This is perhaps the first European film to depict the reality of the Holocaust after the end of WWII. Almost directly after its release it was declared undesirable under a new censorship system and was banned/abandoned until the early 90s.
There's a lot to like here but a lot that just does not work. Alfréd Radok (who exiled himself from Czechoslovakia soon after the film premiered) is a formal gadfly, attacking his themes from every angle, juxtaposing a fictionalised portrait of life in the Therezin concentration camp with documentary footage of the Nazis' rise to power and their atrocities during the war. There's incessant camera movement, dutch angles galore, rapid editing alongside long takes and a feverish soundscape that blends a bombastic score with sounds from the Therezin tumult which are fetishised, blown out and repeated over and over, turning physical threat, torture, death and starvation into an illustration of a collective psychology. Radok's Therezin is a superbly detailed, explorable setting, as mazelike and recursive as Duvivier's casbah. However his style is so hyperactive and his mise-en-scène so busy that it only really gels in these camp scenes, where the throngs of people and the hysterical, paranoid tenor of life interact to turn something like the powerful final scene (where a girl bangs on a broken piano to signal the approach of liberating forces to her fellow inmates) into an overwhelming spectacle. And there are piquant quiet moments, too - particularly one where the patriarch of a Jewish family sits, shrouded in cigar smoke, before escaping the camera's gaze and jumping from an open window. However for every moment where Radok's structural tics work there's a moment where they simply don't, such as a passage in a pawn shop where an old man descends into madness while wearing a sheet of Star of David patches like a shroud, or a moment where a husband looks for his wife in her medical clinic, efforts to amp up the terror she feels as she hears what she thinks are Gestapo footsteps fall totally flat, as close-ups of syringes, hanging lamps and table corners are eclipsed by the horribly melodramatic score.
Really, the narrative he sets up, between the eye doctor and her Gentile husband, dissolves into myriad vaguely-defined subplots so early on that it might well have not existed in the first place. You get the feeling there's supposed to be some sort of character(s)-study in here but it is given short shrift and is essentially drowned out by the clamour of narrative voices in the second half. And the incorporation of documentary footage is interesting but works against the successful development of an emotional core in the fiction passages, especially when the final shot of each 'chapter' is minimised and set against the newsreel in a bizarre use of split screen.
There's some fantastic scenes here but I think the entire thing collapses into itself a bit. I wish there were more of a narrative and stylistic throughline, although this is still a candy store of filmmaking innovation and quite entertaining.
Latest notable first-time viewings:
* The Sun in a Net / Uher
** The Seashell and the Clergyman / Dulac
The Tales of Beatrix Potter / Mills
* A Flood in Ba'ath Country / Amiralay
Times and Winds / Erdem
Most Beautiful Island / Asensio
* Japanese Girls Never Die / Matsui
* Birth Certificate / Różewicz
Bush Mama / Gerima
** Paris Is Burning / Livingston
TWEET1 | TWEET2 | FACE | BOXD | TUMBL1 | TUMBL2