In the excellent high-wire holocaust comedy Divided We Fall, 33-year-old Czech director Jan Hrebejk furthers his country’s reputation for cinematic absurdity as the only sane artistic reaction to political insanity. With Jews deported and Czechs living nervously under German occupation in 1943, Josef Cizek (Boleslav Polivka) and his wife, Marie (Anna Siskova), have no aspirations of righteousness. ”Who would be foolish enough today to act like a hero?” Josef asks. He’s a lazy, sardonic man; she’s a quiet homemaker who has made peace with childlessness. (Note the biblical given names.)
The couple puts up with officious visits from Josef’s obnoxious colleague, the prissy Nazi collaborator Horst (Jaroslav Dusek), and with Horst’s clumsy passes at Marie, because they can’t think of any way not to. They also end up hiding their Jewish neighbor, David (Csongor Kassai), who has escaped from a concentration camp, because they can’t say no to him either, stashing him in the pantry where they previously hoarded a butchered pig. (Sometimes Horst sits outside the pantry door, earnestly teaching Josef how to compose his face into a proper, idiotic ”irreproachable loyal expression.”) And when Horst’s attentions to Marie become a kind of blackmail, Marie blurts out that she’s pregnant to put him off. She can’t think of another excuse — and then has to make good on her lie.
The tonal elegance of this black comedy set in a dark time (adapted by the screenwriter, Petr Jarchovky, from his novel) is boldly dependent on performances that tug at taut lines of moral complexity: No one’s a hero, no one’s even a villain. As those lines cross more at the end, absurdity gives way to sentimentality, but never so distractingly as to take away from the movie’s wise thesis, spoken by Josef: ”You wouldn’t believe what abnormal times can do to normal people.”