Divided We Fall Review

Right from the start of the film, Divided We Fall makes clear its title and the serious point it has to make. Escaped from a "resettlement" camp, a young Czech Jew, David asks his former neighbour Herr Šimácek for help and protection. Šimácek is terrified of the consequences of harbouring a Jew and immediately tries to report the man to a German patrol. Everyone is looking after their own concerns, it is every man for themselves and no-one can be trusted, be they friends, neighbours or fellow countrymen. As the film’s title suggests (even more explicitly in Czech, 'Musíme Si Pomáhat' literally means 'We Must Help Each Other'), this division is what keeps the people repressed and defeated.

One couple is brave enough to take the risk to protect David. Josef and Marie Cízek keep David locked up in their hidden storage room, but every knock on the door, every visit from prying neighbours brings the terror of being discovered. Every gesture and word must be measured carefully for fear of giving the slightest indication of what they are doing – even to close friends. To avoid suspicion, the Cízeks appear to co-operate with the occupying German forces, causing their neighbours to mistrust them even further - the same people who refused to risk their own necks to help their Jewish neighbours.

In addition to the risks they have to run, Marie has to ward off the amorous advances and prying of Josef’s colleague, Horst – a suitably sleazy and comically menacing character wonderfully played by Janslav Dušek, who is for me the stand-out performer in the film. To get out of one particular tricky situation and keep their 'lodger' secret, Marie pretends she is pregnant. As her husband is incapable of having children, this becomes a difficult ruse to maintain. They must produce a baby. Normally I wouldn’t give away that much of the plot, but Metrodome’s cover kind of gives away this late twist in the film.

The film was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2001 Academy Awards, so it has quite a few admirers, but I was less convinced by the uneasy mix of tragedy and humour. The film starts off quite dramatically and there are quite a few scenes of genuine terror and suspense. Scenes of dramatic tension are underlined with camera effects – lowering the frame rate to create blurred camera movements as if the camera is mimicking the nervous fluttering of a speeded-up heart-rate. It is a rather annoying and unnecessary effect, as the scenes should be tense enough without the camera having to tell you it is.

At times however, particularly later in the film, the story seems to descend into pure bedroom farce and seems totally removed from the wider implications of the seriousness of the situation. Humour is a good defence mechanism for dealing with a situation that is beyond human endurance or comprehension, which is why I would have more time for Life Is Beautiful than this, which rather than trying to mask the horror with humour, appears to be making light of the situation and trying to derive humour from it. The real menace disappears and later in the film, it becomes a simple farce in a wartime situation. I’m not sure either what the director was trying to achieve with the religious subtext of the film - Marie and Josef/Mary and Joseph, the immaculate conception and other even less subtle references.

In the end however I’m torn between loving the film and hating it. I particularly liked that the director did try to show that redemption, humour and true friendship can come out of a terrible situation rather than dwelling on the misery which has already been well documented in cinema and often badly. It is good to see a different side of the war and look at the good side of human nature. The ending also is particularly clever and ambiguous, leaving you to consider whether this is a realistic attitude to adopt or just wish-fulfilment.

The picture quality on the DVD is excellent. 1.85:1 anamorphic, deep dark colours and a strong contrast, the print quality is nothing less than perfect. There are many dark scenes in the film, but the contrast and balance of blacks is always spot-on, otherwise it would be very difficult to make out what is going on. Big black square reel-change marks are the only artefacts on the print.

The sound is plain Dolby Digital 2.0 which is very strong and clear, but leaves you slightly detached from the film when such circumstances should really be drawing you in and enclosing you with surround-sound. Maybe we should be thankful for this slight distance from some of the tension. Otherwise there is absolutely nothing wrong with the soundtrack here.

Theatrical Trailer
The theatrical trailer is the only extra on the DVD and it is a good indicator of what the film is about and the tone it adopts.

This is a curious film – you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, or like myself, you’ll love it and you’ll hate it. There aren’t many films that have that kind of effect, so this is truly one of a kind. A good gauge to your possible reaction to this film would probably be Life Is Beautiful and how you responded to that. A few more extras on the DVD might have swayed my opinion on Divided We Fall one way or the other. As it stands, you’ll have to judge this one for yourself.

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