Winning Isn’t Everything : Jan Hřebejk’s Musíme si pomáhat
by Andrew James Horton, 5 March 2001
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the 1990s was a disaster for
Central and East European (CEE) cinema. True, the transition from state-controlled film-making took its toll on the number of films that were produced, but CEE films’ performance at the Oscars has not been much different from in the 1970s or 1980s.
Among this year’s five short-listed films for the coveted Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film is Jan Hřebejk’s Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000), the third Czech film to be nominated for the prize in a decade.
When the Second World War breaks out, three Czech friends find themselves divided: David as a Jew is transported to the Thereseinstadt (Terezín) ghetto, a transfer station on the way to Auschwitz; Horst, as an ethnic German who resents the way Czechs have treated his background, finds it easy to get on in the Nazi party and Josef just wants to live a quiet life, enjoy his marriage to his beautiful wife, Marie, and survive the war.
He maintains his friendship with Horst, not so much out of ideological belief or even for the rare goods that the well-connected Nazi brings, but simply because it would be too difficult to break off from the relationship. Even the fact that Horst has taken an obvious fancy to his wife does not persuade Josef to tell his fascist friend where to go.
If Horst is a mild irritant to start with, he becomes a positive danger when he starts to realise that Josef has (with some initial reluctance) taken in David, who has somehow escaped from Poland and found his way back to his home town. Josef starts to realise that he can no longer take a neutral stance in the war.
Surprisingly, the slippery Horst is quite amenable to helping Josef cover up his guest. He persuades Josef that, to avoid suspicion and to get the extra food he needs to feed his friend, he must fit in with the Nazi regime and teaches him the correct blank facial expression he needs to become a German collaborator.
Josef soon feels himself caught in an absurd trap, with both David and Horst seeming to want Marie’s affection and himself unable to extract himself from the hole he has dug himself into. Not only that, but he finds he has lost his status in the Czech community and people cross the road to avoid him. As in any good farce, when things hit rock bottom they can only get worse, and Horst as revenge for a failed sexual assault on Marie insists that as well as hiding a fugitive Jew they should house a disgraced Kommandant of the town.
Marie puts her foot down and refuses to accommodate the German officer when he turns up at their door, explaining that they are shortly to have a baby. The ruse backfires when they realise that, firstly, the only way for the excuse to be totally convincing is if Marie does actually give birth and, secondly, that Josef is sterile.
A hasty arrangement with David is reached and Marie is soon pregnant. Horst is also humbled by the experience and realising the brute he has been taken significant risks to protect the couple. By the time nine months have passed, the war has come to a close and the Czechs are taking out their bitter anger on their occupiers and those who collaborated with them. When Josef tries to find
medical help for his wife who is in labour, he finds that the harsh justice of the post-war system has come down against him and he has been branded a collaborator.
He just manages to convince the new authorities (under the command of the Czech resistance and the Russian army) that his wife needs help and is allowed to search a group of German prisoners to find the doctor who can help him, Dr Fischer. In view of his mass sterilisation of “gypsy trash,” Fischer has committed suicide, and Josef instead cknowledges the help Horst has given him by pretending that the erstwhile thorn in his side is the doctor.
In rescuing the man who, at one point, tried to rape his wife, Josef utilises the principle by which Horst has always worked: “musíme si pomáhat” (literally “we must help each other”). The ending is a happy one, David is evidence enough of Josef’s innocence, and Josef takes on the role of a proud father with a renewed sense of life.
Return of the anti-hero: Musíme si pomáhat, therefore, taps into that age-old tradition in Czech film: the ordinary man who, to his surprise and even horror, finds himself cast in the unlikely role of the hero. Interestingly, this motif can be seen in all the Czech and Slovak Oscar winners. Hence, Tono Brtko in Obchod na korze (Shop on the High Street, 1965) accidentally finds himself harbouring a Jew in Nazified Slovakia, Miloš Hrma in Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1966) is more concerned with losing his virginity than in joining the resistance and František Louka in Kolja (Kolya, 1996) finds lecherously chasing attractive young women to be far more pressing than the unwanted responsibilities of looking after his step-son.
With typical Central European sensitivity to the contradictions between the desire for personal happiness and wider historical events, Hřebejk presents Josef as a character who has caught in the middle of something larger than he can control. In this respect, Hřebejk is not just drawing on Czech filmic traditions but also literary ones: Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek being the obvious names that spring to mind.
Indeed, Hřebejk and Jarchovský go to every possible length to underline the unheroic nature of their hero. This is partly evident in making him impotent, disabled and a man who shits his pants in the face of danger, but more importantly in him being a collaborator and someone who takes a job confiscating Jewish property.
This is no small point. Czech films have traditionally taken a black-and-white view of the past. Even films with anti-heroes have relied on a division between those who collaborated (be it with the Nazis or the Communists) and those who didn’t. The horribly indefinable grey-scale in between has largely been left untouched, despite the fact that historians have had trouble distinguishing between the innocent and the guilty in Czech history.
No pussy-footing: Musíme si pomáhat, however, is a film which seemingly tries to avoid historical niceties. Reflecting the moral ambiguities of the war, Hřebejk’s hero has no choice but to collaborate in order to behave morally. Most Czech wartime films have presented the difference between those who collaborate with evil and those who don’t as some distinction in genetics: some people are born good and some are born bad.
Hřebejk, however, recognises that moral choices are based not only on personal fortitude or nationality by birth but also on circumstances, and ultimately his film is an admission that there is no heroic way to behave during a war.
The director shies away from complete espousal of the theory that some people are born bad in that certain of the Germans are shown as being intrinsically evil, particularly the sinister Dr Fischer and a raid by German officers on Josef’s street in which a dog gets shot for barking too much. Nevertheless, Hřebejk’s portrayal of the Czechs’ moral standing is remarkable for its murkiness.
Czecho-German relations are still soured by both the wartime oppression of Czechs by Germans and the corresponding backlash from the Czechs that saw the murder, victimisation and the (internationally sanctioned) expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czech territory, the latter of which is now known in Czech as the odsun.
Czech historians in the Communist era played down the iniquity and brutality—even though similar backlashes were experienced in all the occupied countries—and it was to the regime’s advantage to portray the odsun as a historically just process. For this reason, many Czechs, even today, downplay the brutality towards ethnic Germans who were native to Czech territory or even deny it. German attempts to reclaim land that was confiscated from them after the war have not met with Czech approval and, in many cases, have not been successful.
Uncomfortable truths in a comfortable way Musíme si pomáhat, in this sense, is a ground-breaking film, in that it challenges Czechs, a nation that always likes to think of itself as a passive victim, to consider the actively inglorious aspect of its past.
Aside from the victimisation of the Jews—particularly David’s harrowing description of his parents’ death—Hřebejk portrays the German occupation as relatively peaceful, albeit a tense peace. Against this, the Czech uprising against those who collaborated with the Germans and those of German ethnic origin is seen as a outpouring of repressed energy possessing a primitivism that not even the German oppressors had. The animal quality of this revenge is contrasted with Josef’s view of events, as he runs helplessly around the town trying to find a doctor to help his wife in labour.
Hřebejk is even prepared to portray Horst as a man whose adherence to Nazism has arisen as a result of being victimised for his ethnic background as a child—a dark hint that Czechoslovakia’s behaviour towards Germany in the inter-war period may not have always taken the wisest and most diplomatic course for a country wishing to avoid war. Moreover, Horst insists that his home is Bohemia and is repelled by the his wife who wants to live in the Reich. For all his contradictions, Horst ultimately considers himself to be a Czech.
The moral quandary of Josef, who collaborates, is contrasted with a Czech member of the resistance who, in an early sequence in the film, rejects David’s pleas for shelter and tries to hand him over to the Germans rather than risk his own skin. The same Czech is seen later in the film after the war’s end as a local commander who is about to pass hasty judgement on those who were deemed to have sided with the Germans. He squirms uncomfortably at Josef’s testimony as he recognises that while his record as a Czech patriot is cleaner than Josef’s, morally Josef took the more righteous course.
This approach can also be seen in Hřebejk’s previous film, Pelišky (Cosy Dens, 1998), in which the lunacy of a pro-Russian Communist general is seen as no more ridiculous than that of a hero of the pro-Western wartime resistance.
Just as Communists and patriots were all presented as being valid members of Czechoslovak society in Pelišky, Musíme si pomáhat stresses that Czechs, Germans and Jews are all integral members of the land that is now called the Czech Republic. Indeed, when Horst’s credentials as a doctor are challenged and a Communist commander asks who he really is, it is the Czech resistance leader who, in full knowledge of Horst’s ethnic background and his collaboration with the Nazis, says that he is “one of us.”
The final scene of Josef, a Czech, walking through a landscape of ruin (and yet also instinctly of renewal and rebuilding) while pushing a pram containing a child with Jewish parentage brought into the world by a German is one of the strongest in the film, and one that has featured heavily on the film’s publicity.
The motif is a potent one for a nation emerging from the chaos of Communism at a loss at how to deal with the displaced German minority and the country’s Roma. This is all the more pertinent to consider at a time when the Czech Republic’s track record on racial tolerance is being closely followed by the European Commission as it assesses the republic’s readiness for accession to the European Union.
It is an indicator of the film’s success that it has been accepted by a national audience who are normally very sensitive to any form of historical criticism (although Hřebejk does soften the blow by blaming the worst excesses of the backlash against the German on the Czech Communists). Doubtless, the hard-hitting nature of his message is why Hřebejk finds light comedy such as useful vehicle. Using farce and slapstick, he is able to present an audience with issues that could not have been broached easily.
This is not to say that Musíme si pomáhat is the only film to have tackled the delicate issue of the odsun—Dušan Hanák’s documentary Papierové hlavy (Paper Heads, 1995) is another interesting example—but it has certainly succeeded in bringing the subject into the public domain in a way that no other film has.
Some you win…: The tragedy is, of course, is that Musíme si pomáhat has very little
chance of winning the Oscar for which it has been nominated. For all the merits
it may have in the Czech historiographic context, it is an aesthetically uneven film and some might find the pantomime quality of certain scenes (and particularly the character of Horst) ruins the tense atmosphere. At times, Hřebejk seems to be a bit confused as to if he aiming at the tone of a serious drama with a blacky comic twist or a raucous piece of slapstick.
Worse still, up for the same award is Ang Lee’s Wo hu zang long (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000). Not only is Ang Lee a known name in American cinema, with English-language hits such as Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Ice Storm (1997) under his belt, but Wo hu zang long is nothing short of a box office phenomenon (and the Oscars have always been a recognition of bankability than anything else). However, Wo hu zang long‘s success (it looks set to become the highest grossing foreign-language film of all time in the US and the UK) is a cause for celebration, and in this respect the film deserves its Oscar. The film has succeeded in reaching across barriers and in persuading people who normally have a rabid phobia of films with subtitles that “foreign” films can indeed be enjoyable and have rewards that English-language cinema only rarely offers.
For this reason, Czech cinema can only gain at this year’s Oscar ceremony. With subtitled cinema looking to become increasingly profitable in the English-speaking world, small national cinemas, such as the Czech one, can only gain, as distributors overcome once seemingly insurmountable prejudices and put more faith in marketing World Cinema.
Musíme si pomáhat may not get the revenue boost that an Oscar-win invariably brings. But at least the way will be paved for future Hřebejk films to achieve a more widespread international success.
ABOUT THE CZECH FILM INDUSTRY: The history of Czech cinema has its roots in the Austro-Hungarian empire. A feature film was shot in Bohemia in 1896. The Czech movie industry, already influenced by Hollywood, flourished after World War I. Extasy (Extase,1933) directed by Gustav Machatý, and River (Řeka, 1933) directed by Josef Rovenský were the first Czechoslovak movies that had success reaching an audience abroad. The Barrandov Studios, founded by Miloš and Václav Havel (the father of former president Václav Havel), were completed in 1933. It did not take long for the studios to ramp up production to 80 films a year.
The Golden Age of the 1960s: The golden age of Czechoslovak film took place in the 1960s, during the era of increased political and cultural freedom. The top directors of the time included Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos, Vojtěch Jasný, Jan Němec, Věra Chytilová, and Ivan Passer. Most of them studied at Prague’s Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), one of the oldest film schools in Europe. Kadár and Klos’s The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze, 1965) and Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966) both won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. The Soviet invasion in August 1968 brought the era to an end.
Post-Communist Era: The Czech movie industry changed dramatically after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in 1989. Barrandov Studios were privatized and were no longer guaranteed productions and funds from the government. Foreign film studios discovered the Czech Republic and the dramatic increase in foreign productions more than made up for the decrease in local films. The Czech Republic became an attractive location for foreign film makers thanks to its historical beauty and well preserved architecture that was not damaged in the world wars. Lower filming costs, coupled with the long history of the Czech film industry and the resulting expertise of local crews are also a factor. To support the growing number of foreign film projects, local production companies as well as companies providing casting, lighting, editing, and special effects services have been established – most of them in Prague. The 1990s saw the rise of a new generation of Czech film makers, including Jan Svěrák, Jan Hřebejk, Saša Gedeon, Petr Zelenka, and David Ondříček. Svěrák’s Elementary School (Obecná škola, 1991) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and his movie Kolya (Kolja, 1996) won it. Hřebejk’s Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat, 2000) also received an Oscar nomination.
Comforting visions of the past in Czech Oscar-winners by Andrew J Horton, 4 October 1999 | Central Europe Review | http://www.ce-review.org/99/15/kinoeye15_horton.html
Everyone loves a good fairy-tale, and nobody less so than the members of the
Academy Awards jury, which for years has been turning down films which are
hard-hitting, incisive or bleak, in favour of some light bit of jolly fluff for
all the family. However, this love of the gaily innocuous extends far beyond the
confines of the Academy. The Czechs, for example, are keen proponents of the
light comedy, and the fairy-tale proper (pohadka) is an accepted and
thriving genre in Czech film-making (four were shown at this year’s Karlovy Vary
Perhaps, considering this common interest, it is not surprising that Czechs
have done quite well out of the Oscars. As Czechoslovakia the country won the
award for Best Foreign-Language Film twice: once for Jan Kadar and Elmer Klos’s
Obchod na korze (Shop on the High Street, 1965) and once for Jiri
Menzel’s Ostre sledovane vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1966). Since the
division of the country into its component republics, the Czechs have won with
Jan Sverak’s Kolja (Kolya, 1996). Although none of the actual
pohadky have gained Academy fame, or even a nomination, the Czech films
which have been nominated have had some remarkable similarities to the
Interestingly, all three films are in some ways historical dramas. Obchod
na korze and Ostre sledovane vlaky are set in the Second World War
and document resistance to Nazis or Nazification;Kolja is set against the
backdrop of Communism and, in the end, its fall. Since these films have all won
Oscars, should we conclude that they are all light and unchallenging fluff? Or
to rephrase the question: do they distort history and make cosier realities out
of it, in the process – and as a by-product – appealing to the deeply
conservative tendencies of the Academy?
Of the three, Kolja presents by far the rosiest impression. It is more
immediately comic than the others and in a way which is less black and more
camp. Its warmth is extended by its sentimental theme, a wide-eyed five-year-old
boy in the title role (although in dramatic terms, he actually contributes
surprisingly little) and picture-postcard shots of Prague’s finest buildings
bathed in a glorious light.
The central character’s prediciment is as overly romanticised as the
cinematography. Frantisek lives at the top of a medieval tower in the centre of
Prague with a stunning view of the castle, a far cry from the Communist
panelaky (blocks of flats) which are the more standard form of
accommodation for Czechs. Although Frantisek is the object of the idiotic
brutality of the regime, the film softens the effects of this on him. Fear isn’t
fear, but a mock fear, full of its superficial features but having none of its
true consequences. The highest representation of this occurs when Frantisek is
summoned by the secret police in one of the campiest scenes of the entire film.
Unable to find a babysitter for the young Kolja, Frantisek takes him to the
interrogation, an improbable enough plot device as it is. The interrogator is a
comic figure who is barely competent, and the presence of Kolja manages to throw
the interrogation into a pantomime of confusion. Reality for those summoned
before the secret police, needless to say, was rather different.
Kolja is not the only Czech film which has reviewed the years of Communism
with surprising affection and warmth. Sverak received an Oscar nomination for
his earlier film Obecna skola (Elementary School, 1991) which painted a
nostalgic and sentimental picture of what in reality was the most brutal phase
of Communism, the early 1950s. And perhaps Kolja‘s whole philosophy is
summed up by the title of another film on the Communist era – Petr Nikolaev’s
1997 film Bajecna leta pod psa (a tricky phrase to translate, but perhaps
best rendered in English as “Those Wonderful Years that Sucked”).
These romantic views of the Communist years serve several functions. They can
be considered an ironic reflection of the pains of transition – that such a
traumatic time can be looked at in such a glossy and stylised way. In this
respect, Sverak is creating a mythical golden era which never was, a time when
life was simple and had almost a pantomime quality to it. This is undoubtedly
true to some extent. The Czech Republic is now far from stable in economic
terms; unemployment (an unheard of phenomenon in Communist times) is growing
rapidly and corruption is still rife in public life. In this context, it is
understandable that Czechs might wonder whether they really have gained anything
from 1989. However, it is interesting that rather than create a film which
dissects the problems of transition, Sverak chose to paint a rose-tinted vision
of the past.
(and other films of its ilk) also serves to ease Czech consciences
about the Communist period. By portraying it as an inconvenient but harmless
episode in the country’s history, the film aims to please those who would rather
forget. The Czechs would rather not, on the whole, look too deeply into the
issues around who is morally to blame for the human rights abuses of the
Communist years, in case the answer is one they don’t like. Collaboration comes
in scales and degrees, and whilst the Czechs are happy to tar those who
collaborated to the fullest, the idea that the dividing line between those who
co-operated and those who didn’t is a blurred one is something which Czechs
would prefer not to probe too deeply.
Sverak even glorifies Frantisek’s passivity in his reaction to Communism. His
acts of resistance amount to refusing to put up red flags in his window and
other meaningless gestures in the face of authority, carried out just so he can
say to himself he has resisted and is not one of the collaborators. But, he
never does anything which actually challenges the regime.
Passivity is also an issue in Jiri Menzel’s Ostre sledovane vlaky.
This time, it is not glorified, but it is completely ignored. Again, the purpose
here is to mythologise the past and create a way of looking at it which diffuses
responsibility and reduces awkward self-analysis. In some ways, Ostre
sledovane vlaky is a more realistic film than Kolja. It relies on
black humour rather than camp, and its efforts to recreate a sense of brooding
menace appropriate to the period in which it is set – the Second World War – are
far more convincing.
However, there is no less a distortion of historical realities in the film’s
plot. The film aims to recreate the war as a period when the Czechs were
oppressed by the Nazis, and, filled with contempt for the occupiers, organised
an active and effective resistance movement. The accuracy of this view is
currently hard to gauge. Communist-era textbooks, films and novels perpetuate
the idea of the Czechs as born anti-fascists, in an attempt to legitimise the
dubious claim to power that the Party held.
Another view is encapsulated in the cruel joke:
Q: What is the difference between the Czech resistance and the film of the
A: The film lasted half an hour longer.
Certainly, there is little indication that there was an active and effective
resistance movement in the Czech Republic during the German occupation. What
operations were carried out by the Czech resistance – the assassination of
Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 and the Prague Uprising of May
1945 (as the American army stood poised in Plzen) – were failures. The
repercussions outweighed any inconvenience the actions caused the Germans, and
they did not provide the desired effects (for instance, the Uprising failed to
precipitate an early march on Prague on the part of the Americans).
Historians may find that the weakness of the resistance extends even further.
No major study of the Czech collaboration with the Nazis has been conducted
since 1989, when previously unavailable papers were made available. However, the
track record of Germany itself is not a good omen. Germans have long been keen
to create sharp divisions in culpability over wartime atrocities, maintaining
that the SS were responsible for the crimes against humanity, whilst ordinary
people and even the Wehrmacht were ignorant of these barbarities. Recent
historical re-evaluation indicates the truth is very different, and studies such
as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners have shown that
the clockwork of Nazism only ticked as smoothly as it did because of active
collaboration on the part of the vast majority of the population, which was, as
the title of Goldhagen’s work suggests, happy to collude in the regime’s dirty
It is too early to say to what extent the Czech’s resisted or collaborated
and we may not know the full story until the wartime generation has become
extinct and the issue has become less contentious. However, the evidence from
Germany and the surpisingly low numbers of German troops and functionaries
stationed in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia indicate that there are a
good few skeletons in the closet waiting to be discovered. It is certainly true
that Ostre sledovane vlaky presents a view which makes division of
culpability startlingly easy – one which must have been satisfying to those
whose position in the war was murky but not in the league of full-time
Although the fight against totalitarianism in the form of fascism was
frequently used as a metaphor for the fight against totalitarianism in the form
of Communism, Ostre sledovane vlaky largely plays along with the Party.
Indeed, the film leans very heavily on two classic Communist ideas: the
previously discussed mythologising of the Czech anti-fascist past and the idea
that personal agendas must be subordinate to the wider concerns of the nation
(that is, the State). True, Menzel uses the words of the fascists to mock
Stalinism, and the ending laughs in the face of authority. But these are short
asides rather than a concerted undermining of Communist principles. Whilst these
might be mild affronts to the regime, there is nothing which could possibly
offend the soothing version of Czech history that the Party had written for the
The first of these three Oscar-winners, Obchod na korze, is also set
in the Nazi era, but this time in Slovakia, whose wartime experiences were very
different. Slovakia was an “independent” state during the war, but was
constrained by the knowledge that veering too far from the line dictated by
Hitler would result in an all-out invasion (something which in fact eventually
Of the three films, Obchod na korze is the darkest and the most
complicated. It has many comic moments rather than being an all-out comedy.
Although the interactions between the senile and deaf Jewess Mrs Lautmanova and
the hapless Tono Brtko are camp in the extreme, there is always an underlying
blackness, culminating in the film’s protagonist, Tono, hanging himself. The
film is also the one with the most unsettling view of history.
Like Ostre sledovane vlaky, Obchod na korze has as its central
character someone who is against fascism. On a very shallow level, the film can
be read as a portrayal of the how the true Slovak character is intrinsically in
opposition to fascism. Culpability is, apparently, easily divided, with clear
“goodies” and clear “baddies.” As such, the film panders to the standard
Communist line, to Slovak squeamishness about the country’s fascist past and to
Hollywood-style moral simplicity.
However, Obchod na korze reads far more convincingly as an allegory
and spends less time propping up Communist tenets than does Ostre sledovane
vlaky. Tono ultimately hangs himself, because he does not know if he is one
of the good Slovaks who hide Jewish children or a morally repugnant Slovak on
the level of those who lead Jews off to the death camps. In this respect, it is
the only film of the three which rejects a black and white view of
There is a catch, though. The film may indeed present an uncompromising view
of history, but its claim to be a Czech film is hotly contested. The principal
director and co-screenplay-writer, Jan Kadar, was a Jew born in Budapest.
Furthermore, the film’s themes are Slovak on a superficial level but on a deeper
level reveal a suspicion of geographical and ethnic boundaries, preferring
instead to see Central Europe as a giant melting pot of different identities
(see the author’s article “Slovako-Czech Shop on the
High Street”). This is not, on the whole, the point of view of Czechs, who
prefer to see their national identity in strong ethnic terms.
The very fact that some Czechs see Obchod na korze as being in any
meaningful way a Czech film is, if anything, a further indication of the
nation’s love of creating fairy-tales. On this basis, as long as the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sticks to its current preferences, the Czechs
should have a good few Oscars coming to them in the future.