(Czech and Dutch dialogue)
We’ll keep love and politics separate,” asserts Maria to Karol, her secret police lover, though viewers of “Winter ’89” will know that in the 1970s Eastern European setting of the film, this isn’t only a naive assumption, but a potentially lethal misunderstanding. Auds looking for a compelling, subtle examination of the corrosive effects of totalitarianism will be drawn to the terrific lead perfs and Israeli-Dutch helmer Danniel Danniel’s nicely nuanced feel for his characters’ poignant dilemma. Fests, especially those focusing on politics and human rights, should warm to this effort, as will Eurotube and cable outlets.
Being a carefree student with a zest for life in one of the Soviet Union’s satellite nations (pointedly not identified, but clearly Czechoslovakia) wasn’t a simple proposition. Art student Maria (Marketa Hrubesova) quickly learns the consequences of dallying with bad cop Karol (Petr Motloch) when her university friends turn away in fear of Karol’s motives and methods. Given his task to inform, collect and help torture “subversives,” their fear is well grounded. In fact, Karol is also a victim of his profession, a point that proves to be the most controversial aspect of the film.
Shifting in time between their ’70s romance, courtship, marriage and the birth of their child, Nina (Juliana Johanidesova), and 1989, when Maria has fled her homeland to the Netherlands, film juxtaposes both the changes wrought by time and the East-vs.-West sociocultural mind-sets. This shift is exemplified by Nina’s fury and resultant dabbling in drugs and masochism, which Danniel effectively mines for its eerie resemblance to her father’s grim livelihood.
The difference is that Karol was ordered (and rewarded) to drug and maim, while Nina has chosen her debasement. Pic provocatively suggests the connection between Nina’s behavior and her father’s profession in a “sins of the father” tragic fulfillment, as well as the ironic self-destruction of Westerners willingly becoming their own oppressors, torturers and executioners.
Writer-director also raises questions about the courage of those who supposedly resisted state policies, and the hidden acts of those who secretly complied with the state. Very clear is the human toll of oppression and systematic terror, and pic is fair enough to Karol’s character to suggest that the young man who sold his soul was subsequently capable of measuring the damage he had done to himself, his family and his country.
“Winter ’89” isn’t about expiation, but rather a plea for examination of the past and its lingering effect on the current inhabitants of the regions now a decade out of the Communist grip. In its exploration of the complexities of relationships torn by ideological realities, film echoes such politically charged dramas as Resnais’ “La guerre est finie” and Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.”
Tech credits are solid, with vet d.p. Vladimir Smutny (“Kolya”) tackling the film’s low-budget constraints with resourcefulness and vigor. The re-creation of ’70s East Euro life is especially convincing and vivid.