Monday, March 4, 2013

Alois Nebel [2011]

MPAA (UR / would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD* listing

Alois Nebel (2011) [IMDb] [CSFD*] (directed by Tomáš Luňák [IMDb] [CSFD*] based on the graphic novel by Jaroslav Rudiš [IMDb] [CSFD*] and Jaromír Svejdík (illustrator) [IMDb] by the same name) is a technically stunning, all black and white, hard-boiled animated film, which played recently at Chicago's 16th Annual European Union Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago.

In classic film noir fashion the story plays out in a cold, dark and ever raining/snowing setting.  It's the late fall of 1989.  The Berlin Wall is about to come down, but inhabitants of the mountain hamlet going by the name of Bílý Potok (Czech for "White Stream") nestled on the Czech side of the border between Communist era Czechoslovakia and Poland don't realize it yet.

Since Bílý Potok is a tiny speck on the map, with its only distinction that it has a railway going through it, not much seems to change from day-to-day.  And yet, if one pays closer attention, there's actually quite a bit going on (and passing through) this little dot on the map.

It's on the border between two Communist states.  Even though commerce is technically illegal, a lot of black market trafficking is taking place, between Poland and Czechoslovakia, of course, but also between both and the Soviet army garrison stationed discreetly in the forests nearby.  This Soviet garrison has been stationed on Czechoslovakian soil since the infamous Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  Its original job had been to keep the post invasion Czechoslovakian regime reliable.  However, no doubt, since the beginning of the Solidarity era in Poland, it's taken on the second task of keeping Poland's Communist leadership in line as well.  Still, after 20 years of sitting in both discreetly and threateningly in a forest seemingly in the middle of nowhere, discipline in the garrison has to have waned.  With little going on, and so much stuff that could be pilfered and sold for odd profit, the temptation to get involved, indeed lead/dominate the black market trade would have been great.   So good ole Bílý Potok, a tiny spot on a map with a seemingly inconsequential railway station becomes actually a hub for all sorts of nefarious activity ...

But NONE of this 2-bit or even 10-bit black-market trafficking compares to the truly awful secret that played out there in the aftermath of World War II.  This is because though TODAY this little hamlet called Bílý Potok sits on the Czech side of the border with POLAND, before the war this mountain hamlet bordered GERMAN SILESIA and was largely inhabited by the famous Sudeten Germans and went by the hyphenated name Bílý Potok-Wiesbach.  During the Nazi era, no doubt the Czech name was dropped.  Then in revenge, in the months following the war, the Czechs expelled ALL THE GERMANS from Sudeten borderland region and erased the German parts of all the place names.

The expulsion of the Germans of  Bílý Potok-Wiesbach no doubt played out at the railway station.  And this then completes the background to the story.

Alois Nebel, Jr (voiced by Miroslav Krobot [IMDb] [CSFD*]) the ever quiet, even somewhat dour operator at the Bílý Potok railway station had lived all his life there.  His father, Alois Nebel, Sr had been the operator at the station at the end of the war.  Alois, Jr had only been a small boy at the time, but he saw a terrible thing.  Not only did he witness the ethnic Germans of his town being loaded on trains and expelled at the end of the war, but he saw his ethnic German babysitter Dorothe (voiced by Tereza Voříšková [IMDb] [CSFD*]) manhandled by Wachek (voiced by Leoš Noha [IMDb] [CSFD*]) one of the Czech Revolutionary Guards leading the expulsion of the ethnic Germans.  Alois, Jr never really knew what happened to Dorothe and as he grew older and Wachek became one of the State Security officers in the region, he knew not to ask.  But in his dreams, he knew that it probably did not go well for her... 

Indeed, it was Wachek and his kind that did most of the talking in those days.  And what they chose to talk about was enough to keep almost everybody else with any sense, silent.  Still those dreams...

Now, anyone who knows anything about hard-boiled detective stories, graphic novels and film noir films knows that deep dark secrets, both big and small, can't be kept down forever.  Eventually, they begin leak out.

By 1989, Alois' dreams had tormented him enough that he realizes that he needs help.  But where?  This was Communist Czechoslovakia.  Psychiatric services weren't being used to help people, they were being used to keep people who couldn't keep their mouths shut, SILENT.  So poor Alois, who needed some help with his dreams, soon finds himself in a real-life nightmare bigger than he he was ready for.  Still, even the authorities know that he's a "small fry."  And so after some time, and no doubt realizing that he was no real threat to anybody, much less the Regime, they let him go.

But there in the psychiatric institute, Alois runs into another guy, a mute, in his mid 40s.  No one knows who he is because he doesn't talk to anybody.  But he just showed-up one day in Bílý Potok with an old picture of the train station, old because the sign still read Bílý Potok-Wiesbach and in the picture were four people.  Among the people in that picture Dorothe, Alois' father and Wachek.  And, oh yes, the mute had also come to the town with an ax.  With that kind of an entry, he was arrested.  And soon after that, he was taken to the psychiatric unit because he wasn't talking, and not even repeated electroshock therapy seemed to be able to "make him sing."  Then one evening, suddenly the mute man was gone.

"Escaped!  How could he have escaped? "  Old man Wachek (voiced by Alois Švehlík [IMDb] [CSFD*]) , now retired from the State Security Service, still living in the same town of Bílý Potok shakes his head in disbelief as he hears of the story in local tavern.  "Why in my day, NO ONE EVER ESCAPED AND WE GOT ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE TO SING."

A few more trains pass through town and Alois, after getting out of the psychiatric unit, takes a ride to Prague (to ask the Railway Service for a job now that the one that he's had all his life had been taken from him while he was "away").  While he's there, he gets to witness the falling of the Communist Regime, though none of the people who he's around, himself included, really understand what it all means.

So a lot more rain, sleet and snow still falls on Bílý Potok before the story comes to its conclusion.  Still, if you know these kind of stories, You can probably guess how it ends by now.  The mute man who "escaped" comes back... 

Now who was the mute man?  Who did he come for?  Why?  If you know these kind of stories, the answers should come rather easily by now.   For in these kind of stories, there are crimes that are so awful, so personal that they simply cry out ...  And so even decades later, someone comes into town ... with a worn picture ... and an ax ... and ... it becomes patently clear that justice will finally be done.

I am simply in awe (and to be honest, a little bit frightened ...) that this classic Hollywood formula was applied so excellently here.

* Machine translations of Czech links provided into English are most easily viewed through use of Google's Chrome brower.

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