I am writing with regard to your review of Jan Hrebejk’s Divided We Fall (Short Subjects, 7/6). I take serious issue with your assessment of this film, which you see as not exactly “dishonest,” but “off-key.”
The caption under the photograph reads: “Nazi Party: Siskova and Polivka try to deliver a good-time Holocaust comedy.” This is a ridiculous statement, as the film can hardly be called a “good-time” comedy, or even a farce. Black comedy, yes, but certainly this is not the same as “good-time” comedy. In the still photo, Marie Cizkova (Anna Siskova), is lying down, about to give birth, and her husband Josef Cizek (the classic comic actor Boleslav Polivka) is standing over her, with a comically distressed expression on his face, gesturing to her to stop saying whatever she is saying. In the background an older gentleman is standing, looking concerned. I think that looking into the background of this still photograph might clarify the complexities behind a film that is certainly not a “Holocaust comedy” of the Life is Beautiful variety, but rather a black comedy about collaboration.
The film takes its place in a long tradition of Czech black comedy, beginning with The Good Soldier Schweik. The question of collaboration, of the ethics of collaboration, is at the center of the film: For Europeans, the question of rereading the Second World War not as merely an occupation by a foreign power of their innocent nations, but as a time of a myriad of tiny ethical choices, is crucial. Many Jewish concentration-camp survivors (including Primo Levi) have written of the difficulties of their return from the camps, of the lack of welcome from friends and neighbors, of the return to homes pillaged and often taken over by these friends and neighbors (not only German neighbors, either): In Divided We Fall, David’s return occurs before the end of the war, but we still see the cold reaction of the neighbors, who consider themselves to be suffering just as much as (if not more than) the Jews.
Divided We Fall considers the question of collaboration from many different angles, and as Mark Jenkins points out in the review, ends with an “ironic hint of Czechoslovakia’s ‘rebirth’ under another form of tyranny.” The film is a very subtle, often hilarious look into the everyday life of a Czech family during the Second World War; the character of David, the young Jewish man, is the hinge upon which the ethical questions of the Czech homefront turn, rather than the focus of the movie. The Holocaust is used as a reference point to show that the tiny ethical decisions of collaboration had enormous, catastrophic consequences.