Much-awaited film Lidice opens in Czech cinemas

Karel Roden as František Šíma

This Thursday saw the premiere of the long-awaited film Lidice, the first Czech production to tell the story of one of the darkest periods in Czech history, the destruction of the village of Lidice by the Nazis in 1942.

All of the men as well as boys aged 15 and up were killed and all women and most of the children were sent to concentration camps. The brutal act was part of extensive Nazi retribution for the assassination of acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. The film does not try to give a broader ‘historic’ account of the events but instead focuses on the lives of a number of characters from the village.

One is František Šíma, one of the film’s main protagonists, who spends most of the war in prison for the apparently unintentional murder of his son bizarrely becoming the only man from the village to survive. Zdeněk Mahler wrote the screenplay based on a true story presenting new facts in his book Muž, který přežil Lidice (The Man who Survived Lidice).

Consequently, Mahler’s screenplay and the film itself divide the story arcs between Šíma in prison and people in the village on the outside, fearful under the occupation but unaware of the enormous events that will soon overtake them. Adam Dvořák, Lidice’s editor and producer says he wanted the project to memorialise what happened but also to ‘live and breathe’ as a film.

“I feel that it had to be a ‘memorial’ to Lidice but not an ‘exact’ memorial. What was important to make a film that is somehow lived, and not just a historical ‘monument’. And I think that we succeeded. Also, ninety or 95 percent of it is a true story and just five percent is fictionalised.”

Were you familiar with the story of František Šíma before, the fact that there was this person who survived or was forgotten in prison? That he came back after without even having been told what had happened?

“No, I wasn’t. Not until I read the script. Normally, I hate reading scripts but I read the first ten pages and I was hooked. I had to finish it in one go, reading for five hours. After I completed it I felt what I had known from history was a little different. So I’m glad we could also show it to others.”

Šíma is played by the respected Czech actor Karel Roden (who some viewers will know from US productions like Hellboy or 15 Minutes). Although the quiet, world-weary character as played by Roden is reminiscent of some of his earlier roles, his acting is spot on: a man haunted by his demons who must face the irony of – as a murderer – having survived.

A key point in the film is after the atrocity has taken place, months after Lidice was razed to the ground. Released from prison at last, Roden’s Šíma treads back to the village but is unable to find it. Increasingly frantic, on the snowy ground, he runs until he falls to his knees and begins to dig, looking for any remnants of the foundations. It’s a powerful moment and Adam Dvořák told me more about how the sequence was shot.

Karel Roden as František Šíma
“That scene was shot two months after the main part of production had wrapped. It was very cold and very windy and what I remember is the director Petr Nikolaev saying the helicopter that was used for the aerial shot, had been tossed from side to side and he was afraid it would fall. In the film though it worked out and the camera is great. You can’t tell what they went through to get the shot. Also, when they were shooting Karel Roden was dressed only in light clothing so I think he must have been very cold.”

Roden is really very much appreciated as an actor: in this role do you think he went somewhere as an actor he hasn’t gone before?

“I’m not the right person to judge. But I really like his acting. I think he made a great Šíma.”

Not all though think the film as a whole lives up to expectations: generally-speaking, reviews of the film in the Czech media have been mixed, although ranging across the board: in percentages the film received a positive 80 percent rating from the daily Mladá fronta Dnes, but just a lowly 40 percent from The reasons for the lower rating are probably numerous, but chief among them, at least some critics charge, is that the film was made in an old-fashioned style suitable for thirty or forty years ago. Vojtěch Rynda is a well-known film critic for the weekly magazine Týden; he found more issues with the film than one.

“The main problem with Lidice is that it tries to say far too many things at the same time. It’s a love story, it’s a war movie, it’s a historical film, it’s a tragedy... and you can’t possibly fit all these things into two hours.”

How does the story of František Šíma strike you? That is one of the hooks of the movie, the fact that that there was this man who survived...Do you think this story will be surprising for Czech audiences?

“Well I’m surprised that people are surprised. The reason is that Lidice isn’t the first work of art, so to speak, that dealt with the story. It is also featured in Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and although it is only a small part, I think it captured an emphasised the absurdity of the story far better than the whole Lidice movie. Lidice doesn’t do that, although the film does push the story further. After the war, Šíma finds himself shunned by the new regime, he casts a shadow on the heroic story of Lidice. I liked that aspect in the film, although I think Mr Šíma’s story deserved a film of its own.”

As Rynda notes, there are other storylines threaded through Lidice that run parallel before connecting in tragedy: young ill-fated lovers, a corrupt police official who cooperates with the SS, František Šíma’s remaining son, Karel, destined to die in front of a wall of propped-up mattresses together with fellow villagers. Certainly there are moments that are compelling and powerfully shot: burning chairs and windows as Lidice goes up in flames, the horrifying execution of a young couple who foolishly played at spies, children being torn from their mothers’ arms. Vojtěch Rynda is one of several critics who nevertheless thinks Lidice is a missed opportunity.

“This movie is made for schools: I can’t imagine a more suitable audience than 15-year-olds who will be happy to not have to listen to a lecture but get to watch a film instead. The way the movie is made is in the style of historical books: it’s very explicative, very easily understood. I think that schools are the only real audience.”

How do you explain some of the high ratings: do you find it hard to believe you watched the same movie as some of your colleagues?

“I’d say the older a critic is the more likely they will find something to like in it. It looks as if it were shot in the ‘50s or ‘60s: it has a very schematic outlook on the historic events and I think that those who grew up on those kinds of movies will find something familiar. For me it is way too traditional. I may sound harsh, I don’t mean to: this movie is an ‘illustration’ and that isn’t necessarily bad. Twenty years from now students will be able to learn something from it about the Second World War. But the film cannot compete with contemporary film productions at festivals or even in cinemas.”

The filmmakers will clearly be hoping the opposite: the film’s producer Adam Dvořák says they have lined up several possibilities.

“We have applied for this year’s Karlovy Vary, Tokyo, San Sebastian, London. But we’ll have to wait and see.”

For those interested in seeing the epic new picture, there are copies of Lidice subtitled in English. As well, the filmmakers hope they will succeed in distributing the film internationally.