Tag Archives: Nazis

Divided We Fall (2000)

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.

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Katyn (2007)

katynThe Polish film Katyn (aka Post Mortem, Opowiesc Katynska) begins appropriately in 1939 with two sets of Poles passing and fleeing in opposite directions. One group is fleeing from the Nazis and the other group is fleeing from the Red Army. Fleeing from one army sends the Poles slap bang into the other option–it’s the devil or the deep blue sea, and as I watched this scene I asked myself which side I would run to (or from)? If I were Jewish, I’d run to the Red Army, but what if I were a Polish Army officer? Which side would be the most likely to respect POWs?

Katyn from director Andrzej Wajda explores the horrendous true story of what happened to over 20,000 Polish Officers and civilians at the hands of the Red Army. The film tells the story mainly through the eyes of Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) who travels on bicycle with her young daughter, towards the Polish border and the onslaught of the Red Army. All the soldiers have been released but the officers are rounded up and held in make-shift camps. Here she has a very brief reunion with her husband, Polish Army officer Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski). She begs him to flee with her but Andrzej refuses. Instead he and his friend, Lt. Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra) are shipped out together to yet another camp.

The film follows Anna’s struggles to return across the Polish border and the years that follow. While Anna and many other Polish officer wives believe their husbands are still alive, news begins to trickle out that mass graves have been discovered in the Katyn forest.

Some scenes depict the Polish officers in the Soviet controlled camps waiting to be ‘shipped out’, and the plot follows both the Nazi and the Soviet propaganda surrounding the story as both sides blame each other for the slaughter and the bodies are dug up multiple times for evidence. The timeline of the mass murders becomes the crucial element–with the Soviets insisting that the officers were slaughtered when the area was under Nazi occupation and the Nazis insisting that the Poles were murdered by the Red Army in 1940.

At first the Nazis in occupied Poland pressured widows to sign statements incriminating the Soviets but when the Soviets reoccupy Poland they show propaganda films blaming the atrocity on the Nazis. And the world, already aware of the Nazi death camps accepted the news that even more atrocities had been committed by the Nazis.

The film’s narrative wavers about 2/3 of the way into the film as the characters we have followed are dropped and new characters are introduced and summarily squashed by the Bolshies as it becomes perfectly clear that under the Soviet-controlled regime, the families of Katyn victims had to endure a yoke of silence or bear the consequences…. Focusing on Poland, the film doesn’t explore the Allied involvement in the cover-up. Winston Churchill, for example, publicly blamed the Nazis but privately knew the Bolshies were responsible, and American reports were suppressed and destroyed. The film also does not include the fact that officers were not the only victims–policeman and boy scouts were also rounded up and exterminated. Those points aside, the enactments of the systematic murder of thousands of officers is accurately portrayed, and the result is a moving film in which the Polish people are show in the crossfire of two pathological, murderous powers. The overwhelming feeling is great sorrow for the victims and amazement that anyone survived this mess. The director was 14 years old at the time of the Katyn slaughter and his own father, Jakub Wajda was one of the murdered.

At the time of Katyn, the world was not yet aware of Stalin’s monstrous policies. I should add here that Katyn was Beria’s idea but it was an idea that certainly fit into Stalin’s Soviet model. According to author Orlando Figes in his book The Whisperers:

“Extraordinary even by the standards of the Stalinist regime, the Great terror was not a routine wave of mass arrests, such as those that swept across the country throughout Stalin’s reign, but a calculated policy of mass murder. No longer satisfied with imprisoning his real or imagined ‘political enemies’, Stalin now ordered the police to take people out of the prisons and labour camps and murder them. In the two years 1937 and 1938, according to incomplete statistics, a staggering total of at least 681,692 people, and probably far more, were shot for ‘crimes against the state’ (91 per cent of all death sentences for political crimes between 1921 and 1940, if NKVD figures are to be believed).”

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Dr Petiot (1990)

“It’s the age of villains.”

Dr Petiot (Michel Serrault) is a respected French physician living in Paris during the German occupation of WWII. His waiting rooms are packed with patients, but by night he runs a lucrative sideline by claiming to assist wealthy Jews who wish to be smuggled out of France to South America. The Jews who trust Petiot never leave France, and instead they meet their grisly deaths at his hands. In many ways, it’s a perfect set-up. His victims are supposed to enter an underground network Petiot has devised, and even the families of the victims aren’t in a position to contact the authorities with their suspicions.

Petiot is a bizarre character. He treats many of his poor French patients with no thought of payment, and yet at the same time he murders Jews for their money. His anti-Semitism is clear, and he needs no more justification than that. Primarily, however, Petiot is an opportunist. He deals with the French Gestapo, isn’t perturbed by the German Gestapo either, and he also traffics in Morphine. Petiot doesn’t seem to be bothered by the hardships others complain about. During an electricity blackout, for example, he says, “What I like about this war is being plunged into black night.” He seems to be quite comfortable in the dark shadows and tunnels of Paris. At night, he rides around on a bicycle with his cloak billowing out behind him, and there are visual elements of the vampire, Nosferatu here. Some of the anarchic street scenes are remarkable, and the social chaos underscores Petiot’s ability to conduct his murderous activities. The film emphasizes Petiot’s ghoulish side, and the demented, gleeful ceremonial manner in which he conducts each murder. The film is not graphic however, but the story is unavoidably nasty.

Michel Serrault as Petiot is incredible, and his portrayal of this strange character makes the film. Petiot is manic, demented, and explodes into rage at any small frustration. Petiot is also a chameleon with the brains to cover his tracks, and only a veteran actor like Serrault could carry off this complex role with such skill. He’s both amazing and horrifying to watch. For some reason “Dr Petiot”–a French language film with subtitles–seems fated to fade away, so if you’re a fan of French cinema, seek out a copy of this little-known masterpiece while you can. The final scene will haunt you for a long time to come. Directed by Christian de Chalonge.

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Verboten! (1959)

“We’ll build a democracy, even if it’s with Nazi bricks.”

Verboten!  from writer/director Sam Fuller, is cheesy, clumsy in parts and packed with patchy acting and terrible fake accents, but apart from all its problems, the film still carries a surprisingly timely message about the perils of occupation. When the film begins, three American soldiers approach a gutted German town under fire from a lone German sniper. The surviving wounded American soldier, Sgt David Brent (James Best) is hidden by a plucky German girl, Helga Schiller (Susan Cummings) who insists she isn’t a Nazi–and Brent finds this hard to believe–thanks to the portrait of Adolf that hangs in her home. Her young one-armed brother Franz (Harold Daye) isn’t keen on the idea of hiding an American, but Helga manages to keep Brent safe even when an amorous SS officer moves in too.

After the war, Brent decides to stay and marry Helga. His commanding officer tells Brent that he’s an idiot to marry a Nazi, and Brent insists that Helga’s different. Brent gets a job working as a civilian in the American administration of the reconstruction of Germany, and he marries Helga.

Meanwhile, German soldier Bruno Eckart (Tom Pittman) returns home and discovers that his entire family is dead. He too gets a job working with the American administration, but he uses his position to further his own personal gang of “Werewolves”–disgruntled former Nazis who establish a flourishing black market business and also sabotage the Americans efforts to rebuild. Bruno–who’s both a bully and a manipulator–manages to rope in the impressionable Franz into his operation.

Fuller uses his typical bold strokes here as both director and writer, and he’s right on target with many of his ideas. When it comes to showing the underlying prejudice on both sides, Fuller achieves his goal, and the film is at its best when showing the inherent problems of occupation. However, it would have been a good idea to get some real Germans in the lead German roles. The accents just don’t work. Many of the sets–especially in the early part of the film–seem to have been constructed on the idea of an American ghost town, and the first scenes are uncannily similar to a shoot out in a western. The German buildings are covered with slogans: such as “Heil Hitler” and giant swastikas, and these clumsy attempts at adding authenticity result in making the buildings look like fabricated Hollywood sets. Fuller fans won’t be able to resist catching this obscure title, but it’s far from his best.

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Mr. Klein (1976)

“The subject could well be a member of the Semitic race.”,

It’s WWII, and Mr. Klein (Alain Delon) is an affluent Parisian who lives–like a parasite–off the misfortunes of the Jewish population. He’s a well-heeled collector, and financially strapped Jews hoping to escape the Nazis, sell their treasures at a fraction of their worth to Klein. From his home–stuffed with paintings, jewelry, and various objects of art, Klein pretends to commiserate with his financially distressed Jewish visitors, but nonetheless, he drives home a hard bargain. To him, WWII is a profitable enterprise, and if some people suffer … oh well, at least he benefits.

One day, however, Klein’s carefree existence comes to a grinding halt when he receives a Jewish newspaper addressed to him. He sets out to correct this mistake, and promptly becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity and muddled bureaucracy. Once he’s labeled as a Jew, he discovers that it’s not so easy to become unlabeled, and suddenly just like all the Jews he’s looted, he too becomes a victim.

The film’s tension builds as Klein’s dilemma intensifies. This is a time when many tried to deny or hide their Jewish heritage, so his story that there’s another Mr. Klein somewhere else in Paris falls on deaf ears. This is also a time when Jews were rounded up en masse for shipment to the death camps. And as Klein cannot shake Jewish identification, he becomes increasingly more paranoid and obsessed with finding the real Mr. Klein.

Mr. Klein provides a different view of the eradication of Jews in WWII, and examines how one man–a parasite–tries desperately to avoid being labeled a Jew. And while this film is essentially Mr. Klein’s story, there’s also a subtle larger implication here regarding that portion of society that managed to ignore the genocide taking place under their noses. Unfortunately, at times the plot is confusing and this detracts from the film’s overall message. Directed by Joseph Losey the film is in French with English subtitles, and the DVD print looks gorgeous. If you enjoy Mr. Klein, I also recommend Dr. Petiot.

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