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'Divided We Fall': Uncommon Tale of a Common Hero

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2001


    'Divided We Fall' A scene from "Divided We Fall." (Sony Pictures Classics)
"Divided We Fall's" Josef Cizek is an unlikely hero, and a reluctant one. Once a successful executive with a Jewish firm, Josef finds his spirits sinking along with his ambition when his old employer and his family are banished from their home and inevitably sent to the death camps.

Like Roberto Benigni's beloved "Life Is Beautiful," this profound, powerful Czech import takes a tragicomic approach to the Holocaust, though unlike Benigni's film, the movie does not sentimentalize those caught up in the Nazi dragnet.

Director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky view the era from not only a new perspective, but an improbably farcical one. That's not to say that the filmmakers play it for laughs. A contender in this year's race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the movie is in the tradition of Middle European satirists such as Billy Wilder and Milos Forman, who introduced absurdist humor to Hollywood.

After neatly dispensing with the events that led up to World War II, Hrebejk turns to the plight of Josef (the excellent Boleslav Polivka) and his wife, Marie (Anna Siskova), an ordinary couple intent on sitting out the war. Josef is now a more or less permanent resident of his sofa. Marie busies herself with housework and tries not to think about the child they'll never have because Josef is sterile.

The couple are unwilling, albeit frequent, hosts of Horst (Jaroslav Dusek), a former underling of Josef turned Nazi collaborator. Horst, giddy with his newfound power, pesters them with his impromptu visits. He's clearly set his cap for Marie, whom he plies with gifts of coffee and schnitzel. The couple must put up with his clumsy passes for fear of reprisals.

Horst's habit of popping in on the couple becomes a source of comedy as well as danger after Josef grudgingly takes in David, the shellshocked son (Csonger Kassai) of his late employer, and hides him in the pantry. If the young man is discovered, the whole neighborhood will pay the consequences, so Josef goes to work for the Germans.

Just when they think they've pulled off the deception, Horst puts the moves on Marie. To hold him off, the desperate heroine announces that she's expecting. Her delicate condition becomes the talk of the neighborhood – Josef's sterility is no secret. They'll need a miracle to get out of this one alive.

In most World War II movies, the Nazis are more prominent, but here they're part of the landscape and, in some cases, comic props. Still, they're not portrayed as one-dimensional fiends. Horst even has his good points, just as Josef has his flaws. Whether they act with cowardice or courage, the characters are invariably complex and their motivations, even those of the heroes, are in some ways self-serving.

As Josef says, "Normal people do abnormal things in abnormal times."

Some might feel the filmmakers are too sympathetic to Horst and other collaborators. Yet if Josef had not run into David one rainy night, he might have been among the good men whose apathy allows evil to triumph.

"Divided We Fall" (PG-13, 122 minutes)Contains a scene of sexual assault, minor sexual situations and some violence. In Czech and German with subtitles. Loews Cineplex Dupont Circle.


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