A masterfully balanced comedic drama about the hard choices faced by citizens of German-occupied Czechoslovakia during the waning days of World War II, “Divided We Fall” confronts an incendiary topic head-on with grace, style, compassion and exquisitely practical wit. Although sure to generate vigorous discussion wherever it plays, life will be beautiful for this emotionally draining, ultimately inspirational pic at fests and in territories worldwide, with solid vid life to follow.
In a small Bohemian village occupied by Nazi forces, childless couple Marie and Josef Cizek (Anna Siskova, Boleslav Polivka), try to lead a normal life in the face of his diagnosed sterility and the chaos swirling just outside their windows. When David Wiener (Csongor Kassai), the only surviving member of a neighboring Jewish family long since deported, escapes from Theresenstadt and shows up on their doorstep seeking shelter, they overcome their trepidation and hide the emaciated young man in a small storage area.
Increasing the tension are sporadic, unannounced visits by Cizek’s pre-war pal Horst Prohazka (Jaroslav Dusek), a boorish collaborator and hirsute Hitler who cracks his knuckles constantly, demonstrates Nazi war strategy with food items and lusts after Marie with increasingly undisguised vigor. He also begins to suspect the Cizeks’ secret.
Devising a plan for continued access to Marie that is half revenge and half subterfuge, Horst attempts to move emotionally shattered Nazi clerk Albrecht Kepke (Martin Huba) from his lodgings at the Wiener house to the Cizeks’ spare bedroom. Marie blocks the strategy, announcing to Josef’s astonishment her need for the room as a nursery. With no choice left, they persuade David, who has developed a rapport with Marie, to get her pregnant as quickly as possible to stave off the Nazis.
As they did in 1993’s “Big Beat” and the 1999 domestic B.O. smash “Cosy Dens” (Pelisky), helmer Jan Hrebejk and scribe Petr Jarchovsky have brought another key period in Czech history to life with authenticity and a rich complexity of character. The nighttime streets and passages of the unnamed village are as murky as the morals of those who survive there, vividly evoking the sentiment of one fearful citizen who marvels ruefully at “what abnormal times can do to normal people.”
The deadly serious business of weeding Jews out of the population is leavened with often audacious humor: Cizek tries to stay calm as a Nazi hovers around a car in which David is hidden, Marie hides the fugitive next to her in bed when her husband arrives home drunk.
On to this slippery slope is cast the bitter yet forlornly dignified Cizek, a bundle of nervous tics and ironic asides fully aware that his furtive looks and smart mouth could get him and his wife into serious trouble in the blink of an eye. Czech media mainstay Polivka shows a new complexity of character on a par with his perf in Vladimir Michalek’s 1996 drama “Forgotten Light.” Careening from one extreme to the other with a studied recklessness, Josef Cizek is a new high for the actor, and Polivka, basing perf on his father, does a demonstrative dance of conflicting emotions as a man who knows what he needs to do but is unclear if he possesses the reservoir of dignity to do it.
Other perfs reach Polivka’s level in service to the whole, with Dusek’s Horst a study in dissolute venality, Siskova’s Marie a model of compassionate strength and Kassai’s David a heartbreakingly vulnerable victim of the times.
Tech credits are tops, marred only by a slo-mo device during moments of stress that quickly wears out its welcome. Title translates as “we must help each other,” with English handle derived from Horst’s ongoing exhortation “united we stand.”