The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Divided We Fall

For some reason, Netflix says this film “skirts a fine line between comedy and tragedy” and is “filled with pungent humor.” It’s a drama, people. Any comedic elements are relegated to what small uplifting things the protagonists can find in their lives to make the realities of their situations a little less painful. The movie in no way attempts to be “a comedy” at any time.

The story line takes place in Czechoslovakia from just before the Nazi invasion in the early days of WWII to the arrival of Allied forces liberating the unnamed city where the protagonists live. The catalyzing events are rather subtly referred to and can be difficult to follow if you aren’t concentrating (or familiar with the general history).

We are first introduced to some guys enjoying an outing in the countryside on a sunny day. Time shift. We see the owner of a large country estate and his family having to move out. It is visually implied that they are Jewish. Time shift. The family seems to be heading to another location, not necessarily by their own choice. They briefly mention that Theresienstadt isn’t supposed to be so bad a place to live.

It is very hard to know that the men in the early scene are the well-to-do Jewish owner of the estate and two of his employees. And it is hard to tell later that the family getting shuttled around is his. And it’s hard to recognize any of the people when they are reintroduced later. And it is VERY helpful to know a little bit about Theresienstadt to understand the significance of the message. (Theresienstadt went from a sleepy little Czech town of 7,000 people to a Jewish ghetto/concentration camp holding many tens of thousands of Czech Jews. It also was used as a staging area to the infamous Auschwitz camp.) All this occurs within the first five minutes of the movie, so I’m not throwing you any spoilers.

The majority of the movie deals with the experiences of the man and the two employees as they relate to one another and their families and their neighbors and the occupiers throughout the war years. It is an intensely personal and human-oriented film on a much smaller scale than "Schindler’s List". The period re-creation is very good and you certainly come to know and empathize with the various characters. The film explores the gray shades of loyalty, survival, self-preservation, human kindness and decency, and social interaction.

The good guys are not saints and the bad guys are not inhuman monsters. They are all people, attempting to figure out how to behave in a situation none of them created or were prepared for. At the end of the movie the title eventually comes home to roost. It’s a profound film and you’ll think about it afterwards.

That said, it is not a perfect film. There are jarring uses of digital photography that are shot off-speed and at a different color stock than the rest. I couldn’t figure out any reason or symbolism for these sequences. There are also small details that seem unlikely or impossible (a refugee from the camps emerges with a severely shaved haircut on his escape and it never grows over the next two years of story time!).

But if you liked Spielberg’s rumination on the concept, this film deserves a look and won’t leave you feeling as depressed at the end. Although the subject matter will be lost on the kiddies, you can watch it with them in the room. They won’t be interested, the dialog is all in Czech and German with subtitles, and there is no explicit sex or violence that you have to worry about.

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