on the idea that human beings are also capable of decent behaviour. At the same time, the film doesn’t paint all of its characters in black and white. One neighbour for example, tuts in disgust over Horst’s collaboration with the Nazis, and yet this same neighbour is the first to sound the alarm at the appearance of a Jew. German-born Horst is initially shown extremely unsympathetically, but as the story continues his human side is revealed through his various interactions with others. Rather interestingly, even though Horst’s wife remains invisible, she represents a large, daunting force in Horst’s life. The Nazis remain in the background, for the most part, so instead we see the Czechs coping, surviving, collaborating and sometimes ratting on each other, and these scenes bring up the issues of judging others’ behaviour rather than examining our own.
The film includes a couple of jarring scenes, and the presentation isn’t always successful when gentle humour amplifies into comedy. But these minimal faults aside, this is yet another delightful film from Hrebejk, and the film’s final scene is perfect.