Published June 1, 2001
Divided We Fall by Jan Hrebejk, adapting a novel by Petr Jarchovsky is a very Czech film: charming, warm-hearted, funny, humane and philosophical—a velvet revolution sort of movie. Set before, during and just after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, its characters are all humble, flawed but decent folk coping as best they can with the horrors all around them. No one is really aware of making hard choices, or the choices come too quickly to be agonized over. But in the end a virtuous circle of right choices, not always made for the right reasons, creates a bulwark of humanity against the engulfing tide of savagery on both sides as the war draws to an end. When one character appeals to another by exhorting him to “Be human,” we reflect that the film itself takes this advice.
The story centers around Josef (Boleslav Polivka) and Marie (Anna Siskova) Cizek. In three short vignettes ahead of the main title we learn that Josef worked before the war for the Jewish Wiener family. When with the Nazi occupation the family were taken to Thierienstadt, thinking that they would soon be back, Josef agreed to keep an eye on their posh villa for them. He also was friendly with, if slightly contemptuous toward, another former employee, Horst Prohazka (Jaroslav Dusek), now become a minor Nazi party functionary. Young David Wiener (Csongor Kassai) bribes a guard, escapes from the concentration camp and returns surreptitiously to his home town. “I have lived here all my life,” he explains. “I thought someone here might help me.” But the first person he appeals to, Frantisek Simacek (Jiri Pecha), tries to turn him in, reminding him (and us) that the Nazis will execute everyone on the street if he is caught.
The film proper begins as Josef, dutifully making his rounds at the villa, encounters David hiding out there. Knowing that a German family is to move in the next day, he agrees to hide the fugitive in the Cizek pantry. Josef is very far from being the heroic type, and in fact he soils himself at the very thought of the danger he is exposing himself and his wife to. But he can’t say no to David’s appeal. And, just to make his undertaking even more hazardous, Prohazka keeps dropping in on them unexpectedly—partly in the hope of finding the attractive Marie alone but also to argue with his friend about the progress of the war and to assure him that Hitler will win. In order to avoid suspicion, Josef allows Prohazka to persuade him to take a job with the local Nazi party under the new tenant of the Wieners’ villa, one Albrecht Kepke (Martin Huba).
His absence allows Prohazka to romance Marie, who is a devout Catholic and puts up a stiff resistance in spite of her new suitor’s power as a Nazi official. He confides in her that it is really his ambitious wife who has made him a Nazi, and that he doesn’t believe in it himself. Meanwhile, Josef is discovering from the local Nazi doctor, a specialist in sterilizing gypsies, that the reason he and Marie cannot have children is that he is infertile. When the rejected Prohazka attempts to billet the now-disgraced Kepke, whose son has been shot as a deserter on the Eastern Front, on the Cizeks. Marie, not knowing of her husband’s test results, says that she is pregnant, and so they will need the extra room. With the realization that only an actual pregnancy will prevent discovery and death, comes more and more evidence that the Nazis are losing the war and that their neighbors, especially the Simaceks, are more and more resentful of the Cizeks’ apparent cosiness with party officials.
It is this dire situation which precipitates a sort of La Ronde of moral choices. At the film’s climax, each character is presented with what seems a terrible dilemma: Will devout Marie allow herself to be impregnated by David to save her husband and herself? Will Prohazka save David and the Cizeks from his fellow Nazis? Will Cizek then save Prohazka from the resistance fighters? And will Simacek, as head of the local resistance acquiesce in Prohazka’s rescue? And will David, in turn, decline to expose Simacek’s attempted betrayal of himself four years before? The answers are not hard to guess. People are required to risk a lot to “be human,” but in the end nobody is called on to pay any very high price for his humanity.
The ending seems, to my taste, rather facile, even touchy-feely. And, of course, it doesn’t help when the new baby—whose parents are called Joseph and Mary—is taken out and paraded through the rubble of war’s aftermath. Just a touch heavy-handed, don’t you think? Still, it is a nicely made picture, and the combination of black comedy with a horror that stays mostly off-screen is tastefully accomplished. One of several examples comes as David, newly installed in the cramped pantry with a dead pig hanging up by its heels, overhears the Cizeks in the next room quietly talking about “getting rid of this problem.” Thinking that “the problem” is him, he must be terrified of betrayal. Then he hears them say: “We’ll have to eat it” and realizes that they are talking about the pig, also contraband, which they know is no proper roommate for a Jew. The combination of gentle humor and touching sensitivity is typical.