Friday, 3 June 2011


(Jan Nemec, 1964)

The opening scene is extraordinary; two boys race away from a train onto a hill, stumbling and scrambling upwards as the camera keeps pace in one long, incredible shot. The photography is severe in its contrast, deep black and shining white, with no grey in the frame. We hear shouts of "Halt!" in German and gunfire. The camera has drawn closer until we are in the boys faces, crowding them as they climb, panting and panicked, still part of that same single take.
Nemec doesn't give us much more than that as the film progresses. There are extended passages following the boys through the forest, watching them sleep, gingerly test their injured feet and drink from a stream. Later they will come across a farm, where a woman gives them food and drink and their dry gums bleed as they eat. The final act watches a ragged group of jolly old hunters gather and hunt them like animals.
This could almost be set in any conflict in the last century, anywhere on earth, which is obviously part of the point. These boys are figures in a landscape, and their humiliating capture by the old men seems like a statement about the generational conflicts in 1960s Czechoslovaka as much as it does one about the plight of Jews during WW2 or Czechs in the Sudetenland, for all that flashbacks seem to reveal that the boys have escaped from a train bound for a Nazi Concentration Camp. Flashbacks are an important part of Nemec's methodology, with the first one coming right at the end of that opening shot, and they are mostly elliptical and given no context or explanation. Instead they are dreamlike slices of imagery and impressionistic memory fragments: one of the boys riding a tram through Prague, meeting a girl, running through a field. In the farmhouse sequence there are flashes of fantasy as the boy imagine attacking the woman, or her seducing him. These flashes offer a relief from the unremittingly visceral experience which constitutes the majority of the film. It is an at times feverish portrayal of physical trial, by turns beautiful, bleak, baffling and provocative. It is also a terrifically confident and original debut film from a director whose career never matched his great potential.

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