The Long Shadow of the State

Sunday, December 2, 2012
If a movie starts off with a burglary in the middle of a rainy night, it must be film noir. So it is with Ve Stinu (In the Shadow), the Czech Republic's entry for Hollywood's 2012 foreign language Oscar. It's the story of an honest cop fighting the system, only instead of being tossed into the meat grinder of Stalinist Czechoslovakia, he willingly walks into it.
The year is 1953 and there are rumors about a currency devaluation, which the government denies. Of course, the film ends with the devaluation and disillusioned people tossing their worthless money out the windows. But before we get there, Captain Hakl has a huge problem.
His investigation of the burglary turns up a conspiracy by the police, state security and the Soviet Union to discredit what Jews are left in the country after the Holocaust. Adding insult to injury, the case is taken over by a captive ex-SS officer named Zenke with orders to stand before a show trial and declare that the Jews are engaged in supporting "Zionist terrorism". For that, he can go home. Otherwise, it's back to Siberia, never to see his family again. Hakl, who neglects his own family as the case progresses, preys on Zenke's conscience. What, six million weren't enough?
In the end, Zenke does what he's told and is allowed to go home with evidence that Hakl secretly gave him proving the innocence of the Jews. (The phone call to stop him comes just seconds after he crosses the border. Who would've guessed it?) All that's left is to take the good captain to the basement and beat him to a bloody pulp before dispatching him. The last scene shows his young son, fresh from dad's funeral, threatening two bullies in the street. The face that stares into the camera reassures the viewer that, yes, the fight for truth and justice will go on.

It's easy to see why this film was entered for Oscar consideration. The name of Václav Havel, so beloved in America for his dissident activities, will surely be evoked when discussing the merits of the film. The true shadow of director David Ondricek and writer Marek Epstein's story involves Stalin's purge of the Jews after World War II. Czechoslovak president Klement Gottwald, always eager to demonstrate his loyalty, followed suit by staging his own show trial for Jewish members of his government, with his good friend and party chief Rudolf Slansky the first to hang.
None of this is ever revealed. We learn of Zenke's SS past only through a chance glimpse, and the show trial and Soviet role in the affair are strictly cameo. Highlighting the currency devaluation instead may seem laughable, but it's meant to show the government lying to the people the whole time. The point is to follow the captain from the scene of a petty crime to the criminal policy of the Politburo. Unfortunately, there's very little gripping suspense along the way and the forensics basically comes down to, "Do me a favor, will you?"
The lack of any real plot gave actor Ivan Trojan more room to showcase his talents. In Medvidek (2007) he got to show off his Italian, here it's German. His Hakl has the trench coat, mannerisms and hunches of a world-weary detective, who sees clues not obvious to others. But as for clues to what motivates him, there are none. Some personal history with the Jews? Feeling betrayed by the system he works for? Just tired of everything?
He knows nothing will change if he exposes the plot, he knows it will cost him his life. But there he is, smugly telling his boss, security henchman and Soviet minder about the evidence, before following the henchman to the meat grinder. Perhaps he feels he failed as a family man, perhaps he wants to show his superiors he's smarter than them, perhaps he simply loves truth above all else. The only certain clue is that this movie aspires for an Oscar and Hollywood typically demands a good bloodletting for films that deal with the painful past.


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