Divided We Fall
REVIEW by Willard Manus

DIVIDED WE FALL picks up where such great post-war Czech filmmakers as Milos Forman and Ivan Passer left off. Director Jan Hrebejk and his partner/scriptwriter Petr Jarchovsky represent the contemporary Czech New Wave, one that has risen to prominence after the fall of communism. They previously collaborated on a popular musical, Big Beat, and have known each other since high school.

Together they have come up with a winner in DIVIDED WE FALL, a film that offers a compelling story, richly drawn characters and a remarkable grasp of life in all its complexities and ironies. Set in the war years, DIVIDED WE FALL is a study of what it takes to survive extreme hardship and danger. It mixes drama and comedy without ever becoming absurd or heavy-handed, and never allows itself to become preachy or moralistic, even when politics pushes to the fore.

Parts of DIVIDED WE FALL will remind viewers of The Diary of Anne Frank in that the main plot point involves a couple living under Nazi occupation who give refuge to a young Jew. David Weiner (Csonger Kassai) is the scion of a wealthy family which was shipped off to the camps by the Nazis when they confiscated the Weiner's house and factory. When David escapes imprisonment, he returns to his hometown and has a chance meeting with Josef Cizek (Boleslav Polivka), who used to work for David's father.

Josef and his wife Marie (Anna Siskova) are anything but the idealized good folk who take in Anne Frank. Josef is nervous, edgy and prone to hysteria; she's neurotically religious, frightened and resentful (largely because he's infertile and can't give her a child). At the same time, they hate the Nazis, have nothing against Jews, and are not without humanity and compassion. Risking death, they invite David into their apartment and secret him in an attic used to hoard food (there's a funny bit with a smoked pig that's been stashed here as well).

To distract the Nazis and their neighbors, Josef takes a job with Horst Prohazka (Jaroslav Dusek, in a memorable performance), a Nazi collaborator and former factory underling. Horst, who is married to an unseen, wildly ambitious German woman, does reprehensible things to advance himself with the authorities, such as confiscating property that once belonged to incarcerated Jewish families. Crude, noisy and nosy, he is seemingly the villain of the piece. Not only does he survive by sleazy means, he is smitten with Marie and keeps dropping by unannounced, trying to get her into the sack.

Marie fends him off as best she can, but cannot risk alienating him completely, if only because he wields such power over them. Horst, who has come to suspect that they might be harboring a fugitive, attempts to gain revenge on Marie by moving another Nazi collaborator, the aging Albrecht Kepke (Martin Huba), into her apartment.

Here the story achieves some sublime comic and ironic moments: in order to keep Kepke out, Josef tells Horst that Marie is pregnant and will need the spare room for the child. Horst, knowing that Josef is infertile, doubts her word and asks for proof. In order to save them all, Josef orders David to impregnate his wife.

To reveal what happens next would be to give away too much. Suffice to say that Hrebejk's account of these four linked lives-- the film's theme is the bonds of war--takes some surprising twists and turns. Character is revealed in new ways, weaklings become heroes and vice versa, despair gives way to hope, war to peace. All of this happens deftly and swiftly (Jan Malir's camerawork is magical), backed up by a fetching musical score.