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With: Bolek Polivka, Anna Siskova, Jaroslav Dusek, Csongor Kassai
Written by: Petr Jarchovsky, Jan Hrebejk
Directed by: Jan Hrebejk
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content
Language: Czech, German with English subtitles
Running Time: 122
Date: 03/16/2000

Divided We Fall (2000)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Not-So-Divine Comedy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the mid-1980s, movie studios suddenly flooded us with Vietnam movies: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Casualties of War and even Rambo: First Blood Part II. In the middle of the storm, it was difficult to see which was which and to choose the real art from the sludge. In retrospect, Stanley Kubrick's eerie, underrated Full Metal Jacket looks a whole lot better than Oliver Stone's melodramatic Oscar-winning Platoon. Now we're in the middle of a similar squall, smashed with dozens of World War II movies, both dealing with the battles (Pearl Harbor) and with the Nazi persecution of innocents (The Man Who Cried). Already we're starting to lose our way. Despite the fact that Divided We Fall was one of this year's five Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees, I was struck with a profound sense of déjà vu while watching it. Though the film is advertised as a black comedy, its one joke doesn't come until 90 minutes in.

A childless Czech couple, Josef (Bolek Polivka) and Marie (Anna Siskova), live fairly comfortably in their occupied country, befriended by an extroverted Nazi officer, Horst (Jaroslav Dusek), who comes to visit and flirt with the shy Marie. Meanwhile, an escaped Jew and former neighbor, David (Csongor Kassai), appeals to them for help and ends up hiding in their pantry for two years. The movie spends a very long time setting all this up, and the joke comes when Horst shows up asking Josef and Marie to let a downtrodden Nazi officer stay with them. Fearing for David's life, Marie quickly lies and announces that she's pregnant. Despite the fact that Josef is impotent, she must now figure out a way to get pregnant as soon as possible -- it's no mistake the characters are named Marie and Josef. Marie even keeps and continually dusts a giant picture of the Virgin Mary, just in case we miss the connection. I'm afraid that's it for the funny part.

Director Jan Hrebejk fills Divided We Fall with the usual WWII scenes; the couple terrified for their lives, worrying all the time that Nazis will come, and a few close calls. Once Horst's young son comes pounding on the door, scaring the life out of the occupants. But Horst takes the opportunity to explain that he delivered the infant son with his own hands, thereby giving away the only other interesting twist the movie might have had in store. On top of the bland, obvious screenplay, Hrebejk makes an annoying technical decision. Anytime anything tense occurs, he slows his frame rate down so that the image appears jumpy, like a strobe light flashing on the scene. He does this intermittently and repeatedly, so that by the end of the two hours you want to throttle him.

However, the film does cook up a few interesting scenes. In one, the couple has to cook and eat an whole (illegal) pig to make room for David in the pantry; thereby endangering themselves with the forbidden pork smell wafting down the street. But on the whole, we've seen this stuff before. I fear that the Academy only chose the film as one of the five Oscar nominees because of its subject matter. Indeed, it's important that we never forget what happened during those dark days, and passing these stories on will be our saving grace. But the stories should be heartfelt and real (like The Man Who Cried), not just half-hearted attempts at comedy. Perhaps in the future Divided We Fall will come out ahead of the other WWII films, but for now I would rank it around the mid-level of Jakob the Liar and Aimee and Jaguar -- films that should be cut away from the real achievements, albeit carefully.

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