Romeo, Juliet And Darkness Review
Second Run continue their admirable work of bringing to DVD many Czech films that few would otherwise ever have the opportunity to see. Many of them, heavily political in their outlook, have even been long banned in their home country, but it’s the nature of their necessity to challenge the authorities and censorship that often makes them powerful works that are still worthy of attention. The subject of Jiři Weiss’ film Romeo, Juliet And Darkness is perhaps less controversial in its subject of a young student who keeps a Jewish girl hidden from the Nazi authorities and falls in love with her, but the underlying themes of resistance and hope make the film in many ways just as powerful as some of the more overtly politically Czech films of late sixties.
Set in Prague in 1942, the city’s Jewish community have already been rounded-up into ghettos for transportation to Teresienstadt and other concentration camps. A young Jewish woman, Hanka (Daniela Smutná), attempting to avoid transportation, arrives in the city, hoping to stay with friends, but she finds that they have already been forced to leave. A young student, Pavel (Ivan Mistrík), who lives in the same tenement block and a friend of the deported Jewish family, hides her in an attic storeroom that he has been using as a darkroom for his photography. However, when a prominent Nazi official is assassinated, the authorities clamp down, actively looking for unregistered citizens, with a warning of severe consequences for anyone failing to report any knowledge they have of the whereabouts of such individuals. The possible consequences become even graver for Pavel when he realises that he is in love with Hanka.
Jiři Weiss’ direction on Romeo, Julia a Tma is little better than workman-like, but it’s this very simplicity that is the film’s real strength. It’s well-paced, well-performed, well-directed and even well-photographed, but there is little to distinguish it from other films of its kind, of wartime romances, of forbidden love, and of the dangers faced by those who defy the rule of law of the Nazi occupiers. There is one little moment where the camera spins out into the world as Hanka and Pavel fall in love, but the majority of their dreams about a future together outside the attic are resolutely earthbound, the lovers resigned to looking up at the stars and wishing for better days.
Yet, although actual appearances of the German troops and Gestapo are kept to a minimum, their threat is fully felt, as loudspeaker and radio broadcasts threaten dire retribution to those involved in resistance activity, while neighbours share rumours of villages being wiped out and decimation of the populace. The streets of Prague moreover never look so dark and oppressive as when a lone Jewish family make their way towards the transport or when a convoy of troops speed through the district. When the Gestapo do make an appearance, turning up at a school to take away a student who is found guilt by association of his father hiding an unregistered person, the dangers are again more by implication than any direct action and they are consequently all the more menacing.
The supporting characters also serve this function well in their contribution to the overall tension, the presence of Pavel’s family alerting you to the risks he is taking on all of their behalf, with or without their knowledge. Another young woman, the mistress of a German officer moved into the apartment vacated by the Jewish family, also serves to bring the danger all the more closely home, particularly as Pavel cultivates a growing resentment against her and the advances she makes towards him. The key to the simplicity of the film and its success however is in the relationship between Pavel and Hanka which, being a love story rather than being a film about keeping a Jewish person hidden, puts the emphasis clearly on the human interest level rather than the political or wider humanitarian level. There is no attempt to try and take on the greater challenge of depicting the horrors of the holocaust. Rather, by reducing the focus to one person’s uncommon defiance in the face of unimaginable dangers, to one couple’s capacity for love and their belief that one day they will be free, the film operates on a scale that anyone can comprehend and relate to, without belittling in any way the serious nature of the situation for everyone during this dark period.
Romeo, Juliet and Darkness is released in the UK by Second Run. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is not Region encoded.
Second Run make no great claims for the quality of the transfer, the enclosed booklet noting the problems and imperfections, but stating that it comes from “the best existing source available”. In addition to the flaws in the print itself – tramline scratches, flecks of dirt, frequent dustspots, heavy reel-change marks and some mild brightness flicker – the analogue source brings its own problems, with an overall softness, some horizontal tape noise and cross colouration. In spite of this, the transfer is perfectly watchable and, in fact, the relatively minor problems have negligible affect on the visibility and detail that is still evident. The transfer is reasonably stable, the tones are generally fine and there are no problems of a serious nature at all. It certainly doesn't look as blue on a video display as the screen captures perhaps indicate.
The audio track also reflects the limitations of the source material. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, the dialogue and incidental sounds and music are all reasonably clear, but there is an underlying level of distortion and sibilance. Again however, this is quite adequate for the limited demands of the soundtrack.
English subtitles are clear, in a white font, and are optional. The translation appears fluid and natural.
The only extra feature on the disc is an Image Gallery (1:35) presented as a slideshow. Some biographical information on the director Jiři Weiss is provided in the enclosed booklet, which also contains a number of stills. I don’t usually count distributor’s film catalogues as extra features, but Second Run’s beautifully illustrated catalogue of their films to date is quite impressive.
Romeo, Juliet And Darkness is perhaps not the most challenging and controversial Czech film released as part of the Second Run catalogue, but its simplicity belies the power of its transgressive love story. A romance that thrives despite the darkness of the time and place, its message of hope against all odds is an enduring one. There are certainly very evident flaws in the DVD transfer but they are unavoidable and in any case have little impact on the film.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 02:55:17