Director: Zbynek Brynych
Screenplay: Zbynek Brynych, Hana Bělohradská
Based on Prose by: Hana Bělohradská
Starring: Miroslav Macháček, Olga Scheinpflugová, Jiří Adamíra, Zdenka Procházková
Running Time: 98 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
There was somewhat of a surge of films made about the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia in the 60s coinciding with the relative liberalisation that allowed the New Wave to come about. There were also numerous films tackling the subject matter abroad too, such as Judgment at Nuremberg and The Pawnbroker (which I reviewed recently). The topic of the holocaust had been relatively taboo in the 50s, but changing attitudes and a little distance to the events led to a more open and frank examination of just what happened to the Jews and other minority groups in Germany and occupied countries during WWII.
The Czech entries to this surge of films include titles such as The Shop on the High Street, Diamonds of the Night and The Cremator, all of which have been released on Blu-ray in the UK by Second Run. They’re now turning their hand to another slightly lesser-known Czech New Wave film that tackled the Holocaust in a slightly more oblique fashion to many, Zbynek Brynych’s The Fifth Horseman is Fear (a.k.a. …a pátý jezdec je Strach).
Having heard great things about the film, I got my hands on a copy and my thoughts follow.
The Fifth Horseman is Fear centres around the Jewish Dr. Braun (Miroslav Macháček), who has been banned from practising medicine by the occupying Nazi authorities. Instead, he is working in a warehouse for confiscated Jewish property.
One day, an injured resistance fighter stumbles into Braun’s apartment block and he hesitantly agrees to treat him. This act triggers much fear and distrust, however, as one of Braun’s neighbours, the weaselly informant Fanta (Josef Vinklář), catches a glimpse of the injured man. As Braun wanders across the block and further into the city, looking for morphine to treat his patient, he further implicates himself in this dangerous act and potentially adds more conspirators into the mix.
Along the way, we also meet the rest of the inhabitants of the block, which form a sort of microcosm of Czech society at the time, from a middle-class practising doctor and his bourgeois family to a crazy old music teacher and a fashion-loving young mother that prefers looking at herself in the mirror to dealing with her screaming child.
Striking is the best way to describe this film. It stands out in numerous ways. For one, it doesn’t fit into your typical ‘holocaust movie’ mould. Most notably, in this respect, the setting is only implied. We don’t see uniformed Nazi officers, yellow stars or any clear rounding up of Jews into the camps. Instead, we get lines like “something’s in the works” that tell us what we need to know without bluntly spelling it out.
This helps the film remain timeless and universal, making it more about oppression in general than just the holocaust. Ester Krumbachová, as is the case in many New Wave titles, had her hand in the making of the film, not only in her credited costume designer role but as an uncredited screenwriter. She is reportedly the one responsible for the obscuring of the film’s setting in this way.
The only clear indicator as to what is happening outside the world of our protagonists comes in repeated shots of notices asking people to call a special number if they come across any suspicious behaviour from their friends and neighbours. This sows the seeds for the film’s main purpose, to portray the intense fear and paranoia of a time in which nobody could be trusted and your fate could swing at the drop of a hat.
It’s in creating this atmosphere that the film truly excels. Using bold, slightly surrealistic cinematic techniques, Brynych draws fear out of mundane aspects of everyday life, such as nosey neighbours, clocks, doorbells, phones, lights and dustbin lorries (or garbage trucks).
The cinematography, matched with some stunning production design, crafts stunning imagery throughout the film too. A contrast of cluttered backgrounds and negative space in frames causes an intense feeling of oppression. A lot of frantic but controlled camera movement also aids this great sense of unease.
Matching the visual style is the sound design, which is equally striking. The soundtrack combines both diegetic and non-diegetic music, often blurring the boundary between these, as well as using sound effects and varying tones/volumes of dialogue to make a nightmarish soundscape to accompany the film.
One of the booklet’s essayists calls The Fifth Horseman is Fear “a kind of deadly serious Tati film” and I like that analogy. It can be seen in the surreal, near-comic touches, the relative lack of dialogue, the careful cinematic construction and the braying use of technology that causes the characters much anxiety. Yet the overall message is something darker and more sinister than anything Tati explored in his work.
All in all, it’s a stunningly well-realised study of fear and oppression. A remarkable piece of cinematic craftsmanship, it takes a simple premise and milks it for every ounce of tension and unease, giving the audience a sense of what life was like during these uneasy, frightening times.
The Fifth Horseman is Fear is out now on region-free Blu-ray, released by Second Run. The picture quality is very good. There’s very little damage to the print and the image is crisp. The film’s rich audio comes through nicely too.
– The Fifth Horseman is Fear (…a pátý jezdec je Strach, 1964) presented from a new HD transfer from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive.
– A newly-recorded Projection Booth audio commentary with Kat Ellinger, Jonathan Owen and Mike White.
– Two ‘lost’ sequences: the Italian Prologue, and the notorious Nazi brothel sequence that appeared in the 1968 American and Italian release versions of the film.
– Žalm (1966) – a short film by the renowned Czech filmmaker Evald Schorm to commemorate the tragic destiny of the Jewish people.
– 20-page booklet with new writing on the film by Jonathan Owen.
– New English subtitle translation.
– World premiere release on Blu-ray.
I do love the Projection Booth commentaries and the trio don’t disappoint here, providing a thorough examination of the film as well as discussions of similar work and the rest of Brynych’s filmography.
The inclusion of the ‘lost’ sequences is a real treat too. There were two alternative cuts to the film around its release. The foreign distributor, Carlo Ponti, wanted some more risque material to help sell to an international market so they shot a brothel scene and an alternative opening, which are both included here on the disc.
The brothel scene made for the international cut contains some powerful imagery (including an opening shower sequence that brings forth obvious Holocaust allusions) but it spells things out a little too much compared to the rest of the film, so would seem out of place and I’m glad to have it excised from the version on the disc. The alternative opening is definitely weaker than what we get too. It bluntly sets the scene via voiceover, which is far less subtle and effective than the more suggestive approach in the Czech cut. It’s wonderful to have them here to make your own mind up though. Unfortunately, only Italian-dubbed VHS copies of the sequences could be found, so Second Run couldn’t have used them to make a full alternative cut (or cuts) of the film.
The short documentary Žalm didn’t do much for me, to be honest. I’m not a fan of that style of poetic voiceover narration and the shots of a Jewish prayer service grew a little tiresome. There are some effectively atmospheric shots of abandoned graves though.
The booklet is excellent. There’s a fairly detailed breakdown of most of the scenes of the film, acting as a sort of mini written commentary, as well as notes on the director’s career and the alternate cuts of the film.
So, another excellent release from the ever-reliable Second Run. Like most of their discs, this gets a very strong recommendation.