It was a foregone conclusion that Czech director Jan Hrebejk’s Divided We Fall would receive a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 2001 Academy Awards, since it involves (at least peripherally) the Holocaust. Set a film, fictional or documentary, in Eastern Europe circa 1939-1945, and you guarantee respectful attention to your Artistic Statement. Only a child in peril or a wacky performing animal could elicit a more predictably Pavlovian cinematic response.
Kindly place your venom-filled pens back in their holsters—it is hereby dutifully and accurately noted that the Holocaust was an unspeakably profound tragedy. But bringing Nazis into your dramatic narrative can prove to be a serious mistake; you risk coming off like an opportunist cashing in on the availability of easy villains and even easier emotion. If you’re going to play the Hitler card, you’d better be damned sure it’s going to trump an ace.
For a little while, Divided We Fall looks like it might be holding a hand deserving of that Hitler card. The characters flirt with fascinating shades of gray, and the story peers into some compelling corners of the power-infused psyche. Then the whole thing turns into a mishmash of overwrought dramatics and slapstick comedy, teetering on the brink of offensive exploitation.
After brief prologues spanning the years 1937-1943, the film settles into a story focusing on a Czech middle-manager named Josef Cízek (Boleslav Polívka). Disabled in a workplace accident, Josef spends his days in his apartment muttering sullenly to his wife Marie (Anna Sisková) about the developments since the German occupation, like his former underling Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) becoming a well-connected Nazi sympathizer. Life’s a bitch when your kindly Jewish boss Mr. Wiener and his family are forced to abandon their home, and a weasel like Horst with his look-at-me-I’m-just-like-Hitler moustache is your underground source for sausage or medicine.
When he learns that a Nazi officer is about to move into the Wiener villa, Josef decides to make good on a promise to recover some of the family’s hidden jewels from the house. There he discovers the boss’s son David (Csongor Kassai), squatting after escaping from a camp in Poland. Josef brings David back to his apartment, where Marie insists that they hide him in their pantry. And in order to deflect suspicion from himself, Josef joins Horst in the service of the local Nazis.
To the credit of Hrebejk and his writing partner Petr Jarchovsky, Divided We Fall doesn’t bend over backwards to make Josef an accidental saint. While Marie acts out of genuine concern for David’s safety, Josef is concerned primarily with his own—if David is caught on the street, Josef himself could be executed for not turning him in. Josef teases his wife over her prayers that they may someday have a child, and he suspects her immediately of adultery when she concocts a cover story to avoid taking in a Nazi officer as a border. He’s a rather unpleasant human being with the good fortune not to be as unpleasant as the occupying Nazis, and Polívka plays him with the mundane creepiness of someone whose primary annoyance is the disruption of his routine.
Even more potentially intriguing is Horst, the one-time chauffeur and butt of his employer’s practical jokes reveling in his new status as part of the in crowd. In early scenes, Horst pouts over having been taunted by co-workers; he later uses his perceived position of power to act on his long-standing attraction to Marie. It is here that Divided We Fall comes closest to psychological depth—exposing the way small men use the power of a movement to make themselves larger by association.
But ultimately, Divided We Fall disintegrates into an exercise in cowardly filmmaking. Horst, we soon learn, isn’t really a trod-upon worm grasping for power—he’s just a basically decent guy cowed into working with the Nazis by his never-seen German-born wife. His miraculous transformation has a domino effect on the rest of the character arcs, as Josef’s actions to help his friend become less resonant as Horst becomes warmer and cuddlier. David, meanwhile, simply shudders in a sickly heap in the pantry, a great big symbol of victimhood where a real person should be.
Worse still, Hrebejk never resists a temptation to play a given scene with the heaviest possible hand. The moments of greatest tension are invariably shot in an ominous blue light and distorted film speed, sporting everything but an additional subtitle reading, “Look out, here’s where things get dicey!” The few attempts at humor unfold like the most leaden farce, while the one genuinely dark-humored conceit (the stoic Nazi whose sons are being killed off in battle one by one) is played as though Hrebejk doesn’t really understand it could be funny. Scarcely a moment in Divided We Fall goes by when it doesn’t lurch and halt like a car operated by a student driver.
Of course, it’s about the Holocaust, so we should all give its flaws a pass and embrace its good intentions. Such forgiveness might have been possible if Hrebejk didn’t go for the emotional jugular, which he does in a scene where David describes his sister being ordered to beat their parents to death to save her own life. It’s a cheap shot taken by a filmmaker with a very minor story to tell and the cynical savvy to give it the trappings of a movie with a very important message by setting it during a time of horrible atrocities. Once you get past the glossy surface and solid performances, you’re left with a director cheating for his big payoffs. He’s not just playing the Hitler card; he’s playing with a whole stack of Hitler cards, and he’s dealing from the bottom of the deck.
Divided We Fall (PG-13) HH Directed by Jan Hrebejk. Starring Boleslav Polívka, Jaroslav Dusek and Anna Sisková.