Half-century-old nationalist agendas are at work in the World War II-era "Habermann," veteran Czech helmer Juraj Herz's adaptation of the Joseph Urban novel about a wealthly wartime expatriate in a small Czech town.
Half-century-old nationalist agendas are at work in the World War II-era “Habermann,” veteran Czech helmer Juraj Herz’s adaptation of the Joseph Urban novel about a wealthly wartime expatriate in a small Czech town. More soap opera than high drama, the film is confused and confusing, and tedious to boot. Though it’s the type of programming that might be called “sturdy” were it to play on television, the current theatrical run will do little to recommend it.
“Habermann’s” chaotically violent opening — in which ethnic Germans in the postwar Czech town of Eglau are being violently evicted — is a red herring: An obvious, and dubious, attempt to equate the excesses of postwar Czechs with the Holocaust, it suggests parallels that don’t really stand up to scrutiny, and are as full of latent vitriol as Herz’s portrait of Eglau itself, a small fictional village located in circa-1937 Sudetenland (which Hitler will annex in 1938). There, ethnic German August Habermann (Mark Waschke) runs a flourishing mill, provides the area’s chief source of employment, and is about to marry the most beautiful girl in town, when the tide of history begins to turn against him.
The initial crisis (there are many) involves the bride-to-be, Jana (Hannah Herzsprung). Although raised in a convent, she is, according to the birth certificate delivered to her groom on the day of the wedding, half Jewish. This is recognized by everyone who sees the document, including the groom, the feckless mayor (Andrej Hryc), and Habermann’s best friend Karel (Karel Roden) to be a huge problem, given the town’s imminent Nazification — though it turns out to be almost inconsequential to the story.
Likewise, another stunning example of wayward plotting: In a moment that comes out of nowhere — and goes right back again — Jana is shown sleeping with Karel, because after some indefinite time Habermann hasn’t given her any children. She is, shortly thereafter, pregnant with a child who has almost nothing to do with the plotline.
Metaphorically, however, the child serves as an intriguing symbol: Though it makes no difference to the rest of the movie, Habermann — a virtually passionless central character, and one with whom it is almost impossible to engage — is established as impotent. All around him, people are being driven to various extremes. On one hand, an anti-German insurgency is afoot around the village; on the other, Habermann’s brother Hans ( Wilson Gonzalez-Ochsenknecht), who waxes ecstatic about the rise of Hitler, first enlists in the Nazi Youth, and then runs off to join the Wermacht. Habermann, however, is more interested in maintaining the status quo, however he can, within the universe of his small Czech town. Once the Nazis march in, this means dealing with the local s turmbannfuhrer, Koslowski (Ben Becker), which makes Habermann something of an overripe symbol of moral cowardice, and/or sterility.
But his wishy-washiness affects the movie as whole; until the end, when everything starts coming apart and the Czechs turn into a vengeful mob, there’s not a lot to get excited about, despite the fact a world war is going on.
Production values are good, although the music, perhaps as expected, is manipulative.