Millions of civilians faced the ultimate test of character when Nazi armies occupied their countries and started deporting their Jewish neighbors.
Most reacted like normal human beings; that is, they looked the other way, when they did not actively collaborate with the conqueror. A few risked their own and their families' lives by sheltering Jews. And some gave in to terrible fears and pressures at one point and acted with supreme moral courage at another.
It is the third group that director Jan Hrebejk examines with perception and sympathy in the Czech film "Divided We Fall," which opens today. Based on a true story, "Divided" was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film.
The film takes place in a small Czech town during the war years of 1943-45, with central characters Josef Cizek and his wife, Marie (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova). They are trying to get along as best they can while facing war, occupation and the private sorrow of Josef's sterility, which prevents them from having children.
One night, Josef has a chance meeting with David Wiener (Csonger Kassai), the young Jewish son of his former employer, who has bribed an SS guard to escape from a concentration camp. Josef's first instinct is to get away from David, but he then shelters him for one night, and finally creates a permanent hiding place in his home.
David's presence tests the true mettle of the rescuer, which lies not so much in the initial decision to hide a Jew but in the hour-by-hour, day-by-day fear of detection by snoopy neighbors, Gestapo agents, unexpected guests and even stray dogs.
Except for the consistently resolute Marie, all the other characters are conflicted. There is Horst, the Nazis' chief Czech lackey with a Hitlerian mustache, who saves Josef's and Marie's lives when the chips are down. Another resident, in a moment of sheer terror, tries to turn David in but later becomes a resistance leader.
"Divided We Fall" is not primarily a war film or a Holocaust film but a masterful study in the complexity of the human mind and spirit.
"Divided We Fall " opens June 8 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Laemmle Town Center in Encino.