Divided We Fall

Until Roberto Benigni broke—some would say shattered—the mold with Life Is Beautiful, films about the Holocaust always worked from a limited palette, adopting a predictable tone of grave seriousness and moral certainty. While a remarkable number of great features (Schindler's List) and documentaries (Shoah, Night And Fog) have been made on the subject, they still work within narrow, proscribed boundaries, restrictions that are antithetical to art. A bold, unsteady comedy about resistance and collaboration in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, Jan Hrebejk's Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall renews the tradition of humanist absurdity that pervaded Czech cinema in the '60s. Like Benigni's film, it risks, and occasionally achieves, tastelessness and false sentimentality, but only as a consequence of an abiding conviction that all people are capable of decency, malice, courage, and cowardice under wartime duress. In a short, crisp succession of vignettes over the opening credits, each jumping ahead two years from 1937 to 1943, Hrebejk reveals the country's changing mood like a stop-motion photographer. When he finally settles on the face of Csongor Kassai, the sole person in a Jewish family to survive the concentration camps, it has abruptly transformed from fleshy and warm to pallid and emaciated. Out of apathy as much as bravery, gentile Boleslav Polívka and wife Anna Sisková agree to shelter Kassai, the son of Polívka's former employer, from Nazi occupants and sympathizers in the neighborhood. In addition to the ever-present threat of raids on their apartment, the couple contends with their "friend" Jaroslav Dusek, a loathsome collaborator who wears a swastika pin on his lapel and models his mustache after the Führer's. The melodrama and farce in Divided We Fall never mesh comfortably, because the presence of one cheapens the other, most notably in a crass scene in which Kassai hides from an amorous Nazi officer by leaping into bed with Sisková and offering his hand to be kissed. Hrebejk makes other crucial missteps, too, like introducing a Biblical theme—at one point, Sisková (as "Marie" to Polívka's "Josef") has her face superimposed on a picture of the Virgin Mary—and filming action scenes at a distracting 20 frames per second. But once the war takes a turn, the characters respond in fascinating and unexpected ways to new and equally perilous forces of change. As the improbable lynchpin to Hrebejk's story, Polívka's understated performance is key to the mass of moral contradictions that swirls around these events and the people ensnared in them. Defying the tradition of Holocaust movies, Divided We Fall makes passing judgement on anyone involved an impossibly elusive task.

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