Reading about Facets, I was hardly surprised to learn that their CEO has a Czech background. The sheer number and variety of masterpieces they’ve unearthed has few comparisons and you’d almost have to have a special interest in the country to know where all the treasure was buried.
This has a large part to do with Czechoslovakia’s unusual political path through history, especially the dramatic shift from the open and creative period of “socialism with a human face” to the extreme suppression following the August 20th, 1968 Soviet invasion. Films were destroyed, shelved and “banned forever.” Many of the best directors fled or were exiled. Those who stayed had to put up with censorship and blackballing.
The response from the United States had a fittingly political and cinematic timidity: they did nothing except attempt to extricate Shirley Temple, who was touring Prague at the time. Ironically, she would become the first US ambassador to the Czech Republic during the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
“The Fifth Horseman is Fear” was made in 1964, when a thinly veiled critique of the network of informants and the politics of fear was still possible. Director Zbynek Brynych sets the film during the German occupation at an apartment that is sheltering an injured fugitive.
Dr. Braun is a mid-level bureaucrat working at a warehouse for confiscated Jewish property. When we are first introduced to him, he is wandering through cavernous rooms dedicated to furniture, dishware, books, clocks, musical instruments, etc. Like the photos of shoes and human hair from Holocaust camps, they have a devastating impact because of the vast loss of humanity they imply. Part of Brynych’s evocative, bittersweet tone comes from the way he films such horror with deft beauty.
The way Brynych can pull the carpet of symmetry out from underneath us stands in conspicuous relief to the film’s otherwise precise structure and steady tempo. Mirrored scenes and matched pairs become an organizational motif, perhaps in line with Braun’s impeccable neatness. One such doubling is a scene in which a young boy watches a bike rider approach on a wide, empty street. He laughs as the rider comically weaves and stumbles until he gets close enough for us to tell he is seriously hurt. There are no vocals on the soundtrack, only circus music. The scene repeats later, with a different rider and new implication.
Other pairings include the two police raids and twin visits to Braun’s sterile office, a masterpiece of textural set design in which each wall presents a totally different face, each individually devoid of hope and humanity.
The beginning and end, camera excursions through a downcast city, also rhyme. In many of these shots it’s hard to tell if Braun is even present (I doubt it), though a lone figure in a grey suit gives off an existential flare. The imagery is some of Brynych best, serving the thematic role of connecting the tension in the claustrophobic apartment to the free-ranging fear of the masses. The lack of plot or character in these bookends reminds me of the disturbing absences in “The Eclipse.”
Music also plays an important role in “The Fifth Horseman is Fear.” As the opening credits play, discordant music is given sudden context when Braun enters a vast gallery filled with confiscated pianos. A more relevant motif is the violin, which shows up at the impound warehouse, a decadent party (where it has an amazing classical duet with a cowbell) and in Braun’s apartment. At one point Dr. Braun is forced to play a piece while a police outfit rummages his room. The talent and passion of his music is one of the rare hints about his past, a revelation of the soul that has been slowly dying since the oppression began.
Walrus Rating: 8.5 (extra points were almost awarded for the title alone)