A slow burn leads to a powerful payoff at the denouement of Czech period drama “In the Shadow,” which intriguingly brings a film-noir sensibility to a time of great political tension, in much the same way Warner Bros. created socially conscious Hollywood entertainments in the 1930s and 1940s. The item will earn fest play and strong sales on the twin strengths of its Jewish themes and its status as the Czech Republic’s official submission to the Academy Awards in the foreign-language film category.
In the spring of 1953, the Czechoslovak Communist Party implemented a long-rumored currency reform that effectively devalued personal savings by a ratio of 50 to one. This followed by some months the most notorious of the Jewish Show Trials in Prague, known by the name of its most high-profile defendant, Rudolf Slansky, a power struggle that was really over control of direction within the communist leadership.
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Flipping the chronology of these two events, screenwriters Marek Epstein, David Ondricek (who also helmed) and Misha Votruba have linked them via a plot point that is the essence of noir: one man’s struggle against a corrupt system. The hero here is police captain Jarda Hakl (Ivan Trojan), an honest and determined cop whose investigation of a seemingly routine jewelry-store robbery uncovers an orchestrated effort by state security agents to detain and eliminate Jewish citizens, whom they accuse of a U.S.-instigated plot to smuggle gold to Berlin to support the “Zionist separatist” war in Israel.
Hakl senses the charges are bogus, and after expending a good bit of shoe leather and deciphering an intricate murder scene, he can prove it. This puts him in direct conflict with not only his soon-to-be-promoted boss, Panek (Jiri Stepnicka), but also Zenke (Sebastian Koch), a former Nazi officer and Russian prisoner who’s been sent by Moscow to work the case.
Though distant from wife Jitka (Sona Norisova), Hakl is close with his boy, Tom (Filip Antonio), to whom he reads Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Later, he uses the imagery of the giant squid as a neat metaphor to explain to Tom that someday, when the beast is tired and weak, “someone will defeat it.” That someone could be Hakl, if an unlikely and uneasy alliance he forges with Zenke can hold.
In a marked change of pace from the more comedic vibe of earlier films such as “Loners,” “One Hand Can’t Clap” and “Grandhotel,” Ondricek, who developed this from an idea by his father, noted cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, is unafraid to lay the tale’s groundwork in leisurely yet deliberate fashion. If there’s less character backstory than the plot might have dictated, the overarching theme of right rising up against wrong, against overwhelming odds, nevertheless resonates clearly.
Trojan shows again why he is among the country’s most revered actors, while the solid Koch, best known for “The Lives of Others,” summons memories of the repressive times dramatized in that film. Most members of the rank-and-file cast play nearly faceless men in topcoats and fedoras, and play them well. Co-producer Krystof Mucha has a small but pivotal role as a police ballistics expert.
Tech package is pro, led by the evocative drabness of lenser Adam Sikora’s visual palette, Jarmila Konecna’s costumes and the melodic, just-this-short-of-bombastic score by Jan P. Muchow and Michal Novinski. The pic is dedicated to victims of the show trials and “all of the unknown heroes who have fought against injustice.”