Would you have the courage to hide someone from the Nazis during World War II? It’s a question that I’ve often asked myself, because the Holocaust still feels very present here in central Europe. Just down the road from my apartment, in the park on Náměstí 28. října, there is a memorial fountain dedicated to the Jewish and Romani victims from the city. In the summer, Roma children will play in the fountain, bringing that dedication into sharp focus across the decades. I’ve also been to Auschwitz, and I’ve spent some time in Bosnia, talking to people who survived another genocide.
So I’ve asked myself the question, and ten years ago my answer would’ve definitely been yes, I’d hide them. Now though, the answer is more troubling – now I have a family of my own, I’m not sure I would be brave enough to risk my children’s lives to harbour someone else.
This moral question is the central premise of Divided We Fall, Jan Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated black comedy. Bolek Polívka and Anna Šišková play Josef and Marie, a childless couple who are forced into that life or death dilemma when David (Csongor Kassai), Josef’s former friend and boss, escapes a concentration camp in Poland and makes his way back home…
The couple takes him in and hides the fugitive in their secret pantry, originally intended for hoarding extra provisions under German occupation. They are anxious about David’s presence in their house, and don’t trust their neighbours, and rightly so. In an earlier scene, elderly Franta (Jiří Pecha) from the house opposite didn’t hesitate to try turning David over to the Nazis when he was begging for help. It also doesn’t help their nerves that Horst (Jaroslav Dušek), a dimwitted former colleague who was once beneath both Josef and David, keeps dropping by.
Horst is now a willing Nazi collaborator, tasked with evicting Jewish families from their homes, and is giddy with the feeling of authority that gives him. He still values Josef and Marie’s friendship but also takes pleasure in abusing the little power he has over them. He also clearly wants to get into Marie’s knickers and isn’t shy about showing it.
Further complications arise when, on a day out in the countryside, Horst tries to force himself on Marie. She manages to fight him off, and to save his feelings a little tells him she is pregnant. Unfortunately, this coincides with Josef’s visit to a doctor and finding out that he’s infertile. Now the lie has been told, they need to find a baby from somewhere…
Divided We Fall is a gripping and compassionate comedy-drama from Hřebejk, on a roll after scoring a hit with perennial favourite Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) the previous year. He opts for a broadly comedic tone, which mostly aids the drama where a more harrowing approach might have made the film too wearying. That’s not to say the ordeal of David and his family – usually recounted to Marie in conversation – doesn’t pack an emotional punch.
Unusually for a Czech film, Divided We Fall moves forward with a real sense of urgency, with a distinct three act structure. There are some almost unbearably tense scenes, played with a delicate edge of humour that supplements the peril nicely.
Hřebejk is ably assisted by fantastic work from his principal cast. Polivka is outstanding in a natural yet carefully nuanced performance as a fundamentally good man who has his flaws and foibles. Josef is grouchy and deadpan, but you can see each decision and setback play across his face, along with the fear of capture. Šišková is his equal – she won the Czech Lion award for her performance – as a woman who is devoted to her husband but frustrated at their inability to have children. She’s a religious woman and a dedicated homemaker, but there’s also a quiet fire burning within her, and she’s resourceful and capable of looking after herself in a tight spot.
Kassai has the least showy role as David, but looks suitably pensive and haunted as a man who’s lost everything, but is driven by his survival instinct anyway. These three relatively realistic and low key performances leave plenty of room for Dušek to cut loose as the odious Horst, an enthusiastic bootlicker with an oily combover and a comically small Hitler moustache.
You get people like Horst in all walks of life, but having worked in retail, I think I’ve encountered more than most. Little men with a big bunch of keys and a clipboard, tipsy with the power these emblems of nominal authority gives them. They’re ruthless and grovelling enough to hoist themselves a few rungs up the ladder, but too stupid, scared and unimaginative to do anything positive with that responsibility once they’ve got it. Horst is over-the-top, but he’s also acutely accurate. It’s also what makes him a scary character – in ordinary circumstances Josef and Marie would have nothing to fear from him, but now there’s always the doubt that he might be petty or spiteful enough to report them now he has potentially lethal leverage on their lives.
For all its fine qualities, Divided We Fall is far from perfect. Hřebejk’s decision to slow the frame rate down during dramatic moments is a total misfire, tending to distract rather than heighten tension – at first, I thought my DVD player was on the blink.
The story is also worked out to within an inch of its life. This really becomes noticeable in the last act when, during the chaos of the Russian liberation of the country, about five characters each need to make a moral choice is as many minutes. It’s almost as if Hřebejk and his co-writer Petr Jarchovský are worried that the audience might miss the point.
The comedy is cranked up in the final reel, giving the film a farcical tone when a more dramatic approach would be more effective in driving the point home. As a result, the finale is the weakest portion of the film.
Despite the hectic and tonally strange conclusion, Divided We Fall is still a modern Czech classic.