This Oscar-nominated film from Czech director Jan Hrebejk has an essentially familiar story, in which a family in an occupied land conceals a Jew from the Nazi authorities at great personal risk. But it presents the plot in an unusual way, making use of humor, sometimes of the slapstick variety, at the tensest moments, adding a sensual element to the central triangle, and utilizing a variety of technical tricks to give the film a highly stylized, often surrealistic appearance. “Divided We Fall” is also unlike many similar pictures in that it portrays its characters, even the heroic ones, as distinctly imperfect, subtly depicting them in shades of gray rather than the more easy and conventional blacks-and-whites.
The central couple are the childless Josef and Marie Cizek (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova), who occupy a small flat in an occupied Czech town. Josef, considerably older than his wife and unable to sire a child, had a good relationship with his former employer, a Jewish industrialist long since deported with his family; now unemployed, he’s befriended by a former subordinate, Horst (Jaroslav Dusek), who’s now working with the Germans and periodically provides contraband goods to the couple (though married, he’s also obviously interested in Marie). One night Josef finds David Weiner (Csongor Kassai), the son of his former boss, in the street, an escapee from a concentration camp; he and Marie decide to hide the young man in their pantry for the duration of the war. To divert suspicion from himself, Josef then takes a job with Horst, appearing to his neighbors to have become a collaborator, but when the two men have a falling- out and Horst plans to install a German official in their home, Marie announces that she’s pregnant, leaving the couple to devise a way to get her into such a condition. As the war nears its end and the collaborationist regime begins to deteriorate under pressure from Soviet invasion, the personal interrelationships get embroiled in the larger political and military changes.
This narrative, had it been played out in a straightforwardly documentary fashion, would have seemed awfully predictable, even–despite the enormous weight of the Holocaust–a bit trite. What rescues its familiarity is Hrebejk’s skill in mingling tragedy and comedy; a scene in which Horst’s untimely entrance into the Cizek household sends David scrambling into Marie’s bed, for example–which might have been tasteless in the extreme–is handled with considerable finesse. The performances of Polivka and Dusek are important in the mix as well. The former, looking vaguely like a thinner version of the rumpled, dissolute Robert Mitchum, beautifully captures Josef’s oddly lovable combination of obtuseness, pride, courage and fear; it’s a great turn. Dusek is equally good in portraying a shallow, insecure fellow who retains a shred of decency behind his pompous facade. Siskova is beautiful and subtly affecting, although her restrained performance doesn’t catch the eye as easily as those of the men. Kassai is suitably gaunt and reticent as Weiner. There are incisive supporting turns as well, but the picture is basically a four- character piece.
Perhaps the picture most comparable to Hrebejk’s is another Czech film, Jan Kadar’s luminous “The Shop on Main Street” (1965), in which a little tramp sort of fellow (Josef Kroner) is assigned as the gentile overseer of a button shop owned by an elderly Jewish widow (Ida Kaminska). Kadar’s work was more poetic and dreamlike, featuring black-and-white photography of almost searing intensity, and its combination of humor and pathos had a harsher edge; it also won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, as “Divided We Fall” did not (losing out to “Crouching Tiger, Hiddem Dragon”). Although the new film doesn’t match the earlier one, however, it’s quite affecting, powerful and (at times) funny on its own, and it’s well worth investigating.