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[whitespace] 'Divided We Fall'
Incomplete Pass: Ham-handed Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) gets roundly rejected by Marie (Anna Sisková) in 'Divided We Fall.'

Hiding the Wiener

Dark Czech comedy 'Divided We Fall' is humane despite itself

By Richard von Busack

SAUL BELLOW once wrote, "Between human beings there are only two alternatives, either brotherhood or crime." It's not meant to be a consoling thought. In the Czech import Divided We Fall, the boundary between these two extremes of kindness and cruelty crumples under pressure. Jan Hrebejk's sharp, smart comedy drama of the Nazi Occupation demonstrates that the triumphs of mankind's better nature occur despite man's nature--and under duress.

In 1943, the weary, pliable Czech intellectual Josef (Bolek Polívka) and his pious, childless wife, Marie (Anna Sisková), discover David Wiener (Csongor Kassai), a Jewish acquaintance hiding in their house, freshly escaped from the death camps. They spontaneously decide to conceal him from the Nazis. They don't realize, however, that hiding Wiener overnight essentially means hiding him for the duration of the war. As we movie fans know, the Nazis have ways of making people talk; if Wiener's discovered or recaptured, he'll probably finger his hosts.

David hides in the larder, under the hanging carcass of a smoked pig. Soon, another pig arrives. He's Josef's childhood acquaintance Horst, richly played by the comedian Jarsolav Dusek. Horst (spitefully nicknamed "Wurst" in his youth for his German sympathies) has just gotten a job with the Nazis and is eager to throw his weight around. Horst also has a clumsy crush on Josef's wife and is interested in pressuring Josef into collaborating with the Gestapo. Thus Hrebejk shows the links between cuckolds and collaborationists.

Hrebejk uses a slow, jerky shutter speed, chosen, he notes, because of the low lighting in which these characters--as furtive as raccoons--live. Except in scenes of a far-from-idyllic countryside picnic, Divided We Fall stutters like digital film. Thus the director takes the picturesque, nostalgic qualities straight out of World War II. Gaining a newsreels's immediacy, Hrebejk loses some of the intimacy.

The film is worth seeing for Dusek, one captivating oaf. In English, if not in Czech, "Wiener" and "Wurst" mean the same thing. The holed-up David Wiener is innocent, but he's also a liability, a burden. By contrast, Horst the Wurst is a boor and a Nazi. He's a would-be date rapist with bad table manners, and yet there's something in him that deserves to be kept alive. In the end, Hrebejek shows us the liberation day, the inspirational scenes of a boy running with the red flag, welcoming Stalin's troops. The camera, glancing over the crowd, picks out two figures in a corner: an old lady busily shaving the head of a collaborator girl. Divided We Fall comes out in favor of the sanctity of life, but Hrebejk is too shrewd to be fooled by self-serving myths of heroism.

Divided We Fall (PG-13; 120 min.), directed by Jan Hrebejk, written by Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovsk, photographed by Jan Malír and starring Bolek Polívka and Jaroslav Dusek, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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