Life Isn't Beautiful
Czech Film Tells Holocaust Tale With Dark Wit and Believable Drama
Everyone knows there are no new stories, only different ways of retelling the old ones. It¹s hard to believe that more than 20 years have passed since the TV miniseries Holocaust shattered the entertainment industry¹s fragile uncertainty over graphically confronting the horrors of life under Hitler¹s Third Reich.
Since then, filmmakers have passionately, if not always successfully, explored the tragic moral and human complexities of the Holocaust in various styles and voices. Most follow Holocaust's lead and treat the subject with utmost gravity, a mold Roberto Benigni broke with 1998's wildly popular, Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful. Many applauded Benigni's audacious handling of the 20th century's greatest calamity--a mix of low comedy and high drama--but the film also garnered criticism for its bald sentimentality and blurring of concentration-camp horrors.
Divided We Fall, a Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee (but, unlike Beautiful, not a winner), similarly walks a fine line between humor and horror. But this Czech film, directed by Jan Hrebejk from a script by Petr Jarchovsky (who adapted his own novel), completely evades the maudlin or sentimental, producing a Holocaust story that is filled with tension and is peculiarly uplifting and frequently quite funny.
As the opening credits roll, Divided bounces rapidly from 1937 to 1939 to 1941 as Czech husband and wife Josef and Marie Cìzek (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova) warily watch the net of German occupation fall around them. Josef's carefree capers with David (Csongor Kassai), his Jewish boss' teenage son, and their grating buddy Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) come to an end; Horst turns almost gleefully to Nazism while David's family is forced from its home and deported to the Theresienstadt camp. When David escapes 18 months later and returns, Josef reluctantly offers him shelter, opening an enormous can of worms for himself and Marie.
Cranky and petulant, Josef makes for an odd hero, literally shitting his pants when he recognizes that he has no choice but to offer David protection. With rude, practical-joking Horst making constant unannounced visits (and fawning unsettlingly over Marie), the Cìzeks live in fear of being found out. To avoid suspicion, each begins complicated--and often comical--consorting with the enemy that leaves them open to their ever-watchful neighbors' dark speculations.
Hrebejk and Jarchovsky's great success is how well they grasp that the battle between human nature's darker and lighter sides is constant, and in constant flux. Heroism is never simple--or easy. Josef carps and groans continually about the danger he and Marie are in for protecting David, dreading every moment that pulls them deeper into potential calamity. Yet his decision to take David in is free of dramatics, and his simple decency is always credible, never overblown. As Marie observes to David, "It's one thing to be right and another to have to get through this."
Another affecting element of Divided We Fall is that it tumbles toward the absurd without resorting to slapstick or farce, realistically capturing the frequently confused and messy predicaments in which real people dealing with the terrors of the Third Reich found themselves. Although evil certainly gets more than its pound of flesh here, good too gets its due in a surprising climax that is all the more powerful for never pandering to mawkish manipulation. Bravo.