In the Shadow (Ve stínu) – David Ondříček, 2012

Ve Stinu 2012 In the Shadow

 You can watch In the Shadow (Ve stínu) right HERE with our View on Demand partners Eyelet

Around the time U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was fervently whipping up fear of Communism during the Red Scares of the 40s and 50s, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was conducting witch hunts of its own. The purpose of these show trials was twofold – to trick citizens into believing that the country was under threat from real and imagined enemies, and to frighten the populace into staying in line while the regime consolidated its power. Over 250 people were executed as a direct result, while many others were incarcerated or sent to work camps.

In the Shadow is a sombre paranoid thriller set against this backdrop of fear and intimidation, in the run-up to the devaluation of the country’s currency which left many Czechs and Slovaks facing financial hardship.

It might seem churlish to call it a paranoid thriller when the regime really was oppressing, torturing and vanishing people, but I mean it in a positive sense. The film is in the tradition of the classic American paranoid thrillers of the 70s, like The Parallax ViewThe Conversation or Three Days of the Condor. It also recalls Chinatown with its period setting, noir-ish touches and a larger public scandal running in the background. And, in evoking the Hollywood style, it plays more like a straightforward thriller than a typical low-key Czech movie. With more violence, too.

The film opens on a dark rainy night where we meet with two small-time crooks as they break into an office and rob a stash of gold and jewels from a safe. It seems a fairly straightforward case for Captain Jarda Hakl (Ivan Trojan), the methodical detective assigned to investigate. However, a planted clue leads him to another “suspect” instead, a middle-aged Jewish chap named Kirsch (played with hunted intensity by Miroslav Krobot).

Hakl smells B.S. straight away as Kirsch’s alibi holds up – he was locked up in a drunk tank on the night of the robbery. Nevertheless, the patsy confesses to the crime and State Security agents muscle into the case. To further stoke his suspicions, a German agent called Zenke (Sebastian Koch, who also starred in the similarly-themed The Lives of Others) takes up residence in Hakl’s apartment building and seems to pay more attention to his wife and kid than he does…

What originally seemed like an open-and-shut case deepens into a larger conspiracy aimed at eliminating several innocent Jewish citizens. As the bodies pile up and sinister characters lurk in the shadows, can the honest detective bring the scandal out into the open without risking the lives of himself and his family?

The outcome of the mystery won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who has seen a paranoid thriller before and/or knows a little bit about how oppressive regimes ruthlessly shut down anyone who poses a threat. The strength of In the Shadow lies in its slow-burn storytelling, which is carefully and deliberately unfolded by director Ondříček, and its superb craft. The film is beautifully shot by Adam Sikora who really emphasises the noir elements of the story, indulging in the deepest, inkiest blacks at the darkest end of a gloomy but rich palette. The crisp photography combines with marvellous production design to create a vivid recreation of early-50s Prague at a time of great political turbulence.

Ivan Trojan – looking a little like David Byrne from Talking Heads – is a dependable lead, playing Hakl with a low-key determination and transparent integrity that keeps you rooting for him as he willingly ensnares himself in the evil machinations of the State. Sebastian Koch, the German Major with eyes on both the case and the Czech detective’s movements, plays Zenke with understated menace and a hint of deep sorrow – yes, he’s one of those troubled characters with a dark history.

 

What originally seemed like an open-and-shut case deepens into a larger conspiracy aimed at eliminating several innocent Jewish citizens. As the bodies pile up and sinister characters lurk in the shadows, can the honest detective bring the scandal out into the open without risking the lives of himself and his family?

The outcome of the mystery won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who has seen a paranoid thriller before and/or knows a little bit about how oppressive regimes ruthlessly shut down anyone who poses a threat. The strength of In the Shadow lies in its slow-burn storytelling, which is carefully and deliberately unfolded by director Ondříček, and its superb craft. The film is beautifully shot by Adam Sikora who really emphasises the noir elements of the story, indulging in the deepest, inkiest blacks at the darkest end of a gloomy but rich palette. The crisp photography combines with marvellous production design to create a vivid recreation of early-50s Prague at a time of great political turbulence.

Ivan Trojan – looking a little like David Byrne from Talking Heads – is a dependable lead, playing Hakl with a low-key determination and transparent integrity that keeps you rooting for him as he willingly ensnares himself in the evil machinations of the State. Sebastian Koch, the German Major with eyes on both the case and the Czech detective’s movements, plays Zenke with understated menace and a hint of deep sorrow – yes, he’s one of those troubled characters with a dark history.

***

This review was originally published by the Prague Daily Monitor.

If you now want to check out the film, you can watch it HERE with our View on Demand partners Eyelet.

Author: leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and two children.

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