Saturday 2 November 2013

Czech film noir at the UK Jewish Film Festival

This evening, despite the best (worst?) efforts of London Underground, I reached the Tricycle just in time to catch the beginning of Czech movie In The Shadow (Czech title - Ve Stinu). In the Q&A session that followed, director David Ondricek said he was inspired by film noir, naming Hitchcock as a particular inspiration. That noir influence was obvious throughout the movie with clues, diversions and twists in the tale occurring to the last minute.

Set in Prague in 1953 during the time of a currency devaluation and just five years after the coup that brought the communists to power this detective story makes reference to real historic events. In a very grey 1950's Prague, police captain Jarda Hakl investigates what appears to be a routine robbery with some routine suspects until he uncovers what appears to be an effort by state security agents to frame, detain and eliminate Jewish citizens.

Hakl is an interesting character, played by Ivan Trojan who turns in a terrific performance as a cop with a conscience. The scenes with his young son are particularly touching. Equally impressive is German actor Sebastian Koch in the role of former Nazi officer Zenke who is brought in to help with the case, perhaps demonstrating the easy accommodation Communism was able to make with its former sworn enemy - Fascism. Koch will be familiar to those who enjoyed the excellent German film The Lives of Others from 2006. 

The film makes direct reference to the infamous Rudolf Slansky show trial of 1952 at which eleven people, nine of them Jews were accused and convicted of participating in a "zionist conspiracy" and subsequently executed despite there being no evidence to support the charges. Just five years after the German occupation of Prague was over, Jews were again being hunted and in this case hung in the Czech capital.

The film communicates very clearly the climate of fear that pervaded communist societies - something the director spoke about both before and after the screening  - and how the propaganda vehicle was all pervasive from the slogans of the newspaper seller in Wenceslas Square to the anti-Kulak poems taught to Czech children in school. Equally effective were the efforts of ordinary Czechs to maintain some form of dignity and inner life, shown in the film through the Hakl family listening to classical music on their rather elegant radio, reading Jules Verne aloud to their son and valuing art when money loses its value. 

In The Shadow was screened as part of the first weekend of this year's UK Jewish Film Festival as well as being part of the current Made in  Prague, Czech-O-Slovak film series. It has already picked up a number of awards at film festivals and will hopefully get a wider UK release. If it does - go and see it. A great start to this year's festival.

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