Divided We Fall Movie Review

"Divided We Fall" is another entry in that tricky emerging genre of self-importantly poignant tragicomedies about the Holocaust.

Like Italy's "Life Is Beautiful," Hollywood's "Jakob the Liar" and the French-Romanian "Train of Life," it finds hope and some humor in the shadow of the Nazi jackboot, this time in a small Czech town where middle-aged Josef Cizek and his young wife (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova) have managed to keep the German occupation of their country at arm's length by focusing on trying to have a baby -- without any luck.

It's 1943 and for four years they've watched from behind their curtains as some of their Jewish neighbors fled the town, then later got deported while their homes were ransacked for valuables and turned over to Nazi officials.

But the war, the resistance and the dangers of occupation soon land in their laps when Josef's former employer -- a young Jew named David Weiner (Scongor Kassai) who once lived in a manor at the end of their street -- stumbles, exhausted and ashen, back into town in the middle of the night.

Having escaped a Polish concentration camp, he has returned to the only place he knows, hoping to find aid or asylum. After nearly being exposed by one paranoid neighbor, David happens upon Josef, whose conscience overrides his considerable fear of retribution. Josef and his wife agree to hide David in a cramped, windowless room concealed behind the back of a wardrobe in their modest row house.

David soon becomes a part of their lives, and to avert any possible suspicion of their loyalty, Josef begrudgingly takes a job helping a local Nazi stooge (Jaroslav Dusek) empty out abandon Jewish homes. This draws the intense ire of most of his neighbors, including the hypocrite who tried to turn David in.

Billed as a black comedy, "Divided We Fall" doesn't strain for laughs or for tears, which is what makes it a cut above its genre brethren (it was up for a Best Foreign Film Oscar this year). It is sometimes ironically humorous. To keep from having to house a disgraced Nazi official, Marie claims to be pregnant -- then has to get knocked up in a hurry even though her Josef has just been diagnosed impotent. Even more frequently it is very effective at inspiring apprehension, as when pretty Marie becomes afraid to fend off the advances of the Nazi neighbor who is now Josef's boss (a stout, malicious miscreant with a Hitler mustache).

But after doing a fine job of finding a healing sympathy for even the most unpleasant characters, director Jan Hrebejk seems to feel the need to really stretch thin the uplifting sentimentality as the film draws to a close. The story's impact would have been stronger had he acknowledged the incongruity of Czechoslovakia being "freed" by the Soviets, who were to put in place a system arguably as oppressive as the one they defeated.

Hrebejk is also far too enamoured of employing obnoxious and distracting visual tricks, the most annoying of which is his seemingly random and far too frequent use of a kind of blurry slow-motion. He first employs the technique to add a sense of danger to certain scenes, but by the middle of the movie every third or fourth scene is shot this way.

The four lead actors (husband, wife, refugee and Nazi neighbor) give stalwart performances, although there are a few times when it's hard not to second-guess a character's illogical behavior. But when the film begins to drown in its own good intentions, it's these actors who float to the top keep it from sinking into the depths of mawkish melodramatics.

Comments

Divided We Fall Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG-13, Opened: Friday, June 15, 2001

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