Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat, 2000), by Jan Hřebejk.
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 Brno, in the park on Náměstí 28. října, there is a memorial fountain dedicated to the city’s Jewish and Romani victims. Roma children play in the fountain in the summer, bringing that dedication into sharp focus across the decades.
Ten years ago, my answer to the question would have been a definite yes, I would hide them. Now I have a family of my own the question becomes more troubling – would I be able to risk the lives of my children to harbour a fugitive during those times?
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 tucks him away in their secret pantry, originally intended for hoarding extra provisions under German occupation. They are understandably anxious about David’s presence in their house and they don’t trust their neighbours. It doesn’t help their nerves that Horst (Jaroslav Dušek), a dim-witted 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 he 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 power he has over them. He also wants to get into Marie’s knickers and isn’t shy about showing it.
Further complications arise when Horst tries to force himself on Marie. She fights him off, and to save his feelings (and maybe her own skin) she tells him that she is pregnant. Unfortunately, this coincides with the doctor telling Josef 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, who was on a roll after directing the perennial favourite Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) the previous year. He opts for a broadly comedic tone, which mostly aids the drama where a more serious approach might have made the film too wearying. That’s not to say the ordeal of our protagonists doesn’t pack an emotional punch.
Divided We Fall moves forward with a real sense of urgency and there are some almost unbearably tense scenes, played with a delicate edge of humour that nicely balances the peril. Hřebejk gets fantastic work from his principal cast. Polivka is outstanding in a natural yet carefully nuanced performance. Although fundamentally a good person, Josef is grouchy and deadpan, and you can see the weight each decision and setback play across his face, along with the fear of capture.
Šišková is comfortably his equal – she won the Czech Lion award for her performance – as a woman who is devoted to her husband but frustrated by their inability to have children. She is a religious woman and a dedicated homemaker but there’s also a quiet fire burning within her, and she’s resourceful enough to take care of herself in a tight spot.
Kassai has the least showy role as David, looking suitably pensive and haunted as a man who’s lost everything, but is kept going by his survival instincts regardless. 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. He’s over-the-top but strangely accurate. We’ve all encountered grovelling jobsworths who will do anything to haul themselves a few rungs up the ladder, and that’s what makes him such a scary character – there are people like him in all walks of life.
Under ordinary circumstances, Josef and Marie wouldn’t have much to fear from him, but now he has leverage over their lives there is always the doubt that he might be petty or spiteful enough to report them.
For all its fine qualities, there are a few quibbles with Divided We Fall. The story is worked out to within an inch of its life, which becomes very noticeable in the last act. During the chaos of the Russian liberation of the country, several characters each need to make a moral choice in the space of about five minutes. It is almost as if Hřebejk and his co-writer Petr Jarchovský were worried that the audience might miss the point.
The comedy is also cranked up in the final reel, lending the film a farcical tone when concluding in a dramatic register might have been more effective. It is the weakest part of the film, but the build-up has done enough to take us over the finish line – despite the hectic and tonally strange conclusion, Divided We Fall is still a modern Czech classic.
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied film at university but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.