Posted by Susan Doll on April 12, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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