Jan Hrebejk's magnificent Divided We Fall is so chockablock with stimulating passages, one almost needs to see the film twice to make sure nothing has been missed. In one, a husband studies a framed Madonna, and as he examines the image, the Virgin Mother's face transforms into that of his own barren wife, who has long prayed before this painting for a child the couple has never managed to conceive. This moment presages plot developments in the film's last half hour even as it speaks to the picture's key religious and humanitarian themes.
In another sequence, a sneering mother holds a series of children aloft so they can slap the face of a prisoner. The children do not know the man they strike and so do not inflict much physical damage. But harm is done, not to the prisoner, but to the children, for they have just endured their first lesson in hatred. In still another scene, a new father wheels a baby stroller through a bomb zone, amid the rubble and around a host of citizens trying to rebuild their damaged city. The child's carriage is an appropriate analog for all the wheelbarrows it must dodge because the baby, a kind of miracle, represents in his being what those around him need: a spirit of cooperation and dedication to the interests of the group as a whole.
Written by Petr Jarchovsky and nominated for a best foreign film Oscar (it lost, undeservingly, to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Divided We Fall is the story of a group of small-town Czechs trying in their several ways to survive the Nazi reign of terror across their country during World War II. Childless and somewhat emotionally defeated, Josef (Boleslav Poivka) and Marie (Anna Siskova) Cizek hope that the Nazi menace will burn itself out and leave them unscathed. Before the war, Josef was director of sales for a large, prosperous company owned by a Jewish family. But the Jews have all been carted away to concentration camps in Poland, and the company has gone out of business.
Josef's former employee Horst Prohazka (Jaroslav Dusek) takes an entirely different tack. A native Czech, but an ethnic German, Horst has become a flamboyant Nazi collaborator, much to the dismay of the Cizeks, who tolerate Horst far more than they actually like him.
Life becomes breathtakingly dangerous one night when Josef encounters David Wiener (Csongor Kassai), the son of Josef's former boss. David's family is dead, but he has managed to escape from the concentration camp. Without sanctuary, he has returned home, hoping to find refuge among the people with whom he grew up. But he's betrayed immediately and barely escapes anew when old acquaintance Frantisek Simacek (Jeri Pecha) denounces him to Nazi soldiers. Josef does not do likewise. He remembers David with fondness and remains grateful to David's father. Josef might wish that this duty not fall to him, but he does not shirk it. He takes David home and secures a place for him in the attic of his tiny house.
Divided We Fall bills itself as a dark comedy, and the picture certainly stages certain scenes for ironic humor. Josef and Marie have managed to buy a whole smoked pig on the black market. But there isn't room in their hideaway attic for the pig and David both. So they have to cook and the eat the pork in a gluttonous orgy. Unfortunately, the smell of roasting meat calls them to the attention of the authorities, the last thing they desired. Horst helps them out of this spot, as he does others, and helps himself to ample portions of their roast pork in the process. Subsequently, in an almost farcical sequence, David hides under the covers in Marie's bed when Horst and a Nazi official show up uninvited one afternoon.
Joseph Heller's great Catch-22 has proven that riotous comedy can be made out of the idiocy of war, but unless you go completely overboard, to the "Springtime for Hitler" madness of Mel Brooks, the Holocaust and comedy are an uncomfortable mix. This is a story in which David remembers his sister's being offered a chance to save herself if only she'd club her parents to death for the amusement of sociopathic guards. In that sober context, the comic passages in Divided We Fall are largely unsuccessful and wholly unnecessary.
The film possesses a tiny handful of additional flaws as well. We are never clear exactly why Josef heads off to the villa where he finds David. He's up to something, but we're never sure what. Comparably, we don't know why Josef has secured driving privileges, why Horst has arranged them for him, or what excuse Josef gives Horst for borrowing Horst's car on the day Josef tries, in vain, to sneak David out of town in the car's trunk. The scene is important because it illustrates how danger lurks at every turn, how incidental connections can produce lasting consequences and how Josef will not abandon David even when provided a defensible opportunity to do so. But clumsy execution makes the whole experience feel contrived.
Revelation that Josef is sterile proves similarly awkward. We would have accepted this condition as a given of Josef's character far more easily than being asked to believe that he decides to take a fertility test in the middle of a war.
These are hardly significant failings, however, and the whole of Divided We Fall rises far above these miscues. The picture is particularly adept at developing its characters in depth. Josef is a hero, but he doesn't set out to be one. He's mostly kind to David's face, but he grumbles behind David's back, resents fate for making him feel obliged to take such risks. Late in the film, Josef selfishly demands that David not make another attempt to escape from town because Josef needs to produce David at some point to save face with his neighbors.
In the hands of lesser filmmakers, Horst would have been a monster. Yes he's a Nazi, and yes at a pivotal moment he allows his longtime infatuation with Marie to metastasize into attempted rape. All the same, Hrebejk and Jarchovsky make Horst a profoundly human figure. As a boy, Horst was the target of Czech prejudice against Germans and derided with the nickname "Wurst (Sausage)." But despite joining the Nazi Party, Horst has retained a sense of loyalty to his Czech homeland. Moreover, he hasn't sunk to hating all Czechs because some were cruel to him. He remembers with true gratitude the kindness Josef showed in hiring him when others would not. And to repay that dept, in his busybody, ever-obnoxious way, Horst is always doing Josef favors. He brings food for the Cizeks, gives Josef tips on how to keep from drawing SS attention to himself and even gets Josef a job. And a critical juncture, he instinctively chooses friendship over politics.
The filmmakers employ this mottling strategy widely. The vicious Nazi official who sneers that one German is worth 20 Slavs and 100 Jews, and then subsequently and genuinely apologizes to the Cizeks. By that time, he is a broken man, riven with sorrow for the battlefield deaths of his sons, including a youngest child who was shot by his own troops when he tried to desert under fire. Meanwhile, Josef's neighbor Frantisek, once a man hysterically determined to save himself by denouncing Jews, has joined the Resistance. More important, knowing the lesson of his own perfidy, he is willing to revise his views of others rather than hold fast to earlier impressions based, perhaps, on incomplete evidence.
This careful layering of character sets the stage for the film's stunning last quarter, which delivers its themes as if from a choir of angels. The phrase "united we stand" is often invoked to rouse people to action. Here only Horst says, "United we stand," and by the picture's end he's switched to the more defensive "divided we fall." Upon signing America's Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin is said to have joked, "We must all hang together, or we shall most certainly hang separately." That's the mindset Hrebejk is trying to communicate with his title and in the action of his film. Survival depends on embracing one another, even those we have come to regard as enemies. We have to set those differences aside, look away from the past and toward some more hopeful future where all can be included and all can prosper.
Divided We Fall is forthrightly about World War II and Nazi genocide, but its themes are as relevant and no doubt aimed at circumstances in our contemporary world. Yugoslavia has divided and fallen into chaos, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo, most recently in Macedonia. Civil war under another name rages in Israel. A fragile peace is threatened in Northern Ireland. All too readily we remember our suffering and point fingers at those who wounded us.
But this film in its conscious symbolism asks that we heed Jesus' advice that the first stone be cast by someone without sin. The childless Catholic couple at the center of this story are not accidentally named Josef and Marie, nor is it mere careless circumstance that they become parents of a Jewish baby. And this newborn, brought into the world amid a program of genocide greater even than that of Herod, arrives as a unifying force heralding the incredible power of second chances, of forgiveness. In a sequence recalling that at the conclusion of Robert Benton's Places in the Heart where the dead are risen and reconciled, the end of Divided We Fall packs the wallop of freight train. You will be stirred and you will be thrilled. I have seen several excellent films this year. This is the first great one.