Thursday, June 13, 2013

In the Shadow (orig. Ve Stinu) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD* listing

In the Shadow (orig. Ve Stínu) [2012] [IMDb] [CSFD]* (directed and cowritten by David Ondráček [IMDb] [CSFD]* along with principal writer Marek Epstein [IMDb] [CSFD]* and Misha Votruba [IMDb]) is an award winning film (including nine 2013 Czech Lions, the Czech equivalent of the Oscars) that played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago as part of the eight city 2013 Czech That Film tour sponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States and Prague's Staropramen Beer (Other European beer companies such as Heineken and Amstel Light have sponsored similar programs ... ;-)

The film is noirish crime story set in Prague of the early 1950s.  The Communists of Czechoslovakia were already entrenched in power, since the post-WW II elections in which they won a plurality and then the Putsch of February 1948 when rather than allow their government fall (as often happens in democratically elected coalition governments), the Communists instead staged a coup d'etat and took complete control.  However, the final stages of the Stalinization process were yet to play out -- notably the final found of show trials where even members of the Communist Party were purged, and "monetary reform" allowing the government to loot what was left of the personal monetary savings of its citizens (the special target was, of course, the previously wealthy, but the "monetary reform" really pauperized everybody).   

So it was in the swirl of rumor circulating impending "monetary reform" that would render savings in the old currency worthless, that a two-bit robbery of a store house of previously confiscated jewels takes place.  (The old currency may become worthless but items of value like gold, jewels, books, artwork, etc, would presumably continue to retain value even with a new currency).  Prague police inspector Hakl (played by Ivan Trojan [IMDb] [CSFD]*) is put on the case to investigate the seemingly petty robbery.

Detective Hakl approaches the matter like any criminal case.  Clues left behind at the crime scene reduce the number of probable suspects.  He asks his partner: "Who do we know who's fat (there was a lot of sweat left at the scene), knows how to pick/pry-open a safe, and may be missing a finger or two (a small prosthetic was dropped at the crime scene)?"  Settling on a possibility, they go to a seedy bar by a rail yard at the edge of town and ask a few questions.  They get a few answers ... and are well on their way to solve a caper that could have easily fit the parameters of a good Mickey Spillane story of that era, 'cept ...

'Cept ... the next morning "State Security" comes in and tells Detective Hakl's boss that they're taking over the case and already have someone in custody, someone named Kirsch (played by Miroslav Krobot [IMDb] [CSFD]*).  Hakl's boss breaks the news to him, "Lay off, State Security's taking this one."  "Why?"  "They see this as far more than just a petty crime, besides they have somebody already."  "Who?"  "Kirsch."  "We both know Kirsch (a petty thief but also a drunk) and he couldn't have possibly have done this crime."  Hakl asks to interview the already incarcerated Kirsch and finds to no surprise that he has an iron clad alibi.  He was out cold in the drunk tank the night of the robbery.  Yes, he had gotten himself in trouble with the law.  Yes, he was kinda shifty.  But he was small, this kind of robbery wasn't his style, and he was a notorious drunk.  HOWEVER, he was ALSO ... a Jew.

And that becomes the "bigger picture" that "State Security" paints.  They even bring in a detective, Zenke (played by Sabastian Koch [IMDb] [CSFD]*) from the newly formed German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to paint a far reaching, international conspiracy of Jewish organizations pilfering unclaimed stocks of gold and other valuables from warehouses in Eastern (Soviet-dominated) Europe left-over from the Nazi era and smuggling them out of the region to help support the newly formed state of Israel.

Okay, let's run down the problems with the conspiracy as proposed by the Communist dominated "State Security": (1) How many "Jewish Organizations" would there have been left in EASTERN EUROPE following the Holocaust / previous Nazi occupation? (2) Even if there were "Jewish Organizations" around to steal said gold/valuables IT WOULD HAVE BEEN ARGUABLY LEGITIMATE as THE NAZIS STOLE ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF WEALTH FROM THEIR JEWISH VICTIMS DURING THE COURSE OF THE HOLOCAUST.

Now here is where it gets a little interesting: (1) The little and already by then Communist (see above) country of Czechoslovakia played a surprisingly important role in Israel's 1948 War for Independence.  During a cease fire in that war, a large amount of "faulty Czechoslovakian made small arms," made (faulty) for the Germans during the Nazi occupation, were shipped to Israel.  With very minor adjustments those "faulty" weapons proved to be excellent and may have served to assure Israel's survival in that war.  (2) Despite such support of Israel's creation by the emerging Soviet Bloc, Israel ended up aligning itself with the United States (and the emerging Western Bloc) a "betrayal" that the ever-vengeful Stalin never forgot.  Indeed, the last round of purges in the Soviet Union prior to Stalin's death, the "Doctors' Plot" (playing out at exactly the same time as this film), was overtly anti-Semitic.

The "conspiracy" that "State Security" paints with help of the East German detective Zenke and a Soviet "advisor" named Colonel Morozov (played by Sergej Raiter [IMDb] [CSFD]*) whose "presence" makes is more or less obvious that he's the one sent down by Moscow to make sure that things go "according to plan" ... takes place at exactly the time when the last stages of the Stalinization process were being set to happen:

Within a year of after this story would have played out, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, under Soviet Pressure did stage its final, internal Purge.  Rudolf Slánsky (second in command in the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, and ... Jewish) along with 13 other officials (10 of them Jewish) were arrested and tried for treason (all of whom under torture/duress dutifully Confessed).  Eleven including Slánsky were subsequently executed and the three others given life imprisonment. 

Also at the end of the story presented in the film, the much rumored "monetary reform" takes place effectively robbing the country's citizens of all their monetary wealth.  Note the contradiction: Detective Hakl is being stymied by "State Security" in his investigation of an arguably petty crime (which "State Security" wants to gin-up to conspiratorial, indeed, treasonous levels) even as the Communist Government is plotting to rip-off the monetary wealth of every single citizen in the country.  And of course, against such a massive State sponsored crime there is little that an individual or small family can do except find a way to "prepare" and "adapt."  Hearing the persistent rumors of the coming "monetary reform," inspector Hakl's wife Jitka (played by Soňa Norisová [IMDb] [CSFD]*)  suggested a rather simple plan to protect their (very tiny) family savings.  But could she get her somewhat stubborn husband (a gruff, "old school" but honest cop) to listen?

Finally, the East German detective Zenke has a story as well ...

In a key scene near the end of the film, when Hakl becomes absolutely convinced that the whole conspiracy theory being forced on him and his department by "State Security" was a fraud he has it out with the East German detective at his apartment.  At the center was a discussion about Hakl's little boy.  Hakl asks the East German detective: "What good is a father to his son if he's afraid to stand up for the truth?"  Zenke, who at this point doesn't deny that his whole presence in this matter is a fraud (Remember, he has a story as well... which by this time the viewer would understand) responds: "What good is a father to his son if he ends up dead?"

THE VERY NEXT SHOT is that of the statue of ST. WENCESLAS on WENCESLAS SQUARE IN PRAGUE.  St. Wenceslas, the first Christian leader of the Czech people was a martyr, killed by his own brother, for refusing to do what the brother's (still pagan) faction wanted him to do, which would have put the whole people at risk.  Arguably there would be no Czech nation or Czech people today if not for St. Wenceslas dying then (more than 1000 years ago) for his people.  So there is indeed value in dying for what is right ...

The film ends with a dedication "to all those who died quietly in the shadows (the film's title) for the country in defense of what was right."  Understanding that climactic scene and the closing dedication makes one want to cry ...

Finally, I believe that this film could work well for American viewers (and even other European viewers) to see in conjunction with a recent (and also award winning) Italian film Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (orig. Romanzo di una Strage) [2012] because this would help American viewers appreciate why Europeans are so much more cynical when it comes to "big power meddling."  The Italian film, about a real incident in 1969 is also about the frustration of justice and arguably the martyrdom of an honest police inspector who comes to realize that the roots of the crime that he was initially tasked to "solve" extended beyond the reach of even his own country and arguably sat in the lap of the Super Power in whose "camp" his country, arguably a client state, belonged.  A lot of ugly things and dirty tricks took place across Europe during the Cold War.

ADDENDUM - People ask me at times "I'd be interested in seeing this film but how the heck do I find it?"  Well a fair number of the European films eventually become available for purchase (if often in Region-2 format) through where the current film, In the Shadow (orig. Ve Stinu) [2012] is already listed though still unavailable for purchase.  Note that Region-2 DVDs can be viewed on one's computer after installing such free-ware programs as passkey-lite).

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