Last night, I saw one of the most unusual films I have ever seen, “Alois Nebel”, a premier feature film by Czech director Tomas Lunak, based on a series of Czech graphic novels..
It’s a haunting film, a sad film, 90 minutes without a smile. It’s in black and white, it’s animation, it’s always winter and snowing or pouring in the low populated mountain landscapes, and almost always night time. The primary locations are isolated and remote. Trains, long and short, come and go. Everyone is haunted by the past.
The Sudetenland of the Czech Republic is that portion of the land which was primarily inhabited by Germans from the creation of the former Czechoslovakia after World War I until the dark days following the even darker days of World War II. Primarily the Sudetenland is comprised of the mountains on the northern border of the Czech Republic.
The incorporation of the Sudetenland into the new Republic of Czechoslovakia was the focus of much discussion at Versailles in 1918, and the decision to give this land to Czechoslovakia rather than to Germany and Austria set the stage for a Slavic Republic with a significant ethnic German minority. As Hitler’s Germany appeared to be prospering in the 1930s, the German population of the Sudetenland became a fifth column in Czechoslovakia.
In 1938, Germany invaded and took over Austria, increasing pressure to also incorporate the ethnic German areas of Czechoslovakia. And indeed at the infamous Munich conference in late 1938, British prime minister Chamberlain agreed (without Czech participation) that Hitler could march into and take over the Sudetenland. This guaranteed the doom of the sizable Jewish population of the Sudetenland, and of the overall stability of Czechoslovakia.
At the end of World War II, in 1945, when the Sudetenland was restored to Czechoslovakia, the Czechs retaliated against the ethnic Germans by, to a great extent, kicking them out of Czechoslovakia. More than 750,000 Germans were repatriated to occupied Germany, and in the process, about 30,000 were killed.
It was the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland in 1945 that forms the background for “Alois Nebel”.
So, back to the movie. Once a month, the Avalon Theater in Chevy Chase puts on a Czech movie. (In other weeks, it shows Israeli, French and Greek films.) Last night, the film was “Alois Nebel”, and I went to see it.
I don’t always do my research. I looked at the website promo for the film, and saw that it was about a railway dispatcher in late Communist Czechoslovakia (late 1980s), who is tormented by hallucinations of the past. I didn’t notice that the film was animated, or even that it was black and white.
So, I was surprised. I was even more surprised when the film started with a lengthy Czech language introduction without any subtitles. Whatever was said went way beyond me. When the film itself began, there were only occasional subtitles – I have never been to a film where there were subtitles only for, perhaps, 20% of the dialogue and I still don’t know if this is the way the film was made (it was certainly an effective way to increase the mystery of an already mysterious story) or if there was a problem with the particular copy of the film the Avalon had, or whether there was a problem with the projection. I looked at a number of reviews on-line, and none discussed the subtitles. But it meant that, for most of the film, I had little idea what was going on, and concentrated instead on the animated visuals.
Which was not a bad thing. The technique used is called rotoscoping. As I understand it, it means that the story is filmed in live action with live actors, and then (now with computers) the animation is drawn over the live actors, and the live actors are erased. I guess this does not always require everything live to be erased and you can, for example, have animated characters acting in a live background. It makes for fascinating visuals.
The general story line is that Nebel was a young boy at the time of the German expulsion and witnessed the Germans being packed onto trains and his babysitter, Dorothea coming between two men, one a German and one a Czech, with one of them shooting the other and dragging Dorothea off, presumably raping her before putting her on a train. Nebel, who like his father was a train dispatcher at a lonely station in the mountains of Sudetenland, attends to his lonely work, but tends to episodes of hallucinatory visions of the past. This makes him easy prey to one who wants his job (which comes with a residence), and he is carted off to a mental institution, where he is held for a while, and then released only to find his old job is his no more.
He then ventures to Prague to talk to railroad management, sleeps in the large Prague railway station, meets the woman who takes care of the bathrooms (and who is the widow of another railway worker), and they sort of hit it off. Eventually, Nebel seems to have been given a new position, at an even smaller railroad depot, and his friend from Prague finds her way (over snow and ice, and through heavy rain) to his tiny house, where they meet again and the film ends.
But there’s another plot, which is much less straightforward, and it involves a stranger, who is a mute, who appears at Nebel’s depot, is also taken to the mental asylum where he becomes Nebel’s roommate and undergoes shock therapy, but apparently gives to clue as to his identity. The only hint is that he has in his possession an old war time photograph showing him and several others, including Dorothea, standing before the depot.
The mute escapes the asylum, eventually shows up at Nebel’s home, but without speaking leaves there to avoid detection when two other men arrive (bringing in smuggled goods?). We next see him enter a small tavern (the tavern had appeared in a few earlier scenes) carrying an ax, with which he murders the tavern keeper.
Presumably, all this had something to do with what happened in 1945, and was an incident of revenge. If I had been able to see full subtitles, I might have known what was going on.
But I don’t feel deprived because the visuals were so gripping. I’d even go to see it again (it was a once-only showing) in the hope that I would understand what was going on a little more clearly.