Collaborators, heroes and victims: the Holocaust as portrayed in Czech film


Czechoslovakia as well as other Central European countries had a large Jewish community before the Second World War. Many of its Jewish citizens perished in concentration camps and survivors had to face up to the horrors of what they had been through. Many also felt a need to tell others about what had happened in the death camps. This helped to originate a lot of good films in post-war Czechoslovakia.

'Distant Journey'
One of the very first films about the Holocaust from any country was the Czech film "Daleka cesta" - "Distant Journey" by Alfred Radok in 1948. The story which takes place in the concentration camp Terezin tells about a marriage between a Jewish woman and a Czech gentile. As film historian Alice Aronova points out, it was an exceptional picture which completely departed from what was than called "socialist realism art".

"It was a drama which was made in a very original and suggestive way. It reflected the destiny of its author - Alfred Radok, who due to his Jewish origin spent part of the war in a concentration camp and lost a lot of his relatives there. What is very interesting is that the author not only narrates the story but also uses a lot of documentary material."

Romeo, Juliet and Darkness
But even though the film was internationally very successful and later became an inspiration for the Czechoslovak "film new wave" in the sixties, it wasn't well accepted by the Communist regime.

"The Communists then accused Radok of being too formalist, existentialist and supportive to Zionism, which was very typical for the communist ideology. The film was shown only in a few minor cinemas and it was fully banned in 1968 when Radok left the country."

'Diamonds in the Night'
Later, mainly in the sixties, there were a number of other films with the Holocaust theme which gained a great success. They include "Romeo, Juliet and Darkness" by Jiri Weiss, and "Diamonds in the Night" by Jiri Nemec. Stories of Jews from the war were well depicted in the novels of the famous writer Arnost Lustig, himself a Holocaust survivor. His "Dita Saxova" and "Prayer for Katerina Horowitzova" were made into excellent films by Antonin Moskalyk. But the best known piece of that time is definitely the Oscar winning "Obchod na korze" - "Shop on the Main Street" by Jan Kadar & Elmar Klos in 1965.

The film describes in an interesting way the issue of collaboration with Germans in the Slovak state during the war. It is a story about a man who is considering an offer by the authorities to take over a little shop belonging to an old Jewish woman, as part of the process the Nazis called "Aryanisation". The man agrees, but later, when the Jews are forced to leave the town, he faces a difficult moral dilemma.

'Shop on the Main Street'
Film historian Alice Aronova again:

"The drama of the man taking over the shop was brilliantly depicted by the Slovak actor Josef Kroner, while his partner - an elderly woman - the owner of the little shop was performed by Ida Kaminska. The film is an example of brilliant acting. It is based on dialogue, on realistic narration, and it stands out by a perfect depiction of human characters."

'All My Loved Ones'
After the Soviet led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and during the following period of so called "Socialist normalization" in the seventies and eighties, films with the Holocaust theme were not much welcomed by the Communist establishment. Only later after the fall of the totalitarian regime Czech film makers started to return to the subject.

In the late nineties Matej Minac made the film "Vsichni moji blizci" - "All My Loved Ones" inspired by the interesting story of Nicholas Winton, a British man who came to Prague and saved over 600 Jewish children by evacuating them to London. Matej Minac believes that the current generation is still interested in these stories which happened more than 60 years ago, because the Holocaust is so hard to comprehend.

"The last survivors of the Holocaust are simply dying out — and it is actually the last chance to talk with first-hand witnesses; to record their stories and try to understand why those things happened, because it is still — even today — a total mystery. One can explain it in many ways; on the other hand, there is no explanation."

It is another film also related to the Holocaust that has attracted the greatest attention in recent years: "Musime si pomahat" - "Divided We Fall" by Jan Hrebejk. The story takes place in Nazi-occupied Czech territory; a childless couple Marie and Josef try to hide a Jewish friend while running a great personal risk of discovery and execution.

Director Jan Hrebejk says they actually did not intend to focus on a Jewish story as much as on the behaviour of Czechs during the Nazi occupation.

Jan Hrebejk
"I think that more than about Jews it is about Czechs - or rather about the coexistence of Czechs, Germans and Jews before and during the war. I think it is about a Czech mentality, Czech cowardice, but also decency. First - during communism - we heard that we were big heroes, later that we were - on the contrary - collaborators, which is rubbish as well. So I thought the subject could be interesting for today's viewers, especially due to ambiguities of how Czechs behaved in the war."

"Divided We Fall" is renowned for its soft humour with which it handles the story. Perhaps this interlacing of happy and sad moments is something typically Czech; and the dark humour that Czechs are famous for — paradoxically — may be the only fitting way to treat such a delicate subject.