REVIEW: Surviving Victory; "Divided We Fall" Tells Truer Story of WWII
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 06.07.01) — Pardon me if I like “Divided We Fall,” the Oscar-nominated Nazi-occupation drama from the Czech Republic, perhaps a little more than I should. After sitting through three mind-numbing hours at the hands of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer (and isn’t it unbelievable how bad “Pearl Harbor” is with that kind of time, money and cast), it was, pardon the pun, liberating to watch a World War II movie in which characters are developed, plot lines are complex and the “true story” really is true.
That said, director Jan Hrebejk‘s film is sapped of energy and a bit overlong, with a droopy midsection sagging between a neat, economical setup and a well-executed denouement. It’s as if Hrebejk and his screenwriter, Petr Jarchovsky (who adapted his own novel), were so focused on their rich characters that they deliberately avoided suspenseful storytelling, even though the real-life story “Divided We Fall” is based on is inherently suspenseful in a way that only true stories can be.
But it is a good film, filtering through its tragicomic worldview how it is sometimes possible to get the most deeply involved in trouble simply by trying to stay out of it.
“Divided We Fall” is set mainly in the spartan apartment of Josef (Boleslav Polivka) and Marie (Anna Siskova), a childless couple who are trying to wait out the Nazi occupation by basically staying indoors as much as possible. Josef is sterile, and he hasn’t worked since an accident gave him a painful limp. Marie wants children, but their relationship is solid thanks to a resigned feeling of detente.
Their lives are soon turned upside down by the appearance of David (Csonger Kassai), the only surviving member of a neighboring Jewish family who has just escaped from a concentration camp. Unable to bring themselves to turning him over to the Nazis and certain death, they decide to hide him in their pantry.
With the local Nazi collaborator Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) breathing down their necks, Josef tries to divert suspicion by taking up Horst on a job offer, running errands for the Nazis. This doesn’t make Josef a popular guy around town, and it makes Anna miserable because Horst soon develops a near-fatal attraction to her.
As it must have been for many occupied European towns during the war, every situation in daily life is like a loaded gun. Early on, with David tucked away in the trunk, a German officer stops him along a deserted road — but it is to change a tire. Horst drops by with a nice, juicy pig — won’t find that in any ration book — but the neighbors, some of whom work for the local resistance, equate the smell of succulent, roasted pork as the stench of collaboration.
Hrebejk does a nice job of evoking danger in everyday activities, punctuating the tensest scenes of confrontation in a sort of sped-up strobe effect, not unlike the flickering of old silent films, but his biggest achievement is the remarkable shadings of his characters. In “Divided We Fall,” one of the most sympathetic characters is an occupying German officer who descends into alcoholism after his son is killed in battle. It’s a reminder that many Germans were as fed up with the war as everyone else.
Polivka brings a sort of lovable bearish quality to the socially shell-shocked Josef, and Siskova is delightful in a properly pixyish sort of way as Marie. But the most interesting character in the film is Horst, because we don’t quite know what to make of him. He is morally questionable, ugly and opportunistic, but he is hardly evil. It’s no accident that he speaks the title phrase in the movie; as played with a sort of fatalistic bravado by Dusek, Horst embodies all of the range of emotions and viewpoints of the neighborhood. Even when he’s collaborating fully with the Nazis, you get the sense he is aware that in the eyes of the enemy, he is worth 1/20th of a German soldier (“A German soldier is worth 20 Slavs and 100 Jews,” a Nazi soldier says).
“Divided We Fall” isn’t only about surviving war, but about surviving victory as well.