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  Directed by
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  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.78:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 67.53)
  Languages
  • Czech: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English
  Extras
  • 7 Teaser trailer - other Madman Entertainment titles
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Animated menus
  • Filmographies

Divided We Fall

Madman Entertainment/AV Channel . R4 . COLOR . 123 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

The injustices and inhumanities perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War have, for many years, been explored, dissected and graphically illustrated on the cinema screen dozens of times - and yet, after decades of films on the subject, there are still fresh stories to tell around this familiar theme. It’s the stories of ordinary people caught in the midst of a brutal regime that really hit home, and while we’re used to seeing such stories from a British, American, French, German or even Polish point of view, it’s rare that we get a glimpse of the life that those in Czechoslovakia had to endure - particularly from a Czech filmmaker (actually, we’d bet many reading this have never seen a Czech film).

In an effort to illustrate the humanity that manages to survive amongst the brutality, some filmmakers have opted to use gentle humour as a way of breathing life into their characters. It worked wonderfully in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful in 1998, and two years later Divided We Fall (or, to give it its proper Czech title, Musíme si pomáhat) also opted to tell a serious story with the aid of humour.

Disabled after a work accident, Josef Cizek lives with his wife Marie in a modest dwelling in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, in constant fear of the often-random punishments dished out by the ruling tyrants and unable to say or do anything when their neighbours, the Wieners, are carted off to a concentration camp. But one of them, David, escapes and makes his way back to his neighbourhood, where he begs a frightened Josef to hide him. Sealed up in a pantry in Josef and Marie’s house, he is helpless as the couple try to prevent his detection by Nazi sympathiser Horst, a chubby and grotesque man who has his eye on Marie. To escape Horst’s rather unappealing attention, Marie concocts a lie - one which has unexpected consequences for David.

A gentle and restrained human drama that opts out of graphic violence on screen, Divided We Fall is more a film about relationships than it is about surviving during the war. The Nazi threat is more of a handy tool to propel the story along and give the characters desperate motivations, but the focus here is on Josef, played to perfection with wonderful facial expressiveness by Bolek Polivka, and to a lesser extent his loyal and tolerant wife Marie. It’s a positive film, and rarely gives the viewer an insight into the real brutality of the Nazi occupation; that’s not the point of this story, though, and it’s refreshing to see a film take a different approach.

Director Jan Hrebejk, a veteran of several Czech films, has a keen visual sense, and Divided We Fall looks absolutely stunning - the production design and cinematography are outstanding, and really serve to heighten atmosphere and a sense of time and place. The only real sticking point is Hrebejk’s method of showing that a situation is tense or dangerous - he drops to a slower frame rate to give the entire scene a kind of “slow motion” effect, something that works really well the first time. But by the tenth appearance of the effect - usually for a good length of time and often on scenes that don’t warrant it - it’s hard not to get distracted by the forced artificiality of it.

Ultimately, though, that’s a small complaint; the film’s easily strong enough to make a lasting impression, cheesy visual effects or not; it’s extremely rewarding viewing.

  Video
Contract

It wasn’t all that long ago that watching a foreign-language film on home video (or, for that matter, in the cinema) meant suffering through a grotty fifth-generation print in atrociously worn-out condition, with badly-spelled English subtitles hastily added by optical printing (in the process, the colour and contrast balance of the original ruined and the soundtrack reduced to a sickly mono). The arrival of DVD has changed all that, and suddenly films are getting treated with respect no matter what country they come from.

This 16:9 transfer of Divided We Fall is no exception, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its problems. This was surely a lovely video transfer originally, opening the matte slightly from the 1.85:1 theatrical ratio (the film was made with Czech TV in mind anyway) and faithfully rendering the subtle use of lighting and muted colour that is the film’s core visual anchor.

However, something’s not quite right here; bright scenes seem overly bright to the point of slight flickering, and black level never really gets down to the depth that it should (though crucially, shadow detail is fine). Not only that, but there’s a slight “blurriness” to motion throughout (not just in the heavily-effected scenes) and an ever-so-slightly “fuzzy” appearance to edges. To this reviewer’s eyes it spelt one thing - a PAL conversion of an NTSC master tape. That’s almost certainly the truth of it, too - the run time is identical to the theatrical print despite the increased frame rate, and the Sony Pictures title at the top and tail indicate that this is an American transfer of the film. It’s a pity a true PAL one couldn’t be sourced from Europe; maybe it was licensing issues, maybe something else.

All that said, this transfer’s faults can’t hide the visual beauty of the film itself, and it’s still perfectly watchable. But it could have been much better, and the posterisation clearly visible in the blue background of the Sony title card at the start is a worrying sign that all was not right with the video encoding here either.

The movie is encoded at a very high data rate and uses much of the dual-layered disc it’s stored on; the layer change, just past the half way point, is not especially well placed and quite jarring; there’s a fade-to-white a few minutes earlier that would have been the perfect place for it.

  Audio
Contract

One of the best things about DVD is that it’s been giving viewers of foreign language films the chance to hear the full, original soundtrack as intended by the director, where previously on VHS the attitude seemed to be “ah well, they read the dialogue anyway, who gives a toss about the sound?” There are still quite a few releases that settle for a two-channel or mono soundtrack, of course, but getting the full 5.1 monty is becoming much more common.

The original Czech Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is included here, and while this is not exactly what you’d call an audio showpiece, it reproduces the dialogue, effects and wonderfully haunting music score (which includes a well-chosen Bach piece at the end) extremely well. Fidelity is excellent, and one advantage of this being taken from a US transfer is that the music’s at the correct pitch!

  Extras
Contract

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s not a lot here in the way of extra features; as usual with Madman discs, the DVD is encoded with a jacket picture and DVD Text for players that support those features (like Sony’s) and has a fully animated main menu with musical backing (in this case, the Bach St Matthew Passion excerpt used in the end credits). Oh, by the way, the title of the final chapter is something of a plot spoiler, so don’t look at the inside cover or scene selection menu until you’ve seen the film!

Jan Hrebejk Filmography: A two-page chronological list of the director’s work to date.

Photo Gallery: A 24-item gallery of promo stills, presented in an annoyingly small section of the screen with the sides blurred out.

Trailer: What is it about American trailers? Even when they’re advertising a foreign-language film they follow the exact same carbon-copied template. “It was a time of badness... but one unlikely couple made a dangerous choice... NOW, stuff will happen... and so will triumph. The end.” This by-numbers piece of Hollywood marketing manages to advertise the movie without a single word of foreign dialogue (presumably that would scare people off) and seamlessly edits together every striking piece of imagery in the entire film. Presented with stereo sound in 16:9 format, which was obviously not the format of the video master - everything’s stretched horizontally!

Madman Propaganda: It’s a Madman-fest! Showing off how wonderfully adventurous and diverse their catalogue is, Madman Entertainment offers seven (seven!) trailers here, for No Man’s Land, Monsoon Wedding, The Closet, All Over The Guy, Lumumba, Kandahar and Startup.com.

  Overall  
Contract

An exquisitely-crafted filming of a gentle human story, Divided We Fall is, despite the occasional slow spot and stylistic silliness, a warm, involving and quite unique take on a familiar scenario.

Madman’s DVD maddeningly appears to use a master tape converted from the NTSC format, which results in some loss of quality despite the picture still being of an extremely high standard; the sound, on the other hand, is flawless.


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      And I quote...
    "Exquisitely-crafted... a warm, involving and quite unique take on a familiar scenario."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • TV:
          Panasonic - The One
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-DB870
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Centre Speaker:
          Panasonic
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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