Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: PG-13 for adult situations. In German and Czech with English subtitles
Run Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Oscar-nominated director Jan Hrebejk successfully layers a darkly comic spin over a menacing historical period – the occupation by sinister German forces of a struggling Czechoslovakia.
Josef and Marie Cizek (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova) are a childless, married couple surviving the final years of World War II in their small Czech village. When an old Jewish friend, who has miraculously escaped from a German concentration camp, approaches the Cizeks for help, they reluctantly agree to keep him hidden in a concealed room, Anne Frank-style. To distract the attention of the town’s resident Germans, Josef takes a job with Nazi collaborator Horst Prohazka (Jaroslav Dusek), a fumbling nitwit with a lustful crush on Marie. Horst makes unannounced visits to the Cizeks, laden with impossibly decadent gourmet foodstuffs and tasteless Nazi anecdotes. Horst also lavishes Marie with personal gifts confiscated from Jewish households, and peppers her with unsolicited male attention. When Horst ultimately makes an inevitably crude sexual pass, Marie turns him down cold. Not unaware of the Cizeks dirty little secret, Horst takes revenge by attempting to move a Nazi clerical worker into their home.
How to laugh at such misery? The horrors of the time are quelled by quirky camerawork and stabs of marital humor. Unbearable tension is coupled with wit and the consistent element of surprise. The piggish Horst, a Hitler look-alike, is wretchedly hilarious as a Nazi-loving swine who takes himself altogether too seriously. The near-miss blunderings regarding the Jew-in-hiding are borderline slapstick, but can’t completely mask the lingering threat of human atrocity. Oddly uplifting musical score sets a definitive tone – life or death as a circus balancing act.