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'Divided We Fall'

Parable of hope: 'Divided We Fall' is a heroic Holocaust story

Friday, August 10, 2001

By BARRY PARIS Post-Gazette Movie Critic

The totality of Nazi crimes in World War II -- the Holocaust, above all -- can't be fathomed. The macrocosm is too horrific. Only in microcosm can we begin to understand, as all who visit Otto Frank's "Secret Annex" in Amsterdam know. Millions of pages of postwar reports and documents can never equal the power of Anne's little diary. Its spiritual triumph but human tragedy are palpable to this day, and take you to the brink of despair.

    'Divided We Fall'

RATING: PG-13 for mild sexual theme; subtitled

STARRING: Boleslav Polivka, Anna Siskova

DIRECTOR: Jan Hrebejk

CRITIC'S CALL: 4 stars


"Divided We Fall," by Czech director Jan Hrebejk, is a kind of fictional film equivalent that takes you to the brink of hope instead. "I do not believe in collective guilt," said the Holland-born Audrey Hepburn of her UNICEF work in Somalia, "but I believe in collective responsibility."

Czech mode, however, is different from Dutch -- or any other. The only World War II leader worthy of his name was King Christian X of Denmark, who wore the yellow star and smuggled out his country's Jews under Hitler's nose. Did the Nazis kill him for it? No way. He was invulnerable by virtue of his moral authority, as Pope Pius XII (and FDR and Churchill) would have been, had they cared. A single bombing raid to disrupt the rail lines would've saved thousands, but the Allies saw no "military" purpose for doing so. Czechoslovakia was the most sophisticated and democratic of all the occupied nations in central Europe, but Czechs and Slovaks did little to thwart the destruction of their Jewish population. With no leadership from their Catholic or Protestant religious leaders, the people and their consciences were on their own.

Typical of them are Josef and Marie (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova), no better or worse than anyone else in their small Czech town occupied by the Germans in 1943. Josef is disabled and depressed -- unable to fulfill Marie's deep desire to get pregnant, while she fends off the advances of boorish Horst (Jaroslav Dusek), a Nazi collaborator who curries her favor with contraband.

Joseph and Mary, get it? Into their manger -- actually, a hidden pantry -- comes David (Csongar Kassai), the only survivor of his deported and murdered Jewish family. Josef and Marie, like most Czechs, had persuaded themselves that Theresienstadt was what the Nazis said it was -- a "holding" spot for resettlement, instead of the transfer point for the death trains to Auschwitz. David, in desperate search of shelter, disabuses them of that notion.

Written by Petr Jarchovsky, based on his novel, "Divided We Fall" is not a war film, though it takes place in wartime. It is a film about human beings and fear -- a world in which every movement, every footstep, every knock on the door, every noise, every neighbor's sidelong glance, every odd flicker of light, every idle exchange of conversation, literally every moment of the day and night is filled with fear of disaster and death.

The terrible irony is that once they take him in -- and Josef takes a collaborator's job as a cover -- they can't let him leave! Josef and Marie become as ostracized as Horst, marked for postwar revenge. She gets them a temporary reprieve by pretending to be pregnant, but soon, when exposed, they'll be doomed -- unless the lie can be turned into truth.

On such points as this does the unique, redemptive brand of Czech tragedy meld with comedy, in the tradition of Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. Director Hrebejk makes use of a semi-slow motion device (shooting at 12 instead of 24 frames per second) to heighten the tense documentary nature of key scenes. But his primary tools are the brilliant performances of Polivka (looking like George Will, only nerdier) and Siskova (a wannabe madonna). Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film last year, it is beautifully fashioned from start to finish, down to the final musical detail of "Erbarme dich, mein Gott" soprano-violin duet from Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" during the credits.

Many Holocaust-related films are too brutally upsetting to be seen by young people. "Divided We Fall" is not, as its PG-13 rating indicates. It is in no way "typical" of the historical events (would that it were). But neither is it a mere fairytale. It has the truth of parable -- a parable of hope. It suggests that the vast majority of us are weaklings and cowards, but that perhaps weaklings and cowards make the greatest heroes.

It is Czech humanism and filmmaking at its best.

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