In the opening moments of the new Czech film In the Shadow, a police captain named "Hakl" (Ivan Trojan) arrives at the Jewish Community Center in Prague, demanding to see a man named "Kirsch" (Miroslav Krobot). "You know he has a problem with alcohol?" Hakl knows. "You know he spent two years in Auschwitz?" Hakl knows.
When Hakl interrogates Kirsch about a robbery that happened the night before, Kirsch tells Hakl that he was drunk and spent the whole night in police custody "in the tank," a fact Hakl is quickly able to confirm. So when Kirsch is arrested anyway, Hakl begins to suspect things that he doesn't quite know yet, at least not for sure.
Then Hakl is ordered to arrest leaders of the Prague Jewish Community. "For what?" he protests, "for employing a drunk?" But policemen force their way into the Jewish Community Center anyway, interrupting children dancing to Klezmer music, and forcing men wearing kippot into ominous looking vans.
Ivan Trojan as “Captain Hakl.” Lucky Man Films/Bleiberg Entertainment.
The next day the headlines blare: "Jews Caught Stealing Gold!" And so it begins: a purge of Prague's tiny Jewish community barely eight years after the end of the Holocaust.
The year is 1953, and although director David Ondříček and his co-writer Marek Epstein never specify any names beyond Kirsch's, what happens next echoes what really did happen in Prague in November 1952 when Rudolf Slánský and thirteen co-defendants were convicted of high treason in one of the most notorious "show trials" in the history of Czechoslovakia. The episode, now known as " The Slánský Trial," ended with the execution of most of the defendants (including Slánský). Eleven of the defendants (including Slánský) were Jewish.
Warned multiple times to keep his distance, Hakl chooses to continue his investigation. When a mysterious German named "Zenke" (Sebastian Koch) appears "from Moscow," Hakl is told that Zenke has been "on the case for three years." What case? Hakl confronts him: "Five Jews or five million. It makes no difference to you."Since Hakl knows that Kirsch did not commit the robbery, he cannot rest until he learns who did. Even when his inquiries endanger his family, he cannot stop. And as Hakl gets closer and closer to the truth, his world unravels.
Sebastian Koch as "Zenke."Lucky Man Films/Bleiberg Entertainment.
On one level In the Shadow is a brilliant "film noir," a detective story/police procedural about a man so driven by questions that he risks everything to get answers. Ondříček and Epstein use the whole Hollywood toolkit: men in suits and fedoras travel down dark wet streets while the notes on the soundtrack become increasingly dissonant. But there is no MacGuffin in this story, no Maltese Falcon to be found and fought over. Rather In the Shadow is another one of the great films now being produced in Eastern Europe (films like The Lives of Others), in which artists confront the pervasive evil of life under Soviet domination.
Furthermore, In the Shadow falls into that subcategory of films (like Little Rose and My Australia) which explore the intense anti-Semitism of the immediate post-Holocaust period. So much for: "Why didn't all the survivors just 'go home' and leave 'Palestine' to the Palestinians?"
In the Shadow received eleven Czech Lion nominations in 2013 (awarded by the Czech Film and Television Academy) and took home nine (including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Design, Best Editing, and Best Music). It was also the Czech Republic's candidate for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
I haven't seen all the other films in contention for the 2013 Czech Lion awards, but I have seen all five of the films nominated for the 2013 BFLF Oscar (plus candidates from several other countries as well), and I can tell you with no hesitation that I think it was better than three of them and tied with one. (For the record, of the five BFLF films in contention in 2013, my own choice would have been War Witch. I also think No is quite good, but I am no fan of Amour.)
So kudos to the Gene Siskel Film Center for bringing In the Shadow to Chicago so fast. As far as I know, it hasn't even played here in New York yet!
Note that the Siskel Center has planned two screenings (Sunday June 9 and Monday June 10), and director David Ondříček will be onsite for Q&A both nights.
To order tickets, visit: www.SiskelFilmCenter.org.