Anti-heroes of our times

Divided We Fall
Starring Boleslav Polivka, Anna Siskova, Jaroslav Dusek and Csongor Kassai. Directed by Jan Hrebejk.
Rated 4.0

Divided We Fall, the wry, the offbeat World War II drama, was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and some commentators feel it would have won in any year that didn’t also have Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for competition. True enough, this Czech production does have the sort of qualities, big subject and warmly emotional approach, that customarily get Oscar’s respect.

Fortunately, Jan Hrebejk’s film has more than those Oscar-friendly, feel-good dramatics going for it. At its quirkiest, it’s a morosely droll tragicomedy about Czechs trying to survive the German occupation and the various moral and political ambivalences of their fellow countrymen. There are some particularly lively and incisive ironies in the film’s picture of how much the pro-Nazi Czechs and the anti-Nazi Czechs had to depend on each other.

The story centers on Josef and Marie Cisek, a childless married couple who, by accident, become the protectors of a young Jew, a former neighbor who has escaped from a death camp. The persistent attentions of an old acquaintance (the mercurially buffoonish Jaroslave Dusek) who has risen to new prominence under the Nazis creates dangerous complications in all this, and it just gets worse when he tries to draw Marie into a love affair.

Josef (bespectacled Boleslav Polivka) is not blind to what his menacingly helpful “friend” is up to but chooses to look the other way, in the interests of survival. The combination of suspenseful resistance drama and slow-motion bedroom farce gets even more convoluted when it becomes necessary for Marie (Anna Siskova) and the sequestered fugitive (Csongor Kassai) to have a love affair, with not only Josef’s blessing, but his fierce insistence as well.

It’s a bracing picture of resistance to those Nazis emerging from practical exigencies and happy accidents rather than from moral and political principles. The drama is marked by frantic terror and desperate survivalism, with farce and absurd detail always leaking in. But its chief product is a poignant anti-heroism, a scrappy temporizing that is noble and clumsy at the same time.

Jan Malir’s cinematography blends realist grunge with ecstatic lyricism, and that mixture is crucial to the film’s deceptively casual emotional impact. On the surface, the thing looks like a generic example of the prestigious historical drama, but the offhanded "Bohemian" humor that looms so large in the Czech tradition of filmmaking is increasingly evident.