“United we stand!”
A true story concerning events that took place in a small Czechoslovak town during the Second World War, Divided We Fall was released to some acclaim in 2000. It went on to receive a nomination for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film of that year, eventually losing out to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Released internationally as a Sony Pictures Classics release, Columbia TriStar has now made the film available on DVD.
Josef and Marie Cizek lead a simple and restricted life in their small apartment in a town in Czechoslovakia while outside the turmoil of war and prejudice is everywhere. When David Weiner, a former young Jewish neighbour, escapes from a concentration camp and returns to the town, the Cizeks decide to hide him in their apartment. The problem with that is the frequent, unexpected visits that they get from a former colleague of Josef’s — Horst Prohaska — who is now a collaborator with the Germans. Horst also has eyes for Marie, and one day she has to fend off his attempts to seduce her. Rejected, Horst tries to move a German clerk into the Cizeks’ apartment, claiming that they have a spare bedroom. In order to avoid having David found out, Josef and Marie tell a lie that will change their lives forever.
There’s something about the way most of the actors play their roles in Divided We Fall that gives the whole affair a feeling of unreality. As a result, a story that is apparently true comes across as rather contrived. Part of the problem, strangely enough, lies in one of the film’s strengths. Most of the people we encounter are not your common one-dimensional film characters. They seem like real people with strengths and weaknesses. Thus, resistance fighters are not idealized patriots and collaborators are not necessarily all evil. In trying to convey these complex characters, some of the actors try to be too even-handed in their approach, with the result that the characters become rather bland, lacking strong emotion. This is particularly true of the lead role of Josef played by Boleslav Polívka and that of David, the young Jewish escapee that Josef and Marie hide in their home, played by Csongor Kassai. Fortunately, this is not uniformly the case or the film would be a failure. Jaroslav Dušek as Horst and Anna Šišková as Marie provide vigorous characterizations throughout, even as their characters’ circumstances and motivations change substantially during the course of the story.
I’m not familiar with Jan Hrebejk, the film’s director. Born in 1967 in Prague, he’s apparently been active as a director in the Czech Republic since the late 1980s, with some of his films having been released internationally. One gets the feeling that he did not exert sufficient control over Divided We Fall because of the unevenness of the results. The acting evidence is only one example. The whole atmosphere of the film has an unworldly feel to it. Josef and Marie live in a town occupied by the Germans, yet there is insufficient emphasis of the German presence to account for the townspeople’s fears. I’m not saying we should be shown some acts of inhumane treatment or the like, but there just is no atmosphere of oppression ever really developed. Thus the only realistic fear that Josef and Marie have is that collaborator Horst may drop in on them unexpectedly and find David there. The one time it really proves to be a problem, Marie’s solution is to hide David beside her under the covers of the bed where she’s lying, supposedly suffering from an illness. That it’s not obvious to Horst seems unbelievable. It may have happened that way, but the manner in which the Hrebejk handles it makes it seem more like a piece of slapstick comedy than anything else.
I don’t want to suggest that Divided We Fall is completely unworthy of the investment of your time. The story is uplifting and one worth telling. The characters involved have strengths and weaknesses that the film does not flinch from revealing. That the result often feels more like a fairy tale than a true story is a weakness that flaws, but does not completely sink the film.
Columbia TriStar has released a 1.78:1, anamorphically-enhanced DVD of the film, using 28 scene selections. The transfer is only so-so. Colours are somewhat washed out and visible grain is a problem in many of the darker scenes. Blacks are fairly deep, but whites are not as clean as they are in the best transfers. Edge enhancement is minimal.
The audio includes Czech sound tracks available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround. The 5.1 track is quite dynamic and delivers the dialogue-driven film authoritatively. Use of the surrounds is minimal. In the second half of the film, there is an instance when background music with pronounced base is introduced. In that particular case, the mix engages the subwoofer too strongly and the results distract one from the on-screen events. Optional English subtitles are included. They seem to be well written, providing the essence of the dialogue without being intrusively detailed.
The disc supplements are disappointing, including only a theatrical trailer for the film, a trailer for Anne Frank Remembered, and a selected filmography for the director only. There are no production notes.
Despite its Oscar nomination for best foreign language film of 2000, I personally found this to be a disappointing effort even though I wanted to like it. There was great potential in the story, but the director failed to exert sufficient control over the material to be able to turn out a compelling film. The couple of good acting efforts that there are in Divided We Fall seem to have come about in spite of the director. Columbia’s DVD effort is mediocre at best.