After the Velvet Revolution, a fiftysomething Sudetenland train dispatcher is visited by ghosts from his and the region’s past in “Alois Nebel,” the visually accomplished feature debut of Czech helmer Tomas Lunak. A portrait of the fractured psychology of a man and his country, this animated adaptation of Jaroslav Rudis and Jaromir 99’s graphic-novel trilogy might be too historically and regionally specific to fully resonate abroad, though Lunak’s superbly atmospheric black-and-white rotoscope feature does rep yet another impressive adult-oriented entry in the animated genre. Sept. 29 local release might work as an upscale niche item offshore.
Story unspools in Sudetenland, an ethnically German area of Bohemia and Silesia that was part of Czechoslovakia. Because of the Nazi atrocities committed in Czechoslovakia, the Sudeten Germans were expelled in the immediate aftermath of the war, many via train.
This background info, which could be added onscreen overseas, provides something of a handle on the time-hopping narrative, though graphic novelists-cum-screenwriters Rudis and Jaromir 99’s work also thrives on a sense of mystery. “Nebel” is also heavily indebted to film noir, a quality heightened by the at-times almost woodcut-like visuals, in stark black, white and gray. The work of novelist Bohumil Hrabal, whose “Closely Watched Trains” was successfully filmed in black-and-white by Jiri Menzel in 1966, also reps an obvious touchstone, though sex is notably absent here.
Nebel’s surname means “fog” in German (and, in a pleasing irony, “life” when read backward), and in 1989, the year communism came crashing down, he’s a withdrawn man who prefers the regularity of train timetables to the capriciousness and cruelty of human nature. But the past of this ordinary-looking dispatcher, with his moustache, black-rimmed glasses and Railways cap, comes back to haunt him whenever the bad weather and loneliness of his faraway Czech Sudetenland station get to him.
Rain, snow and, of course, fog are almost omnipresent, and the latter is often used as a swipe between past and present, allowing Nebel to get lost in the mists of time. Rendered with a supple, semi-translucent smokiness, the fog stands in direct contrast with the thick black outlines of the figures, objects and buildings, visually underlining the idea that the present is not as clear-cut and concrete as it might at first appear.
Though foremost a mood and character piece, pic contains some noirish action and suspense, including the scenes involving a mysterious, on-the-run mute who turns up at the station and, later, at a sanatorium where Nebel has been taken. Lunak occasionally spices things up with camera movements and possibilities only animation can offer, such as a sequence in which, during a backward-moving dolly shot, a station corridor changes into a speeding train.
Czech actors played the characters in costume and on set, and the footage was then traced over by animators, much as in Richard Linklater’s rotoscope feature “A Scanner Darkly.” This allows Lunak to combine a graphic-novel look with an underlying humanity that comes from more than just voice work.
Thesp Miroslav Krobot lends Nebel credible notes of world-weariness and anxiety, while Marie Ludvikova, as a janitor at Prague Central Station who might offer Nebel a form of redemption after the Velvet Revolution, impresses with her deeply felt humanity, despite her low station. Rugged-looking character thesp Karel Roden (“Hellboy”) is perfectly cast as the mute.
Petr Kruzik’s score further turns up the sense of unease and foreboding.