Taking a “Distant Journey”

Yesterday, April 11, was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and one path taken to insure this horrific event will never be forgotten has been the chronicling of the stories, the nightmares, and the history of the Holocaust on film. From the testimonies of actual survivors documented for the Shoah Foundation to the dramatization of life in the concentration camps in fictional movies, the horrors of the Holocaust have been recorded and interpreted via the cinema. Of course, any mention of Holocaust dramas brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s highly regarded Schindler’s List, which continues to be the barometer for measuring the artistic value of other films with Holocaust subject matter.

Yet, through my job as a researcher and writer for the Facets DVD label, I have discovered a number of films about the Holocaust that I personally find more interesting and compelling. I am fascinated by some of these films because they were made just a few years after World War II and so convey a sense of immediacy in lieu of the retrospection inherent in contemporary Holocaust dramas. Also, these films were made by Eastern European filmmakers, some of whom had personal experiences in which they or family members were interred in concentration camps, giving the storylines a tragic authenticity. Unfortunately, few of these films are known to movie lovers or even mentioned in film histories, largely because they were produced by communist countries that were satellites of the old Soviet Union. Much of the culture of countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary was hidden behind the Iron Curtain and victim to the whims of the communist-dominated bureaucracies that controlled the arts. Even scholars who may have heard of these titles had little opportunity to see them because there was little organized distribution of such movies to the West.  Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union and its satellites, some of these films have been rediscovered and brought to light by companies such as Facets and Polart Video.

My personal favorite is the Czech film Distant Journey (Daleka Cesta, 1949), partly because it is so beautifully crafted and partly because it was cowritten by one of my former college instructors, Mojmir Drvota.  I had no idea that Professor Drvota had been part of Czechoslovakia’s film industry, and I did not recognize his name as I began to research Distant Journey for DVD release through Facets. My colleague who works on DVD authoring with me, and who had also attended Ohio State, recognized his name. We were both astonished at the coincidences involved for us in releasing this particular title on DVD.

DIRECTOR ALFRED RADOK

Distant Journey was directed by Alfred Radok, who was predominantly a stage director. Aside from this film, Radok’s claim to fame was to conceive and direct the Magic Lantern (1958), a stage production that combined film and dance with other theater conventions. His assistant on the Magic Lantern was a young Milos Forman, who claimed Radok as an influence. But, in the aftermath of WWII, when Radok was part of a Czech film industry struggling to get back on its feet, the Magic Lantern was in his future. Distant Journey came out of his past.

Alfred Radok was Jewish on his father’s side, and he lost several family members to the concentration camps. His grandfather and father died in the transit camp known as Terezin (or, Theresienstadt), where part of Distant Journey is set. The director himself was detained in the last months of the war in the detention camp of Klettendorf near Wroclaw, though he managed to escape. Just three years after the war that claimed many in his family, Radok began work on Distant Journey. Part of the film was shot on location in Terezin. Though there are no accounts of his personal reaction to shooting in the former transit camp, it must have been difficult to be in the place where his father had been murdered.

Distant Journey begins as a romantic drama about the relationship between two Prague doctors. Dr. Hana Kaurmanova, a young Jewish woman, is in love with her non-Jewish colleague, Dr. Antonin Bures, or Tonik. They marry in a very private ceremony at a time when anti-Semitic restrictions and laws were on the increase. Hana loses her job at the hospital, just as Jewish doctors were dismissed from their positions in real life two days after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. Over the next two years, restrictions became tighter, and Jews were forbidden to attend the theater and other public cultural events—all of which are reflected in Distant Journey. Hana and her family hear about Jews that are sent on “distant journeys” to concentration camps, prefiguring their own fates.

BLANKA WALESKA PLAYS HANA (CENTER).

During the first half of the film, Radok incorporates documentary footage from German propaganda films, including Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, to create a larger sense of history outside the everyday lives of the main characters. Yet, this larger history invades the private lives of Hana and her family and friends in a direct and dreadful way. The mix of documentary footage within the fictional story is surprisingly smooth, but more importantly, it suggests that history does not consist of distant events outside the bounds of everyday life. It has a direct bearing on the fates of everyone—a point relevant to any age.

In the second half of the film, Hana and some members of her family are sent to Terezin, a transit camp from which Jews were then transported to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. In actual history, some people remained in Terezin a long time. Because it was a transit camp, prisoners knew it was better to remain here, but the threat of being transported further east hung over their heads. Most of the 150,000 imprisoned in the cramped camp were from Bohemia and Moravia in Czechoslovakia, but a few were from France, Holland, and Belgium. About 35,000 of the camp’s residents died from starvation, disease, and stress. Within the prison that was Terezin, there was a smaller, brutal prison called the Little Fortress, where Radok’s father had been tortured and killed by Nazis. From the perspective of the residents, Terezin may have been better than Auschwitz, but it was still a prison camp, where they were forced to live in fear and poverty after being driven out of their homes. From the warped perspective of Hitler, the Terezin ghetto was “the town for the Jews,” as a German propaganda documentary called it. The Nazis allowed a minimum of self-government and limited cultural events in the camp, and under international pressure, they permitted the Red Cross to visit. From all accounts, the Germans liked to show off their “little town for the Jews.” In Distant Journey, the Red Cross visits are shown to be a sham as Hana and other residents are forced to scrub the stone streets on their hands and knees a few days before the visits in order to make Terezin seem clean and presentable.

A CHAOTIC SET DESIGN, WITH EXPRESSIONIST ELEMENTS LIKE STAIRCASES AND WEB SHADOWS, DOMINATE THE SECOND HALF.

Radok renders Terezin in a mannered style straight out of Expressionism to suggest that Hana’s experiences are like a full-blown nightmare. The use of high contrast lighting in many shots creates bar shadows that figuratively entrap the residents just as they are literally imprisoned by the Nazis. Claustrophobic and chaotic set designs further trap the people and paint their world as bizarre and grotesque. Staircases, an Expressionist symbol for chaos and disorder, are everywhere but lead nowhere, while odd angles and awkward compositions tell us that nothing is right in this mad world. Radok had seen Citizen Kane in 1947, which he called the artistic experience of the year, and that film exacted an obvious influence on Distant Journey, but the visual style was not just a carbon copy of Kane. It definitely serviced the content.

The most unique technique used by Radok in Distant Journey is something I have never seen in any other film from any other part of the world. It’s a transition device used to link one sequence directly to another. Rather than a tightly plotted linear narrative, the structure of Distant Journey is episodic, yet the film exudes the tension of a tightly constructed storyline because the sequences are concretely linked together. At the beginning of each new sequence, a shot from the previous scene shrinks down into the lower right-hand corner of the frame of the new sequence. It is literally a frame within the frame. Most importantly, this frame-within-a-frame links the onscreen sequence with the previous one in a cause-and-effect way. Given the fact that the Czech film industry was still recovering from the war and occupation, this sort of special effect represents quite a technical feat.

CLAUSTROPHIC BLOCKING OF THE ACTORS ADDS TO THE TENSION OF THE VISUAL DESIGN.

Distant Journey received a limited release in 1949, largely due to the Expressionist style. Radok began the film while Czechoslovakia was still a coalition government, but during production, Soviet-backed communists seized power. The Soviet-style, hard-line communists disapproved of any art rendered in formal or expressionist styles, deeming it decadent because it was not naturalistic. The official style for all Soviet-backed art was known as “social realism,” which consisted of linear stories about the ways in which communism had improved the lives of the characters. The style was invisible, meaning the story was foregrounded over any visual techniques. It was the opposite of Expressionism in theory and appearance. Even before the film was released, the hard-line communists had forced Radok to cut a couple of scenes that showed Czechs were also guilty of anti-Semitism; in this climate, so it was no surprise that Distant Journey was quickly pulled from theaters.

Distant Journey did not see the light of day again until 1991—after the Velvet Revolution. Czech citizens viewed it for the first time in four decades when it aired on television. A new print of the film was struck in 1991 and exhibited at various museums and international festivals. Facets released it on DVD in 2005 and again this year combined in a two-pack with another Holocaust-related film called The Fifth Horseman Is Fear. (I wrote about Horseman for the Turner archive. If you are interested, you can read about it here.)

While movies about the Holocaust are never easy viewing, I can’t recommend this movie enough. From its smart use of filmmaking techniques to its recreation of a history still fresh in the minds of the filmmakers, Distant Journey has the sad voice of authenticity that Hollywood interpretations could never have.

8 Responses Taking a “Distant Journey”
Posted By michaelgsmith : April 12, 2010 1:32 pm

As someone who has always found Schindler’s List problematic, this looks very intriguing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Posted By michaelgsmith : April 12, 2010 1:32 pm

As someone who has always found Schindler’s List problematic, this looks very intriguing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Posted By debbe : April 12, 2010 2:01 pm

thank you suzidoll for this. i was surprised to see that mojmir drvota had written this. he was a terrific teacher and evidently a humble one at that. it is always a “tread lightly affair” when viewing and discussing holocaust films. I think that there is a a different kind of grip these movies have when they are more historical in chronology…. closer to the event… it is interesting to see these films that do not benefit from the long lens of historical perspective. i would love to see this film. im sure it will never show in the southwest, so i appreciate you discussing this…. so i can keep my eye open. i wish someone would make a more definitive film about raoul wallenberg…. the swedish diplomat who gave hungarian jews swedish passports and saved their lives.

Posted By debbe : April 12, 2010 2:01 pm

thank you suzidoll for this. i was surprised to see that mojmir drvota had written this. he was a terrific teacher and evidently a humble one at that. it is always a “tread lightly affair” when viewing and discussing holocaust films. I think that there is a a different kind of grip these movies have when they are more historical in chronology…. closer to the event… it is interesting to see these films that do not benefit from the long lens of historical perspective. i would love to see this film. im sure it will never show in the southwest, so i appreciate you discussing this…. so i can keep my eye open. i wish someone would make a more definitive film about raoul wallenberg…. the swedish diplomat who gave hungarian jews swedish passports and saved their lives.

Posted By kingrat : April 12, 2010 3:52 pm

Thank you so much for writing about this film I had never heard of. This would be an excellent choice for TCM.

Posted By kingrat : April 12, 2010 3:52 pm

Thank you so much for writing about this film I had never heard of. This would be an excellent choice for TCM.

Posted By jn : April 13, 2010 12:35 am

Suzi, thanks for featuring this film on this anniversary. It sounds fascinating. I look forward to seeing a Holocaust themed film made so closely proximate to the events it dramatizes. Germany’s conquest of Czechoslovakia came at a time when France and England had a unique opportunity to stop Hitler, an opportunity they squandered. A cabal of Germany’s top military commanders were literally begging France and Germany to help them topple Hitler and prevent an invasion of Czechoslovakia, but the Allied Powers settled on a plan of appeasement to the Fuhrer instead. Hence Terezin, and all the rest.

Posted By jn : April 13, 2010 12:35 am

Suzi, thanks for featuring this film on this anniversary. It sounds fascinating. I look forward to seeing a Holocaust themed film made so closely proximate to the events it dramatizes. Germany’s conquest of Czechoslovakia came at a time when France and England had a unique opportunity to stop Hitler, an opportunity they squandered. A cabal of Germany’s top military commanders were literally begging France and Germany to help them topple Hitler and prevent an invasion of Czechoslovakia, but the Allied Powers settled on a plan of appeasement to the Fuhrer instead. Hence Terezin, and all the rest.

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies