As we get to know Josef and Marie gradually, frame by frame, the film becomes their love story.


An Illusion review by Joan Ellis

               Divided We Fall focuses sharply on the experience of one couple in German occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II.  Faced with the choice of sheltering David Wiener (Csongor Kassai), the son of a Jewish industrialist, or sending him out to sure death in the streets, Josef (Boleslav Polivka) and Marie (Anna Siskova) risk death by taking him in. Reluctant at first, Josef and Marie deal with each crisis as it comes to their home. Theirs is a domestic drama set against the background of the Holocaust, and it is studded with humor, even slapstick.

                Director Jan Hrebejk fuses the comedy and irony of daily life in those complex times with the enormous tension inherent in any story about Nazis and Jews.  While it sometimes feels like a welcome emotional release to laugh, it often feels like a violation.  We know that in reality, the lighter moments would have doomed the family.  But this is a movie that wants us to laugh.  Perhaps it is the earnestness of the American mindset that needs tragedy to remain unleavened.  We are often uncomfortable with the mixture of laughter and sadness that for some is essential.  Many of us had problems with Roberto Benigniís Life is Beautiful for the same reason.

                The main characters are fully drawn, in the best of the European process that builds slowly rather than at the quick and shallow American MTV-style speed.  As we get to know Josef and Marie gradually, frame by frame, the film becomes their love story.  Actors Polivka and Siskova make them strong, steadfast people who hold firmly to their values even when trouble knocks on their doorówhich it does often.  They are immensely likable. 

                When the dreaded knock comes, itís either the Nazis, or Horst (Jaroslav Dusek), a neighbor and former chauffeur for the formerly affluent Wiener family.  Wearing a silly mustache styled after the leader he has chosen to follow, Horst has become a collaborator.  He is also an opportunist who returns repeatedly to share the contraband food of his neighbors.  Horst is made of two selves battling for redemption.

                Knowing the integrity of his friend Josef runs deep, Horst tries to teach him how to develop a facial expression the Nazis canít read.  Looking altogether silly in short pants, a vest and a tie, he also tries to seduce his friendís wife.  For one reason or another, he is always underfoot, always a moment away from triggering the discovery of  the fugitive David.

                By the time we are caught in the tension that engulfs a couple we care about, director Hrebejk puts his story in fast forward with a series of plot twists that build on each other in a series of unexpected and clever ironies.   As we hear ourselves laughing, still we are dreading the knock on the door.  Perhaps that mixture of irony and humor is how Europeans managed to navigate tragedy.  Perhaps that is why Americans have trouble laughing.              

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