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Absurd Humanism
A Czech film explores human cruelty and the possibility of forgiveness.

Alan A. Stone

Divided We Fall is a Czech film about life in a small Bohemian town during the Holocaust. It was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film—an award given this year to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was made in China but is, by any standard except its subtitles, a Hollywood production. An independent film, Divided We Fall had neither Lee's $15 million budget nor his Matrix-style special effects. It started instead in the trenches of Czech film festivals, made the rounds of the Eastern European festival circuit, and received the coveted invitation to Sundance where it found a commercial distributor.

Success for Divided We Fall was never a sure thing. Like so many film school graduates, the director could not overcome the fad for compulsive technical experimentation. Having limited means, he decided to film some of the night shots at twelve instead of twenty-four frames per second.                            David (Csongor Kassai) and Marie (Anna Siskova)


This was supposed "to convey a real (wartime) darkness in the street" but instead confused audiences and irked critics. There are other (glitch and kitsch) reasons one might find fault with this "homemade" film, but not only does it succeed as a work of art, it also offers a possibility of hope in times of terror.

Coming back from England where I had been marooned for the week after September 11, I was astonished by the palpable solidarity of the American people. William James, who witnessed the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, had described a similar group psychological phenomenon. But nothing I have lived through myself, not even Pearl Harbor, seemed to generate such a spontaneous collective outpouring of solidarity across the nation. This is not just some archetypal emotion welling up from the evolutionary past of the threatened group, but a new video-mediated ("I see" is the translation for the Latin "video") collective experience. We all saw the horror happen again and again, and came together as a nation.

President Bush announced the troubling side of this national unity: the rest of the world was either for us or against us. Group psychology contains countless demonstrations of how easy it is to divide people into "them against us," and countless historical cases demonstrate how difficult it is to reunite the severed parts. Erik Erickson, the psychologist, described what we do as pseudo-speciation. We make the other into a different species with whom no bond of common humanity can be found, and against whom no weapon is unjustified. As we rallied from the terrorist attack the alien other was defined: Bin Laden—think Hitler!—and the Taliban—think Nazis! —and the bombing of Afghanistan began. Against this backdrop, Divided We Fall offers a story about human frailty, the possibility of a healing aftermath—and, yes, forgiveness.

According to the distributor's publicity release, the film is "based on a true story." Nothing could be further from the truth. Jan Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovsky, friends since high school and classmates at the Prague Film Academy, know little about the Holocaust that is not common knowledge. Their film is based not on a true story but on something better, their Czech wit and imagination.

Hrebejk and Jarchovsky wrote the first script together but couldn't raise enough money to make the film. Jarchovsky then decided to turn it into a novel which has as its central conceit the Christ story with a Jewish Holocaust survivor as the "holy" father of "our Saviour"—a child who symbolizes forgiveness and a new beginning. This profanation may offend people of tradition, whether Jews or Christians. "What Jew wants Christ as the answer to the Holocaust?" asked an Israeli friend after she saw the film. And I very much doubt that the Pope will be inviting these Czechs to the Vatican for a private screening, as he did with Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful, that meretricious, feel-good exploitation of the Holocaust that was showered with awards by the Jerusalem Film Festival and Hollywood. Divided We Fall succeeds in every way that Benigni failed. It overcomes the stereotypes that Life is Beautiful only reinforces. But the Czech film is sacrilege to the true believers of the world. Like all secular humanism it puts its faith not in angels but in mortal, imperfect human beings.

The Christ story in Divided We Fall is not an imposition of some critical interpretation. The husband and wife are named Josef and Marie; the inseminating Jew is named David from whose line the Bible tells us will come the Messiah. Anna Siskova, the Slovakian actress who plays Marie, is repeatedly filmed in front of a painting of the Virgin Mary and in one scene she merges with her "Lady." Like many apocryphal versions of the Christ story, this one makes the husband, Josef (played by Bolek Polivka), incapable of fathering a child. One can understand how the young men had trouble selling the first version of the script.

But in writing the novel Jarchovsky had the opportunity to flesh out the characters and bring depth and nuance to his story. The novel found a publisher and the published novel found a film backer in the Czech State Fund for Cinematography.

Converting the novel back into a script, however, was not without difficulty. The film (originally made for Czech television) ran far too long and had to be cut. As a result, the beginning of the film leaps through time in a montage of scenes. The first shows a chauffeur-driven, vintage automobile (circa 1936) moving along a country road carrying Mr. Wiener, the wealthy Jewish industrialist, his son David (Csongor Kassai) and Josef, then prospering as head of the Wiener's sales division. The chauffeur, Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) will later become a Nazi collaborator. We then leap to 1939, and the Wieners are being evicted from their palatial home and into rooms with Josef and his young wife Marie. A Nazi officer, now in charge of the village, and his family take over the Wiener's home. The next shot is set in 1941 and we see the Wieners being rounded up to be sent to the infamous Theresienstadt camp. They console themselves and their friends with the rumor that the camp is not that bad. The International Red Cross in fact touted Theresienstadt to the world as a model detention camp in 1944, after the Nazis had cleaned it up and sent 40,000 people to the gas chambers in Auschwitz to remedy the overcrowding. Of the approximately 140,000 "unwanted" people sent to the Czech camp, over 120,000 would die. But Theresienstandt was not an Auschwitz death camp. There were many survivors—among them, Ivan Klima, the Czech novelist, who wrote about the experience.

But Divided We Fall is not really interested in telling its audience the historical truth about Theresienstadt or the experience of the Czech Jewish community that had produced Kafka and Mahler. It is not quasi-historical in the manner of last year's acclaimed Sunshine, which accurately describes the fate of the assimilating Jews of Hungary and featured Ralph Fiennes. It is less grand, has no recognizable actors, and in its own way is much more artful.

Divided We Fall is ultimately not about Jews dying in the Holocaust, but about Czechs surviving during the German occupation. It is about the Nazi who moved into the Weiner's home and gladly sent his sons off to be killed in Hitler's wars. It is about Horst, the former chauffeur, who prospered through his collaboration—acquiring Jewish property for the Nazis while his neighbors went without. And it is about Czechs like Josef, with a bad leg that kept him out of the military, and with not enough sperm to get his Marie pregnant—but still a man. Finally it is about decent Czechs who suffered through the war years claiming they hated the Nazis but were too cowardly to join an underground or to help Jews. And Divided We Fall is so artful that by the time it ends we have recognized all of them as human beings and have recognized ourselves in them.

They get the chance to demonstrate their humanity when David Wiener returns to the village emaciated, having escaped from the camps with a tattoo on his arm and no way to survive. His father, mother, and sister have died at Auschwitz. Sheltering him may mean death for you and your family, perhaps for everyone on your block, such is the scale of Nazi intimidation.

The dog-walking Czech who supposedly hates Nazis is the first to spot David in one of those night scenes shot at twelve-frames-a-minute. Without any hesitation he sounds the alarm "Jude." David eludes capture and almost by happenstance hides in Josef's apartment. He asks his father's former employee, whose rooms he once shared, to shelter him for one night. Will there be "room at the Inn"?

The secular humanist has as much trouble with heroes as with Gods and there are no heroes in Divided We Fall. Josef finds it difficult to say "yes," knowing the possible consequences, but his real test comes the next night when David's only possible escape alternative falls through. The situation is grim and we feel it, but from the first scene in which the vintage car stops so that one of the men can urinate to the last, the film mixes comedy—actually a kind of farce—with the grim reality.

Sometimes described as "absurd humanism," this genre draws on the literature of Mitteleuropa and the Czech theatrical convention of village farce. To cineastes it recalls the Czech New Wave tradition of pre-Hollywood Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde) and Jiri Menzell (Closely Watched Trains) before he disappeared into political and creative oblivion. For me the core of this absurd humanism is the question Milan Kundera asks in his best novels: how can one live a moral life in an immoral world? One answer, as in this film, is with laughter and forgiveness. Not that Josef, the Czech everyman, wants to live a moral life; he is decent enough, but considers his own best interests in deciding what to do about David. Pressed by the impulsively good Marie, he decides to hide the emaciated Jew in the attic pantry. But he really has no other choice; by then he is in too deep to explain his way out to the Nazis.

Bolek Polivka, who plays Josef, has had a long career in Czech theater and film and has his own television show. Everyone in Czechoslovakia knows his face, but American audiences will discover a wonderful new actor who is the master of his craft. Polivka is able to sustain the likeableness of Josef in scenes that threaten, mock, and humiliate him.

Ironically (the word can be applied to every twist in the film) Josef's concealment of the escaped Jew—which will last for two years, until the end of the war—forces him into collaboration with Horst. Swollen with his new Aryan importance, the little man has grown a Hitler-style toothbrush mustache, lords it over everyone, and lusts after Marie, whom he drops in on at odd hours. This lecherous visitor, bearing gifts for the terrified couple, creates the elements for a black farce. One night he comes banging on the door when David is out of his hiding place and giving Marie a French lesson. Marie jumps into her bed, pulls David under the quilt with her, and explains to Horst that she is sick. A wrestling match ensues as Horst tried to impose himself on her and the strange lumps under the quilt. He ends up holding on to David's hand before the struggle is over. Does he know whose hand it is? This is a scene from a classic bedroom farce—but with consequences undreamed of by traditional farceurs, like the great Feydau or the contemporary Aykborn. Marie is not hiding a lover in her bed and the consequences of David's discovery are too awful to contemplate. The wit and imagination that invented this absurd and strangely hilarious scene is what I meant by something better than a true story. Perhaps the despicable Horst knows whose hand it is and that he will use that knowledge to force Marie's submission. Perhaps Horst, with his Hitler mustache, is a decent man who would not want to see his friends and his former employer David murdered by the Nazis. He certainly is more than some simple stereotype, and Jaroslav Dusek, the actor who plays Horst, is equal to the demands of the part.

Horst does convince Marie to go on a picnic with him. When his amorous efforts are repelled he attempts to rape her. A kick in the groin leaves him curled up on the ground cursing. As revenge, Horst attempts to force a new boarder on Marie and Josef—a sick Nazi, who will complicate their living arrangements. Josef in fending him off says that his wife is pregnant and they will need any extra space for their new baby. Of course he is sterile, but the desperate Josef has an inspiration—David will impregnate his Marie. The two are appropriately shocked and loathe to proceed. Undaunted, Josef pushes them into bed together and gives his benediction. It is an innocent copulation, a violation of the Ten Commandments, but in this black farce it would be difficult to condemn it as a mortal sin. Marie's swelling belly holds off Horst until the Russians arrive.

During the passage of time until the war ends we watch the starched Nazi commandant in the Weiner's home wilt as he learns about the death of his sons at the front. He is slowly transformed before our eyes from the arrogant Nazi to the pathetic father who must send his last son, still a child, off to his death. We last see that broken man—humbled by a stroke, spit on by the Czechs he dominated—awaiting his execution by the partisans for whom justice is revenge. Divided We Fall wants us to pity the commandant and we do: even the Nazis are human beings in this film.

As the Bohemian village is freed, the farcical plot takes more absurd twists. Marie is finally ready to give birth, and Josef runs to get the only doctor but he is dead. The desperate husband remembers that Horst once boasted he had delivered one of his own children. He talks his way into the makeshift prison where the partisans and Soviets are holding their enemies—among them the Nazi commandant and Horst. Josef gambles everything, and to the partisans in charge, who do not know the villagers, he identifies Horst as the doctor. To Marie's horror, Horst turns up to deliver David's child. Horst, whose life has been spared, successfully delivers the child and Josef pronounces him a decent man.

The final scene was too much for some critics but was surely in the absurd-humanist spirit of the entire movie. Josef, a tall awkward man, is shown pushing a perambulator through still smoking ruins. People are already rebuilding their village. Off to one side in the middle distance Josef sees a group of people sitting around a table. It is the Wieners who died at Auschwitz and with them the youngest son of the Nazi commandant who died on the Eastern Front. Josef lifts up his Christ child to greet these dead souls and then ruefully shows them his hand on which the child has peed.

Divided We Fall is art that shows us in our common humanity the possibility of laughter and forgiveness. In the years ahead we can hope for more such films—the world will need them.<



For more film reviews by Alan Stone, click here or choose from a list of



Alan A. Stone is Toureff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School.

Originally published in the December 2001 / January 2002 issue of Boston Review



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