Like “Life Is Beautiful” — another great foreign film set during World War II — the Czech picture “Divided We Fall” portrays the ability of humanity and decency to overcome all evil.
Written and directed by Jan Hrebejk, this 2001 Academy Award nominee (and sure winner, had it not been for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) focuses on Josef Cizek (Bolek Polivka), a tired, middle-aged clerk trying to scrape by in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia circa 1943. His loving wife Marie (Anna Siskova) cannot conceive, and Josef says he wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world anyway. He is ill and worn-out and altogether tired of things.
One night he happens across David Wiener (Csongor Kassai), a Jew without papers in need of a place to hide. David used to be Josef’s boss, before the war; his family by now is almost certainly dead in the camps. Josef takes pity on him and holes him up in his pantry, Anne Frank-style, simultaneously terrified of what will happen if the Nazis find him.
Josef and Marie are surrounded by “collaborators and finks,” including another co-worker, Horst Prohaska (Jaroslav Dusek). Horst is crude, unkind, frivolous and boorish, and his mustache looks like Hitler’s. His feelings toward the Jews are probably no harsher than most people’s, but he has no problem adopting Nazi philosphy as his own. Anything to be cooperative, after all.
That is the issue here: United we stand, divided we fall. Josef may have strong convictions about saving David from the Nazis, but how much of his own neck should he be willing to risk on that point? How much can Horst really be blamed for doing whatever is necessary to save his family? And how will their current cooperation come back to haunt them when the Russians run the Germans out of town and start hunting Nazis for sport?
The lead roles are performed with great compassion. Josef is cranky but likable; Horst is a jerk who turns out to have redeeming qualities; Marie is understanding and wonderful. The characters live and breathe in the film more than most. Heck, I know real people who don’t seem as natural as these fictional ones.
I invoked the spirit of “Life Is Beautiful” earlier, and I find the connections intriguing. Both films use the Holocaust as a backdrop for a personal, character-based story. Neither film is really “about” the Holocaust, but rather the triumph of the human spirit in adverse circumstances, with the Holocaust being the most adverse circumstances most people can think of.
Roberto Benigni’s Italian masterpiece has more humor, but it can be found in “Divided We Fall,” too. More than that, though, there is an optimistic spirit throughout the film. One particular scene near the end puts Josef in a position of extreme peril, but the mildly jaunty musical score reassures us that the film is not going to wander off in unknown directions. Good will win, and all of us — character included — will gain a new lease on life.
A- (1 hr., 57 min.; Czech with subtitles; )