Friday 4 July 2008

The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1965)

A Czech New Wave film made in 1965 three years before the Soviet invasion, it outwardly rails against the Nazis while internally railing against the Communists. I've seen a few Czech New Wave films and I've found them both more artistic and more controlled than their equivalents in the French New Wave. Unlike films like Loves of a Blonde, The Shop on Main Street or Closely Watched Trains, which I'd heard of but knew nothing about, I hadn't even heard of this one or of its director, Dbynek Brynych.

It's an intriguing film, full of suspicion and suggestion. There are many scenes full of people looking at other people, often in stairwells with one person walking through the scene. With some notable exceptions, we don't know who any of these people are or what they stand for, but our imaginations are fired as to what questions they're asking. All we know is that they're asking a lot of questions without ever opening their mouths. There are Richard Kirchenberger trucks everywhere, and while we have no clue who Richard Kirchenberger is or what he does, the fim suggests much. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get you, and when you're a Jewish doctor in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia it's pretty likely that they're all out to get you.

The particular Jewish doctor that we follow through this film is Dr Braun, forbidden from practising because of his faith but torn between duty and obedience. The film becomes his quest to find balance between the two, though more obviously it has to do with at attempt to find morphine in a city where morphine is not easily found. His internal torment especially has to do with the fact that even though he's Jewish, he works at the Department of Confiscation of Jewish Property, yet he operates on a man he doesn't know because some neighbours beg him to. After removing the bullets from his wounds, he needs morphine and has to travel through a bizarre city to find it.

The Department of Confiscation of Jewish Property is only the beginning, but it's a surreal sight, full of labels and organisation. It isn't something we expect to see, especially when the man walking through it is the last person we expect to see there, and it's a highly appropriate place to start. On his search for morphine, Dr Braun has to find his way through many more locations in which he very obviously doesn't fit. Each is powerful in a different way, while always keeping that paranoia alive. The camera roves around the scenes and finds things that may or may not have meaning, and prompts us to wonder about each of them.

The shower scene is perhaps the most striking, not least because this is a film about Jews and Nazis. Beginning with an empty mass shower, it can't help but have impact, but as the young ladies come in and that roving camera moves over them, we question what we're seeing and why. This is no exploitation film, that's for certain. It turns out that they're all prostitutes preparing for a debauched Nazi party. There are many powerful scenes in the brothel, then in the Desperation Bar, in the Jewish sanitarium, back at the house, in the cellar. All are very definable locations and all contain great power.

I'm far from knowledgeable about Czech actors of the New Wave era, or any other time for that matter, but the cast is large and many actors have opportunity to shine. Most obvious is Miroslav Machácek as Dr Braun, and he's excellent, whether providing us with a monologue or simply being in frame, but there are others too: Josef Vinklár plays the civil defense warden, Mr Fanta, a little like Peter Lorre would. Jirí Adamíra is a very calm lawyer. Slávka Budínová is the insane and suicidal wife of one of Dr Braun's colleagues. Tomás Hádl plays a young inquisitive boy. Olga Scheinpflugová is a senile music teacher. There are so many memorable parts in this film that it's hard to pick just a few, and some I can't even track down, such as the hopeless case in the Desperation Bar.

The cinematography is excellent, whether the camera is roving or not, and there are many shots that stick in the mind just like the characters. One notable shot has a group of people standing behind a rack of pool cues that looks like bars on a cell, but it's made to look like part of a shot not the whole thing. The film is full of subtleties, not slaps in the face. In fact there's so much subtlety here that it's hard to even distinguish between the different jobs to see what shone greatest: the acting, the writing, the cinematography, the direction. All are outstanding, as is the film.

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