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LONDON 2020

Review: Shadow Country

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- A small Czech village examines its soul before and after World War II in Bohdan Sláma’s powerful black-and-white drama

Review: Shadow Country
Magdaléna Borová in Shadow Country

These perilous times we live in are being greeted by a fertile crop of new films, reflecting on previous horrors and atrocities that have stinging relevance to today. It’s impossible to watch Shadow Country [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, Bohdan Sláma’s ambitious new historical drama, and not see it primarily as a warning for the future, in spite of how well it recreates the turmoil of the post-war settlement. Already out in its originating country of the Czech Republic, it is released in Slovakia this Friday, courtesy of Filmtopia, before having its maiden festival appearance at BFI London Film Festival next week.

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Shadow Country is the sort of film that requires a short story’s worth of introductory on-screen text to help us; the events about to be depicted are little-discussed even in Czech society now (for more details, see the production news), let alone in other countries. Sláma’s achievement is how comprehensible he makes the dense flow of incidents, and the balance struck between character-driven foreground and historical background is often immaculate.

The filmmakers chiefly want to show the displacement of Czechoslovakia’s vast German population after the war. Its story recounts real experiences from the village of Tušť, located perilously on the Czech-Austrian border, from the late 1930s to the 1950s. Tušť at this time was populated with people of Czech, German and Jewish descent, sometimes evading conflict, but often at odds with one another. It is a portrait of a vulnerable locality, in all its diversity, becoming a sacrificial lamb for political and military aggression.

Opening with a baptism, Slámaand his talented screenwriter Ivan Arsenyev lay out the story’s social world, creating the fictional village of Schwarzwald to stand in for Tušť and similar locales. Magdaléna Borová is the quietly determined Veberová, welcoming a son with her German husband Karel (Stanislav Majer), a community leader pushing for the village to declare allegiance to the Reich. Josef (Csongor Kassai), a Czech married into a Jewish family, watches helplessly as Schwarzwald welcomes in the local Nazi command, who grant the village farming subsidies in return for their loyalty. He forms a small resistance movement, but is banished to a concentration camp where he manages to survive until the war’s end.

His vengeful return to his former home coincides with the Czech resistance command, now loyal to the Soviets, operating a kind of scorched-earth policy in formerly occupied areas. A return terror is meted out to real Nazi collaborators, as well as to other inhabitants carrying no responsibility for wartime crimes.

Shadow Country can be fruitfully compared to works like Sátántangó and The White Ribbon [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Michael Haneke
film profile
]
, also black-and-white studies of communities in peril, which become emblematic of turbulent political change. But this film follows a more scrupulous, realistic path, wanting to reassert the historical record, rather than conjure dark poetry. Sláma has done recent work for episodic television, and you could imagine this flourishing in six hours, rather than his two, during which we see the human drama overcome by a blizzard of military persecution, alternately from the East and West. To return to the image of on-screen titles, the film offers years laden with portent – the intertitles “1938” and “1945” rush up suggestively on screen – in eerily compact 30-minute chunks, and its efficiency begins to get in its way.

Still, Sláma and Arsenyev’s work showcases all the effort that went into its eight-year research period. We never doubt the lived-in authenticity on display; it also resembles films from the 1950s European New Wave, such as Rossellini’s (which, like Shadow Country, were actually shot in the locations where the events took place), when the wounds of the war were still open and in living memory.

Shadow Country is a Czech-Slovak co-production staged by Jindrich Motyl and Martin Ruzicka for Luminar Film. It was co-produced by Czech Television and Filmpark.

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