Divided We Fall, one of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ s fellow nominees for the most recent Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a provocative Holocaust drama saturated with tension and streaked with dark comedy. Like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful and Peter Kassovitz’s Jakob the Liar, this seriocomic tribute to the human spirit illustrates how abnormal times invade and change the lives of rather normal people. Unlike these cinematic cousins, though, director Jan Hrebejk dwells more here on the complexities of personal relationships than the segregation of good and evil, and refuses to wallow in obvious sentiment as cowardice commingles with courage.
Josef and Marie Cizek (played by Boleslav Polívka and Anna Sisková) are a childless Czech couple in a small town occupied by the Germans during the last years of World War II. Josef is a sardonic couch potato who uses a leg injury as an excuse not to work and mocks his neighbors’ proven capability to bear offspring as “some twisted self-preservation instinct.” Marie is a loyal mate and housewife who reminds him that only apparent sterility keeps them from joining their neighbors’ procreative ranks.
Their mundane home life is often interrupted by unannounced visits by Horst Prohazka (Jaroslav Dusek), one of Josef’s former underlings at a warehouse who is now a boss and a Nazi sympathizer. While agents of the Third Reich are sniffing around town for Jewish “fugitives,” Horst uses his past links to Josef as a cover for attempting to sniff around Marie’s skirt.
Horst’s appearances escalate from irritating inconveniences (he likes to pound loudly on the Cizeks’ front door and pretend to be the Gestapo) to life-threatening intrusions when Josef hides David Wiener (Csongor Kassai), a Jewish escapee from a Polish concentration camp, in their secret pantry. Josef takes a job with Horst to distract him and German authorities from his risky role as Samaritan. It’s a ruse that alienates him from his neighbors and then demands an even more desperate sacrifice to fully defuse the volatile situation.
Divided We Fall is based on a true story. It is a sort of young man’s version of The Diary of Anne Frank told from both sides of the peephole. It has a horrific Sophie’s Choice sidebar, a gnawing sense of compassion and hope, and splashes of the absurd. It is about reluctant heroism in a time and place in which fear and the possibility of betrayal permeate even daily routines. It is also about the compromise of moral decisions during social and political maelstroms without forgetting, as Marie notes, “It’s one thing to be right and another to stand such things.”
Polívka is perfectly credible as the Czech loyalist who, in one incident, excretes in his pants when scared and in another puts his own life in jeopardy to save that of a wayward compatriot. When David announces he is going to leave town as the film progresses, I didn’t just hear Polívka’s sigh of relief, I could feel it on my face. Sisková is excellent as the wife who meekly fends off Horst but is not beyond an outburst or kick to the groin when circumstances demand.
Dusek steals several scenes as the oily opportunist who wears a swastika on his lapel and tries to teach Josef the “irreproachable loyal expression” he should muster when dealing with the Germans. David is also commendable as the pale, haggard refugee who reads Goethe in the glow of an oil lamp.
Director Jan Hrebejk filmed Petr Jarchovsky’s script at 12 rather than the standard 24 frames per second at times for a blurred effect that intensifies the drama and gives the night scenes an eerie edge. The soundtrack is an odd mix of Oktoberfest-like polkas and haunting Jewish tunes, and the Josef and Marie ties to a biblical childless couple are wisely kept low-key.
At one point Josef declares “This life is for shit” after having been told that a German’s life is worth 20 Slavs and 100 Jews. He asks rhetorically, “Could I have imagined I would be left out of all this?” My response: Yes. Couldn’t we all.