ALOIS NEBEL B
Czech Republic Germany (84 mi) 2011 d: Tomáš Lunák Official site [cz]
Eastern European films often reflect a grim interior mood, especially when rooted in history, where living under the boot of military occupation, an imposed Soviet communist dictatorship and political repression only describes the tip of the iceberg, where a closer examination often reveals scathingly inhumane details. This film marks Tomás Lunák's feature debut as a director and the first rotoscope animation done in The Czech Republic, an interesting technique to use for such a realistic historical overview. Just the opening few shots set the tone for the film, where from out of total darkness comes the first glimpses of light, soon recognized as a train heading down the tracks. Set in a small town located near the Polish border in a peaceful area of Czechoslovakia’s Jesenik Mountains in 1989, just days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are quickly introduced to Alois Nebel, the stationmaster at a remote countryside railway station. Just as we think not much happens in this isolated region, a stranger appears out of the darkness, seen earlier hanging around the railway station, and he appears to be making a desperate attempt to cross the border, though he may have had other intentions, without much luck apparently as he is quickly captured. This incident seems to trigger something in Nebel’s mind, where the German translation for the word nebel is fog, as he inexplicably becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative, as if retreating into a fog. He is sent to an asylum where he witnesses the torture of the captured man, who appears to be a mute, so it’s impossible for him to confess, which triggers childhood flashbacks going back to the end of World War II.
Without offering any historical backdrop, the director assumes Czechs are familiar with their own history, where the mountainous border regions of Czechoslovakia were largely comprised of a German-speaking population, known as the Sudetenland, where it was actually part of Germany until the end of World War I when it became part of Czechoslovakia. Germans continued to live in the region without incident, but with the Nazi threat to invade Czechoslovakia, Hitler got Britain, France, and Italy to sign the Munich Agreement in 1938 returning the Sudetenland to Germany, a bone of contention with the Russians who occupied the Eastern Czech territory at the end of the war, ruthlessly expelling all the Germans, totalling a half million just from this region, including a young German girl Dorothe, who befriended Nebel as a young boy, emblematic of a larger injustice imposed by the Soviet Red Army, placing the Germans in concentration camps where many died of starvation and disease. It’s interesting to see the Germans portrayed in a sympathetic light during World War II, especially since they occupied Czechoslovakia during the war, but it’s the Russians that occupied the country militarily ever since and are seen in the present still running corrupt black market businesses, cheating the locals out of potential income, hoarding it all for themselves, seen as drunken louts maintaining a monopoly on all incoming goods. The picture of state repression, seen by the ruthlessly brutal way they run the asylum, is reminiscent of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), an Academy Award winning film and Best Director for Czech compatriot Milos Forman, whose parents were both killed in Auschwitz.
The mute prisoner escapes, having his own traumatic war story, and shortly afterwards Nebel is released, only to discover he’s lost his job at the station, so he makes his way to Prague, which is undergoing a bureaucratic restructuring under the newly elected democratic leadership of Vaclav Havel. But Nebel is homeless and destitute, sleeping in railway stations until he’s befriended by the widow of a former railway man, Kveta, who respects the work ethic and commitment of railway workers, always standing up for them, including a few free meals for Nebel. It’s amusing to see the Russians moan about being left out of the democratic picture, soon forced out of their jobs, eventually forced to exit the country, which allows Nebel to have his former job back in the countryside. The film is told much like a historical fairytale with grim references to bleak times under Soviet domination, which are never clearly explained and are simply woven together into the multi-stranded narrative. Nebel’s own mental disintegration reflects that of the nation which must come to terms with their own dark history. The film offers a quietly reflective tone throughout, featuring pensive characters often seen staring out of windows, where an unusual guitar score from Petr Kruzik is reminiscent of Neil Young’s haunting score of DEAD MAN (1995). In a gorgeously designed storm sequence where nature batters the mountainous region, what stands out is the recurrent snow and rain continually pelting the countryside, expressing the severity of existential alienation, a tone of Dostoyevskian angst, given a psychic electro shock, where the audience may feel as discombobulated as Nebel. Lunák attempts to combine many of the thematic elements reflective of the freedom and optimism of the Velvet Revolution, where having finally gotten rid of the Russians, people are given the opportunity to simply live their lives.