REVIEW: Band of Brothers? "Fighter" Dukes Out Survivor's Differences
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/8.23.01) --World War II as personal history is all over the filmic landscape now, engulfing movie theaters and televisions sets as completely as the Great Conflict once consumed all life and thought. Yet "Fighter," a new documentary about two Czechoslovakians who survived the Big One and lived to tell a filmmaker about it, made me think more about current ethnic conflicts, like the recent Balkans war and the current round of strife in the Middle East. I came away feeling that war will always be inevitable, because stubbornness, second-guessing and nationalistic and ethnic pride will always deem it necessary.
"Fighter," directed by Amir Bar-Lev, focuses on the friendship between Jan Wiener, a 77-year-old Jew, former POW, ex-Royal Air Force hero, and Arnost Lustig, 72, an intellectual writer who met Jan while both were enjoying their old age in America. The time is 1998, and Arnost, who would like to write a book on the colorful Jan, agrees to accompany Jan and Ber-Lev's film crew on a personal journey in Europe, revisiting Jan's painful memories of his odyssey through the Second World War.
Both men lost fathers early on in the conflict -- Jan's father committed suicide, and Arnost's died in a concentration camp, where Arnost spent his formative years. Jan's mother also died in a concentration camp. Jan gained the mental strength to survive, come what may, right after the Nazi invasion when he requested a visa from a Czech collaborator but was told he didn't need the four pairs of shoes he had listed on his inventory: he would die before he wore out one pair.
The collaborator became Jan's personal obsession. If he could somehow survive the war, he would come back to kill the man who had so insulted him. But Jan admits he did not have the courage afterward -- not even after entering the man's apartment and placing a pistol on his forehead. This was 1946.
Up until this point, Bar-Lev's journey has been a series of planes, trains and automobiles -- not to mention hotel rooms. This is Europe as seen on the Travel Channel. That is, until Arnost, an incurable romantic and, one suspects, not the most meticulous of writers, suggests that Jan had committed a sin by 'not' killing the collaborator.
"I can understand why you did not kill him,'' Arnost says, insinuating that Jan may have cost lives by not pulling the trigger. "But I do not agree with your decision."
"How can you say that when you were part of the same murderous organization?" Jan bellows.
Indeed, Arnost is criticizing with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight and arrogant moral view. And Jan is right: It turns out that Arnost's criticisms come from a very private place. He was, after the war, a member of the Czech Communist Party, until, he says, he realized that the supposedly boundary-less, proletarian party was also against the Jewish people (the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948).
Jan, who spent five years in a labor camp under the Communist regime, is touchy at the hint of Communist sympathies, and inflamed at the idea of Arnost judging his actions. It is perhaps these contradictions that form the basis of their constant bickering for the last hour of "Fighter," a war of words that escalates to the point where the men refuse to speak to each other.
Watching these two duke it out (just verbally, though Jan has a keen interest in boxing) is like watching Jerry Springer -- without the male model bodyguards. That is, here are a couple of men who have very similar backgrounds and beliefs arguing over their interpretation of events from five decades earlier, cruelly and without apology. Their behavior gives fresh insight into the root causes of other conflicts based on ethnicity -- wars many thought were history after World War II, but are just as prevalent today.
Jan takes us from the police station where he was interrogated to a recreation of his escape route, through Slovenia and into Italy, where he was captured and became a POW. Thankfully, Bar-Levin keeps newsreel footage to a minimum and instead lets Jan tell his own story, in modern times with the cold eye of the video camera chronicling the changes. Most appreciated, however, are clips from a Nazi propaganda film, made when it was clear the Germans were going to lose the war and would have to answer to a war crimes commission, called "The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews." Apparently, the laughing, playful and healthy looking Jewish people in the film were enough to convince the Red Cross, for at least a time, that nothing suspicious was happening in Third Reich territory.
Backed by a host of charitable foundations and getting completion funds from Next Wave Films, "Fighter" would have been better as a longer piece, with more of Arnost's experiences explored (in the press notes, Bar-Lev bemoans leaving Arnost's own escape story in digital wasteland, even though it was dramatized in the Czech New Wave film "Diamonds of the Night"). Perhaps a more detailed version can be pieced together for a cable run, or the DVD release.
But Bar-Lev has succeeded. If anything, his depiction of the personal friction between two men with a common past -- two otherwise very elegant, intelligent men -- shows that World War II is still being fought, and will continue to be fought and felt, until all the characters, from villains to victims, are dead.
[G. Allen Johnson is a contributing film critic to indieWIRE.]