World War II has provided inspiration for movies for over 80 years now, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of incredible tales. Sometimes I wonder, though, when I see a film as weak as Once Upon a Time in Paradise, whether the well is drying up and people are starting to run out of ideas.
That may seem unfair on the source material, Josef Urban’s novel and the true story that inspired it. It sounds like rousing stuff on paper – a talented rock climber hides from the Nazis in the wilderness, evading capture for years – and maybe that is where it should have stayed. It was a similar situation with the Laurent Binet’s page-turner HHhH – an intensely gripping read that spawned two insipid film versions. Maybe not every book needs a movie adaptation.
After a Saving Private Ryan-style bookend we meet Josef Smítka (Vavřinec Hradilek, an Olympic medal-winning canoeist in his first film role) hiking in the Tatras with his best friend Heinrich (Petr Smíd). They are on their way to tackle the Gerlach Peak, the highest mountain in the range. Along the way, they spot a beautiful young woman swimming naked in an alpine lake.
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The woman turns out to be Vlasta Brázdová (Vica Kerekes), a well-known writer and accomplished climber who is married to a much older man, the possessive painter Ota (Miroslav Etzler). Josef – or Joska to his friends – is instantly smitten. When the two friends run into trouble on the mountainside, it is Vlasta who abseils to rescue them…
After recovering from their injuries, Joska persuades Heinrich to accompany him to Prague, where he seeks out Vlasta. That doesn’t play out too well, but she seems to return his affections. Meanwhile, the boys continue their adventures in the Bohemian Paradise (Český ráj), where a famed German climber Horst Gerke (Jan Budař) saves Joska’s life. The three become fast friends and climbing partners.
Soon enough, the Nazis march into Czechoslovakia. Joska has a moment of glory, conquering a tough pillar of rock that only German climbers had summited previously. The friendship can’t survive the occupation of the country, as Horst goes off to join the Waffen-SS and Heinrich narrowly escapes the draft thanks to an injury from an earlier climbing accident. Joska is also enlisted but refuses to serve the Third Reich, and does a runner to the Bohemian Paradise he loves so much to hide out instead.
Living off-grid under Nazi occupation is tough and dangerous, but Joska is up to the task. He survives off the land and packages of goodies brought to him in secret by Heinrich. He sets up home in a pretty sweet cave which he lights with dozens of candles, making it look a bit like the vampire lair in The Lost Boys.
Vlasta – who by now has fallen in love with Joska – visits him too and they begin an affair. They combine their passion for climbing with sex in very dangerous and uncomfortable looking spots, like on top of a 200-foot-tall sandstone pillar.
This moment is preceded by one of the corniest lines ever as they reach the top of the aforementioned geological outcrop –
Vlasta: There’s no way to go any higher.
Joska: But we need to go higher still…
Cue a sex scene on top of a very tall lump of rock. All that’s missing is a sax solo. Maybe they should have seen if the sexy sax man from The Lost Boys was available too.
Needless to say, the paths of Joska and Horst will cross again, with far less bonhomie than before. Can our intrepid mountain-climbing hermit stay out of the clutches of the SS?
This story may even have made for a decent film if it was made by someone else with a different script and another cast. Even at 98 minutes, the film feels padded out, and the trio of directors – veteran Croatian helmer Lordan Zafranović, first-timer Peter Pálka and documentary filmmaker Dan Krzywoň – seem to have little notion of how to bring the story to life. Every dramatic beat falls flat, every potentially suspenseful moment feels abbreviated, and the romance sputters rather than sizzles. Even the majestic photography of the Tatras and Bohemian Paradise gets repetitive after a while, with little variation in the shots.
Much of the blame must lie with the screenplay, which gives the actors absolutely nothing to get their teeth into. The best you can really say about their performances is that they are earnest and photogenic. Champion canoeist Hradilek looks the part with his athletic build, but as an actor, he seems a little lost – I’m tempted to say that he’s up a peak without a paddle. Kerekes gets to look lovely again but little else and Smíd spends the movie looking serious and/or concerned. Jan Budař as Horst, with his wooden leg and obvious evilness, is one step away from an ‘Allo ‘Allo! Nazi.
Like I said previously, the story for Once Upon a Time in Paradise sounds OK on paper, and that is where this tale should have stayed. It’s not exactly awful but, in some ways, it is even worse – it is just so utterly meh.
Once Upon a Time in Paradise is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.