Jan Sverak’s terrifically handsome, entertaining Dark Blue World is symptomatic of what has become of the European film on American shores. As the cultural and political forces that forge great art have moved to Asia and the Middle East, Europe’s moviemaking has grown complacent, polished, and audience-friendly. It’s not a crime to craft a good-looking movie that makes sense, but it does seem that, at least to judge from the films that obtain American distribution, the European art landscape can be identified by its tallest landmarks, each waving the international symbol of excruciating uplift from its tower. Italian cinema opts for simpering cuteness, French film for middle-class farce. Sverak’s own sentimental Kolya charmed an Academy Award out of Stateside voters, and no wonder: It was pure Hollywood with subtitles.
Glitteringly beautiful and expertly mimicking the smooth emotional cadences of Spielberg and other box-offices slickies, Dark Blue World tells the story of Czech pilots flying for the British Royal Air Force. It’s divided into three sections whose chronology is jumbled, with bits of narration to add connective tissue when Sverak’s screenwriter father, Zdenek Sverak, can’t find a way to show without explicit telling. A less pretentious—how could it not be?—English Patient, the film has scope and action but no weight or mass, no burden of history.
Franta Slama (Ondrej Vetchy) is still a young man when he’s first shown, ill with pneumonia and imprisoned in a forced-labor camp by the new Communist regime. The microcosmic prison is stripped down to its barest elements: the brave Franta, who fought against the Nazis as a member of the RAF; Houf (Miroslav Taborsky), a Czech citizen whose craven sense of self-preservation got him through the war but not its aftermath; and the taciturn Herr Doktor Blaschke (Hans-Jorg Assmann), a more complicated and less disgraceful man than the SS tattoo on his hand might indicate. Asked how he became an enemy of the state, Franta flashes back to the recent past, when he escaped the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia with his friend and protege Karel (Krystof Hadek) for the proving ground of an RAF air base.
The crosscutting and narration ease the story’s slide, but the devices are too expedient. Jumping around in time takes viewers from Point A to Point B to fast for them to feel anything, all the while tidily telegraphing how the characters feel—bored and anxious in prison, frustrated at having to learn English before they can fly, rapturous in the brief period before the war. As Franta and Karel bide their time in training, smoking endless cigarettes with other Czech pilots and wondering how to pick up English girls, the film is buoyant and full of youthful lilt. Sverak never lets the camera linger when he can float through a scene, but he hits the screenplay’s little jokes and ironies with a less breezy touch: A shot of the Czech trainees pedaling bicycles outfitted with miniature wings across a green field is a delight until the inevitable collision, tangle, and repeat; a sign in the war room reading “Aim Well” has its payoff in the very next shot, in which it hangs over a latrine, and the men resort to speaking Czech the moment they’re flying, which dissipates some power from a final, touching airborne conversation not meant for foreign ears.
Overeager Karel, a natural flyer, bails out of his plane during an early dogfight and finds himself at a farmhouse, where Susan (Tara Fitzgerald) takes care of evacuated London children while awaiting news of her husband, a Navy man presumed dead. Lonely and tenderhearted, she takes Karel in for the night, and in the swoon of teenage deflowerment, Karel decides that he’s hopelessly in love. Naturally, he brings his best friend to meet the woman of his dreams, and naturally, a spark that could be seen from a Spitfire cruising at 30,000 feet passes between Franta and Susan. To find out what happens next, just watch the white balloon that has escaped from the RAF base’s celebration and lodged itself against the ceiling as a symbol of the men’s “bubble” of comradeship—Blaschke’s well-chosen word—and Karel’s hopes.
One of the most interesting things about war, when you think about it, is the fact of war. The nonwar war movie is an American invention, typified by the laughter-tears/conversation
-action/brotherhood-romance push-pull of conflict. There isn’t a lot of war in Dark Blue World—the pilots seem to fly right over their base for combat—but there is plenty of finely drawn downtime at the base and in the prison. Sveraks senior and junior have a keen and kindly sense of how men talk when they’re together, and their small reactions—Karel sniffing the missing husband’s pajamas, the musician Machaty (Oldrich Kaiser) taking a drag off his blue-smoking cigarette without removing his hands from the piano keys—are sublime.
But the romance is powerful only insofar as it, too, is unspooled through the men in question. Karel’s puppyishness is just begging for a swift kick, and whatever Susan’s attractions might be (Fitzgerald doesn’t seem to know), there’s no doubting Franta’s passion, completely locked in behind his steady, watchful eyes. Vetchy is a beautiful actor without being a handsome one (Hadek is just the opposite, and therefore equally effective), and the grace with which Franta acknowledges his own betrayal brings a grandeur to his resignation during imprisonment—and to a future which Sverak leaves uncharacteristically vague. CP