Friday, November 26, 2010

Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) -- selfishness and selflessness, lies and truth

Director: Jan Hrebejk. 2000. (PG-13)

Set in Czechoslovakia during World War 2, this Oscar-nominated film presents a moral dilemma that will cause viewers to stop and think. Like another middle-European drama, The Trap, this presents an almost unthinkable situation but leaves us with a more hopeful conclusion.

The film begins in 1937 with an idyllic scene. A car is driving through a green countryside when it stops for a moment of relief. Three men are present. Two play a trick on the chauffeur. These three will be at the heart of the story, as it moves ahead to war-torn Europe.

The introduction makes it clear that the three know each other. But David (Csongor Kassai) is a Jew. When the war arrives in Czechoslovakia he and his family are evicted from their large mansion and moved to an unseen holding facility before being sent to the concentration camps. Meanwhile, the chauffeur Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) has become a collaborator, helping the Nazis find and capture Jews. The other man, Josef (Bolek Polivka), remains in his tiny apartment with his wife Marie (Anna Siskova). He has suffered broken legs and refuses to work with his "friend" Horst helping the Germans.

With this backdrop, the film moves to 1943, and David appears back in the village, a furtive fugitive, a skeletal image of the wealthy man he once was. Josef faces a choice and makes the snap decision to bring him home, to hide him in the secret room behind the closet. The problem is that Horst continues to drop in unannounced to flirt with Marie. As a "good citizen of the Third Reich" Horst cannot be denied this, and both Josef and Marie understand.

By helping David this couple put themselves in grave danger. Like other stories of Europeans helping the Jews during WW2, this one shows the risks that such people faced every day. With those risks come great stress that play upon the family relationships of those risking their lives. Every knock on the door could be the one that hastens a trip to the gallows.

David and Marie's willingness to put themselves at risk underscores the selflessness of humanity that often surfaces at times of great duress. Jesus identified this as a sign of love: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (Jn. 15:13). Yet, humanity is complex, and selflessness and selfishness are kissing cousins, often being present in the same person. Horst is an example of selfishness, seeking to save himself at the expense of others.

To offset the risks, and to prevent Horst's almost daily visits, Josef agrees reluctantly to take a job working for Horst. In this sense, he is aiding and abetting a collaborator, making him almost one himself. In the eyes of his neighbors, though. he has become a German sympathizer and risks his reputation now as well as his life.

Josef's willingness to take on this role makes him a pariah. Like the lepers of old, his neighbors avoided him, treating him with disdain. Are we ready to sacrifice reputation and more if it would save the life of another? Or would we push the person aside, expecting someone else to help, as the priest and the Levite did in Jesus' parable of the "Good Samaritan" (Lk. 10:25-37)?

The dilemma, though, appears beyond the mid-point of the film. When Horst's eyes for Marie move beyond the academic to the physical, she rebuffs him. He is a selfish creep. But there is a price for this rebuttal. He seeks revenge by trying to move a German into their home. With this imminent danger, she tells a lie. The first thing that pops into her head becomes something that will eventually catch them out.  The lie forces Josef and Marie to contemplate and commit unthinkable acts. As one character says, in times of war "normal people do abnormal things."

Lying is a sin. The Old Testament declares unequivocally, "Do not lie" (Lev. 19:11). Paul repeats this in his letter to the Colossians: "Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices" (Col. 3:9). Yet in the context where the truth will not see free (Jn. 8:32) but will lead to execution for multiple people, perhaps the whole street, is it right to lie? The Israelite midwives lied to Pharaoh to save young lives (Exod. 1:19). But the truth is that one lie leads to another and to consequences we may have not imagined. And this is the case in this film.

At the end, as the village is liberated by the Russians, Josef finds himself facing yet another problem, the result of his earlier actions. And when the three men are brought together in one room, they each face a choice. Will revenge and justice win out? Or is there a spark of forgiveness that will provide redemption for those who don't deserve it?

Divided We Fall is a subtle film without action sequences. Yet it offers stirring performances of depth and humanity, contrasting selfishness and self-sacrifice. At its heart, it provides testament to the truth, that united we stand but divided we fall. And it leaves us with the hope that comes from new life.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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