In This WWII Hideaway, One Man Survives

Jan Hrebejk’s Divided

We Fall , from a screenplay by Petr Jarchovsky, based on his novel, manages

to insert some jittery dark humor and rollicking bedroom farce into what might

otherwise have been simply a Holocaust melodrama of fear and flight. As it

turns out, this new Czech film is reminiscent of the earlier anti-Stalinist

satiric tradition of Milos Forman, Ivan Passer and Jiri Menzel. Mr. Hrebejk and

Mr. Jarchovsky display a heart-warming generosity of spirit in recognizing the

eternal and universal passion for survival that merges history’s heroes and

villains into a grayish stream of vulnerable humanity.

The film’s locale is a

small Czech town occupied by the Germans during the last years of World War II.

Josef (Boleslav Polívka) and Marie Cizková (Anna Sisková), the protagonists,

are a childless couple trying to mind their own business despite the

disruptions brought on by the Occupation. Josef is a perpetually frightened man

with decent instincts and even a sense of irony, but when he is confronted with

the desperate plight of David Wiener, the young Jewish son of his former

employer-who has escaped a Nazi death camp where the rest of his family was

killed-Josef decides, after much hesitant soul-searching, to hide David in his

home.

Josef feels compelled to

cover his good but dangerous deed by taking a job with Horst Prohaska (Jaroslav

Dusek), a former colleague who has chosen to collaborate with the Nazis. Horst

makes matters more difficult by openly and brazenly flirting with Marie during

his unannounced visits. Marie, like a classic Molière heroine, has her hands

full fending off his advances, while at the same time taking pity on David by

giving him the run of the house to make him feel less isolated and abandoned

down in the cellar. When a Nazi doctor confirms that Josef is sterile, he is

forced by a tangled web of lies and deceptions to ask David to impregnate Marie

so as to save them all from exposure.

David has too much

respect and affection for Marie to be anything but reluctant, and Marie’s

interest in David has been purely maternal, but they both accede to Josef’s

hysterical wishes. There are many other twists and turns in the plot that might

rightly raise the question of good taste were it not for a chillingly

heart-rending story told by David about his sister, who could have escaped

death in the camp as a kapo-all she had to do to prove her mettle to the Nazi

guards was to club their father and mother to death. As David recalls the

horrifying scene, their parents tearfully plead with their daughter to do it so

as to save her own life. David never finishes the story; we finish it for him.

The ending is a surreal

dream sequence that takes us down unexpected paths of mercy and forgiveness as

the tides of war shift from the Germans to the Russians, with Czechoslovakia

itself caught once more in the middle. Josef and Marie, however, never yield to

cynicism and despair, despite the perils that threaten to engulf them at every

turn. At a time when intelligent idealism is in such short supply on the

screen, Divided We Fall is a welcome

cinematic delicacy for the heart and the mind.

Game Over for Travolta

Dominic Sena’s Swordfish , from a screenplay by Skip

Woods, is the latest of producer Joel Silver’s exercises in excess that

constitute a genre of their own. Think Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series, and Bruce Willis

in the Die Hard series. Think heists

and hostages, computers and cell phones. Think crooked cops and deranged F.B.I.

and C.I.A. agents, screeching car chases and mass slaughters. Think, above all,

boom-boom-boom without letting up.

It was to be expected that Swordfish would have to up the ante in probing the parameters of

disbelief. John Travolta attempts a second mini-comeback in a manner

reminiscent of recent castings of aging male superstars as stylish or even

supernatural master manipulators with mysterious agendas. Here Mr. Travolta is

the glint-eyed Gabriel Shear, who needs billions and trillions of dollars to

demolish the world’s terrorists in their lairs. But to get the necessary

funding, Gabriel needs new hunk Hugh Jackman’s Stanley Johnson to crack some

computer codes guarding a mythical F.B.I. hoard of confiscated drug money

that’s been amassing interest for decades.

What is new about Swordfish , at least for its genre, are

such incursions into soft-core territory as a simulated blowjob under comic

duress and Halle Berry’s spectacularly posed toplessness. The kids at the

screening I attended went bananas over the cross-fertilization of genres, and

so I suppose the filmmakers knew what they were doing.

The big news in the

movie is that Mr. Jackman seems to have the stuff to become the next action

superstar. But what is conspicuously absent from the movie is any sign of the

media after Gabriel has used their contemporary omnipresence as a means of

making the authorities cave in to his demands rather than have CNN indulge in a

sentimental orgy of interviews with the bereaved relatives of his murdered hostages.

This bizarre lack of media impact goes a long way to explaining why Swordfish resembles a video game more

than anything else.

Soft-Core, With a Warning Label

Catherine Breillat’s A

Real Young Girl ( Une Vraie Jeune

Fille ), based on her novel Le Soupirail ,

was produced 25 years ago, but has never been released either in France or the

U.S. until now because of its flaunting of female and male genitalia and its

highly indecorous female heroine. One might say that Ms. Breillat was 25 years

ahead of her time, except perhaps that most viewers seem more disturbed than

aroused by the aggressiveness of her subsequent female characters in 36 Fillette (1988) and Romance (1999). That is to say that Ms.

Breillat may be the kind of artist who will always seem 25 years ahead of her

time.

Her Alice here is played by Charlotte Alexandra, who had a

brief soft-core porn career in European films of the 70′s with such

non-art-film titles as Immoral Tales

(1974) and Good-bye, Emmanuelle 3

(1977). But there is nothing either soft-core or hard-core in Ms. Breillat’s

sensibility. She is scathingly frank and insolent, to the point that she makes

idle voyeurism distinctly uncomfortable. The problem I find with all her films

is the reduction of her heroines to their sexual obsessions and the orifices

thereof, without any other dimensions to their existence. There is also

something perversely puritanical in the total absence of pleasure, much less

happiness, in the strenuous physical exertions of her characters. Worst of all,

there is absolutely no humor. So I can’t in all good conscience send off my

readers to a Breillat film to enjoy.

A Heroine, an Anti-Hero, an Anti-Genre

Elise McCredie’s Strange

Fits of Passion , from her screenplay, is an Australian film that seems to

have been summarily dismissed by the local critics, but I must report that

Michela Noonan plays the nameless first-person heroine with such charming

shyness and susceptibility that I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. She is the

type of young woman who can be temporarily embarrassed, but never humiliated,

as she clumsily seeks to lose her virginity-though somehow she never loses her

warm-hearted innocence. Her roommate Jimmy (Mitchell Butel) is gay and

seemingly sophisticated, but it is he who dies from a broken heart when he is

abandoned by his lover. Ms. Noonan creates an unforgettable character rich in

eternal hope and limitless compassion.

Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive 2: Birds , from a

screenplay by Masa Nakamura, is strongly recommended for viewers who find Swordfish too gentle and formulaic. Like

many Asian films in this genre, there is a sentimental subplot involving a wife

or child needing a costly operation, but here the wife and child are blown up à

la Fritz Lang in The Big Heat (1953),

leading the detective hero to a final shootout with the crime lord. Let me say

simply that I have never seen anything more nihilistic on the screen, and I

will not attempt to describe it. All in all, an experience not for sensitive

stomachs.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Wide Blue Road , from a screenplay by

Franco Solinas, Ennio De Concine and Mr. Pontecorvo, based on Mr. Solinas’

novel Squarcio , was released in

Europe in 1957, but has just received its first American release, thanks to the

productive intervention of Jonathan Demme and Dustin Hoffman. A strikingly

virile Yves Montand plays Squarcio, an individualistic fisherman who refuses to

join the collective and abide by its rules. Instead, he chooses to find new

fishing locations where he can use dynamite to increase his catch at the

expense of the other fishermen. Squarcio is thus an anti-hero from a Marxist

standpoint and, in his sad fate, the end is thus construed as less the

consequence of a tragic flaw than as a vindication of the collective spirit.

Still, the film generates a sensuousness all its own which transforms Squarcio

into a visually operatic hero.

Kristian Levring’s The

King Is Alive , from a screenplay by Mr. Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen,

with inspiration from William Shakespeare’s King

Lear , reminds me of the remark attributed to the late Hermann Goering, that

every time he heard the word “culture” he wanted to reach for his gun. I am

beginning to feel the same way about Dogma 95, to whose principles Mr. Levring

and his colleagues subscribe, after suffering through The King Is Alive , with its dismally unbelievable incidents and the

disorganized improvisations of 11 characters in search of credibility and

lucidity. People may think I’m prejudiced because, as an auteurist, I cannot

accept the movement’s Rule No. 10: “The director must not be credited.”

Actually, I am more skeptical about Rule No. 8: “Genre movies are not

acceptable.” Really? Eleven people are stranded in the middle of the desert,

and this is not a genre movie? Robert Aldrich’s Flight of the Phoenix (1965) was a far superior example of the

genre, which the critics complained had been overworked even back then. So,

Shakespeare or no Shakespeare, my reaction to The King Is Alive is: “Been there, seen that.”