Monday, May 6, 2013

The Fifth Horseman is Fear

A Páty Jezdec je Strach (The Fifth Horseman Is Fear) 1964 Czechoslovakia Filmové Studio Barrandor (100 minutes) directed by Zbyněk Brynych.
The Fifth Horseman is that rare ‘Holocaust film’ which has not a single yellow star or jackbooted German.
The movie’s title adds a Fifth Rider, ‘Fear,’ to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament Book of Revelation, in which ‘War’ rides a white horse, ‘Famine’ a red horse, ‘Pestilence’ a black horse, and ‘Predation’ a pale horse.
The new rider, the face of which is fear-inspiringly anonymous policemen in plain black suits, gets about town in an open automobile with a telephone connected to an anonymous tip line. As such, the Fifth Rider delivers a near hallucinatory paranoia equal to that of the French existentialist dramas set in Nazi-occupied France.
The main plot is straightforward. Dr. Braun (Miroslav Macháček), a middle-aged Jewish doctor banned from practicing medicine and forced to compromise himself morally and spiritually to survive, risks his life simply to do his ethical duty as a doctor. Dr. Braun saves the life of a neighbor’s friend, a resistance fighter—Panek (Karel Nováček)—shot by police; he obtains morphine under the table to ease his patient’s pain and hides him.
The film opens—and closes—with a montage of Prague’s streets and passages. Drawn into this series of well composed day lit images, one becomes aware that there is someone in the background keeping an eye on him. Wherever you go in the city, someone watches you with suspicion.
Wherever you go in fascist-occupied Prague, someone is watching you, in Brynych's 1964 classic The Fifth Horseman Is Fear.   
The camera at first tentatively nears, and then returns several times to a printed notice pasted across Nazi-published lists of Czech names: 
VOLEJTE 448 11
‘Promptly and accurately reporting information ensures your safety. Call 448 11.’
In other words, ‘If you see something, say something.’
This film would say through an assortment of characters that one’s worst enemy most often is himself: bad conscience, willful moral or ethical blindness, or self-preserving myopia.
Authority induces an atmosphere of corrosive paranoia. It isolates people by informing a sense of self-preservation that alienates them from each another. Like the Old Testament God, its restless, ruthless, capricious gaze falls upon real people, often with devastating effect. Its black suited agents conduct intrusive searches of private apartments.
A police inspector (Jirí Vrstála) investigates the cleavage of Věra Šidlak (Jana Pracharová) during an apartment search in The Fifth Horseman is Fear 1964. 
Meanwhile, each person’s ego paces endlessly inside his head, gripped by the enormity of its own smallness, shortcomings, powerlessness and sense of personal guilt. And while everyone believes he is maintaining his self-preservation by assuming that someone is watching him and keeping an eye on others, few have the time, energy, or independence to see what actually is going on before their own eyes.
The plot and action center on Dr. Braun, but a boy who watches and knows the principal characters the way children do witnesses key plot points and his view links the broader narrative together. Honzik Veselý (Tomás Hádl) does not always understand what he sees, but the camera needs his vantage point to tell the whole story.
The boy Honzik (Tomás Hádl) does not always understand what he sees, but the camera needs his vantage point to tell the whole story in The Fifth Horseman is Fear 1964.
The drama takes place among the residents of an Art Nouveau apartment building. A character itself in the story, this structure with its grand spiraling staircase, dramatic lighting and long shadows, makes for ideal expressionist shots.
A character itself, the Art Nouveau apartment building makes for ideal expressionist shots in The Fifth Horseman is Fear 1964.
The residents appear to be ordinary middle class people. There is the well-to-do Dr. Karel Veselý (Jirí Adamíra), apparently a lawyer, his luxury-loving wife, Marta (Zdenka Procházková), their son Honzik, and Anička, the nanny (Iva Janzurová).
There is Vlastimil Fanta (Josef Vinklár), an anxious middle-aged tattletale; an elderly music teacher (Olga Scheinpflugová) with a pet dachshund, who worships the composer Franz Haydn; Mrs. Kratochvílová (Eva Svobodová), the middle-aged female concierge. There is Mr. Šidlak (Ilja Prachar), a butcher, his young wife Věra (Jana Pracharová) and their baby.
And there is Dr. Braun, a trimly fastidious and apparently cultivated, well dressed middle-aged man who lives alone in the garret. The doctor lives quietly above the racket of a football field, with a violin he tunes and fingers but does not play, and a very different, not so distant past.
Dr. Braun (Miroslav Macháček) compartmentalizes the frighteningly disparate parts of his life in The Fifth Horseman is Fear 1964.
Dr. Braun was a physician until the Nazi race laws banned him from practicing medicine. He now lives somewhat incongruously among these Gentiles. Everyone in the building knows he is a Jew; everyone knows he was a doctor; everyone knows that the authorities have sanctioned him to live in the building; but no one associates with him.
The former doctor makes a living as ‘a kind of warehouseman,’ he says. He works at the Registry of Appropriated Jewish Property [Registrace židovských konfiskátů], where the story begins.
The ‘warehouse,’ the lovely and unwarehouselike interior spaces and ornate trimmings of which indicate a once prominent synagogue, is an Ali Baba’s cave of former Jewish household goods and property. Every item is primly ‘marked and ticketed.’ There are shelves stocked with food preserves and fine china, stacks of antique books and beautiful furniture, a floor of carelessly parked pianos. Countless musical instruments neatly line stairwells. There is a high wall of confiscated clocks.
Dr. Braun (Miroslav Macháček) inventories items among ‘a high wall of confiscated clocks’ at work in The Fifth Horseman is Fear 1964.
Ghostly moving vans on empty streets collect everything to the last bird cage. They also evidently make deliveries. Privileged people phone Dr. Braun at the registry to requisition apartments and furnishings as needed, including towels. The efficiency and workaday normality of this operation, if not the whole city, underline madness beyond the banality of evil. 
Dr. Braun occasionally recognizes the former property and street addresses of old friends as he goes through the warehouse with his ledger. He fends off the stressful anxiety dream his existence has become by compartmentalizing the frighteningly disparate parts of his life, often with exteriorized interior monologues:
‘You’ll always find somebody who doesn’t think at all. And so he wants to think for the rest and decide everything for them. Life, death—no problem. Death’s not a novelty if not my own. No one is screaming. He’s transferred, marked and ticketed. It’s really an act of mercy. The reason is I cannot tell. I do not like you, Doctor Fell. You’ve got such a strange nose. But not to complicate matters. I’ve made a dividing line, and it’s bad luck you’re on the wrong side.’
A medical emergency seeks the doctor out and makes him decide which role is most important. It takes him into the streets to get morphine, to a night club where he seeks out a former medical colleague among people partying to drown their anxieties, to a ‘Jewish sanatorium.’
Police agents respond to the ring of a dime dropped in the apartment building.
Honzik, puzzled by the events he witnesses, asks, ‘Daddy, who is a real hero?’
‘A man who dies unnecessarily, as opposed to those who live unnecessarily,’ his father replies.
The ‘warehouse’: Each person’s ego paces endlessly inside his own head, gripped by the enormity of his own smallness in The Fifth Horseman is Fear 1964.
Shot in Prague in the mid-1960s on the crest of the Czech New Wave, the movie does not claim to be ‘based on a true story.’ Nor do the filmmakers make an effort to create the illusion of the city under Nazi occupation twenty years earlier. Policemen wear plain black suits and non-specific reference is made to devotion for a ‘beloved leader’ in a repeated propaganda formula without further elaboration.
What director Zbyněk Brynych tried to do was to recapture the fraught psychological atmosphere of everyday life in Nazi-ruled Prague of twenty years before.
In the ‘Prague Spring’ of the 1960s, this served as an analogous commentary on contemporary Soviet rule. Within the context of that time, the ideological nuance that Josef Stalin was much more a ‘beloved leader’ than ever Adolf Hitler was purported to be would not have been lost on Czech viewers. 

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