Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Daleká Cesta (Distant Journey)

Directed by Alfréd Radok
1949
Czechoslovakia




How long must the cinematic world wait before it can properly address great tragedies?  After the horrific terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11th, nobody was sure how long filmmakers needed to wait before they could create films about it.  For the most part, it took five years before Hollywood and the independent film scene could muster up the courage to dramatize the events surrounding the attacks in World Trade Center and United 93.  I remember watching those films and thinking that despite their genuinely noble intentions (I firmly believe that both films were NOT the result of a producer trying to make a quick buck on latent patriotism) that they still were made too soon to the attacks.  I still feel that way.  I’m not sure that my fellow Americans will EVER get to a point where they can think and feel clearly and rationally about the attacks. 

Keep in mind that in the attacks, horrific as they were, only approximately 3,000 people were killed.  Now let’s pretend that the attacks didn’t kill 3,000 people, but almost 7 million.  And those 7 million were killed in one of the cruelest, most inhuman(e) acts of evil in history.  What would you say if you were effected by that tragedy and you heard that somebody was making a feature film about it only THREE YEARS after it happened?   To me, it would be unthinkable.  But that was the situation that Europeans found themselves in when Distant Journey was released in 1949.  Released only three years after the attempted systematic slaughter of an entire race of people, Distant Journey was one of the first films to ever directly address the horrors of the Holocaust.  As a film, it is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship.  As a witness to history, it is a stirring piece of courage that should be admired and venerated throughout the ages.

Distant Journey’s complex narrative follows the slow tide of anti-Semitism wash over Prague in the late 30s and early 40s.  We see the evolution of Czech society through the viewpoint of Hana Kaufmannová, a Jew, and her Aryan husband, Toník.  At first, the anti-Semitism is vague and casual: there is resistance to their marriage (Toník’s father deliberately misses their wedding) and they receive the usual stares and glares.  But soon Hana is forbidden from practicing medicine. Then she is forbidden from attending the theater and other cultural events.  Then come the “relocation” orders.  Here starts the harrowing core of the film: the transportation of Jews to concentration camps. 

Instead of being immediately shipped to a death camp, Hana, along with several thousand other Jews, are sent to a “special” camp named Terezín.  This particular camp was a site where the Nazis incarcerated thousands of Jews to be put on show to international authorities.  The Jews had to keep the town clean and presentable.  In one scene many women are forced to wash the streets before a visit from the Red Cross.  This town was both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, the Nazis gave them limited self-government and allowed them to maintain certain Jewish customs.  History shows that this camp gave birth to drawings, poems, diaries, and even an opera.  But on the other hand, it was still a Nazi concentration camp.  Conditions were horrible.  In one scene a woman drops a plate of food and nearly a dozen passersby dive onto the scraps and whisk them away before she can even recover (one wonders if Roman Polanski was inspired by this scene to do a similar one in his film The Pianist).  35,000 Jews died in this camp.

Conditions get worse and worse as the Jews of Terezín are forced to work on a strange construction project.  They labor on until a shipment of young children are forced into the building.  They are told to strip down naked and get ready for a shower.  As they enter the inner chamber, they see, to their horror, that it contains pipes and and valves for a strangely opaque gas...

Of course they are eventually liberated.  This leads to an uncomfortable scene of the Jews spilling out of Terezín and cheering like it’s New Year’s Day.  Perhaps Radok was unaware or unwilling to portray the Jews how they really were when they were liberated by Allied forces.  But it gives the film a strange, uneasy ending.  But this film isn’t about the liberation...it is about the suffering, the deaths, the ones who didn’t make it...


The story of Distant Journey can hardly be told without recounting the life of its director, Alfréd Radok.  Although he was only half Jewish, he lost much of his family in to the Holocaust.  Radok was also imprisoned in a camp near Wrocław, but he managed to escape.  After the war ended, he began production on Distant Journey, his very first film project.  A large part of the film was actually shot on location in Terezín where, coincidentally, both his father and grandfather were killed.  By the time the film was finished, the Communists had taken over postwar Czechoslovakia.  Distant Journey was one of the very last films that were made before Communist censorship clamped down on the movie industry.  Distant Journey was subsequently banned for over forty years.  The film wallowed away until it was shown on television in 1991 after the Velvet Revolution.  It was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, drawing comparisons to none other than Citizen Kane (1941).

It’s easy to understand why the film was so enthusiastically hailed upon viewing.  It utilized dense, highly expressionist filming techniques and cinematography.  Radok utilized extremely heavy symbolism as the film incredibly doesn’t show a single person being killed onscreen.  There are several scenes that seem to be lifted straight out of a silent film.  In an incredible article for the Central Europe Review, Jiří Cieslar recalls one potent example of Radok’s visual and symbolic storytelling in a scene where a highly respected Jewish professor commits suicide by jumping out of his office onto the street:

“The scene is composed of very unusual camera angles, with a highly impressive use of soundtrack and a variety of symbolic objects, such as: a Jewish rucksack with a special prisoner number (402) on it; a globe on the table, as a symbol of a world this professor refused to escape to; and also a clock, the hands significantly stopped.

We don't see the professor's jump from the open window onto the pavement, everything is done by means of off-screen sounds and by dramatic camera-shots of other places.”

But Radok doesn’t just rely on symbolism.  He was greatly aided by a powerful cast of actors.  In one scene an old Jewish man holds an Iron Cross that he must have won a long time ago fighting for Germany.  He cradles it softly, and marches around his room with the proud visage of a soldier come home from a successful campaign.  But his face softens and turns to tears as he tightly clutches the Cross.  He realizes that not even his history as a hero of Germany can help him now.  Even though the entire scene is done in one long take, it is mesmerizing to watch this conflicted, tortured man come to terms with the horrors of reality.

Radok used one other fascinating technique in the construction of Distant Journey: the inclusion of documentary footage from sources such as The Triumph of the Will (1935).  Several times during the film Radok uses a freeze frame and then shrinks it down to the lower right hand corner of the screen.  This early version of picture-in-picture allowed Radok to juxtapose reality  with reconstruction.  In one instance Radok bravely used footage of murdered corpses on the lawns of concentration camps, a technique that many modern Holocaust films refuse to do.  The use of documentary footage creates a strange distancing effect on the film: we are emotionally attached to the characters but are forced to approach the truth about the Holocaust objectively. 

Distant Journey can occasionally be difficult to watch.  Its use of documentary footage can be jarring and discomforting.  Meanwhile, the nearly hyper-stylized narrative can be challenging to follow when Radok relies too much on suggestion and symbolism.  But despite its flaws, Distant Journey is a devastating film of great historical import.  It was one of the first films to ever acknowledge and address the horrors of the Holocaust.  It brought one of the worst tragedies in human history to life.  In doing so, it bares careful watch over our future, making sure that such horror will never be repeated.


I apologize that I could not include many pictures in this review.  I was unable to get screencaps from the video source that I used.

This film is free for viewing on youtube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXRwGuH0C-g

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distant_Journey_%28film%29#Trivia
http://www.ce-review.org/01/20/kinoeye20_cieslar.html
http://www1.epinions.com/review/mvie_mu-1147881/content_276914409092

15 comments:

  1. Hmmmm....need to dig out....fine review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you! If you follow that link you can watch it all on youtube!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for reference and just finished seeing on youtube. A complex movie hard to absorb at one go. Yet one more perspective on the subject.

    Have you seen Shoah, IMHO the definitive film about it and spellbindingly unmissable, even at over eight hours? I think it is a must for a serious cinephile and aspiring film maker.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've been meaning to see "Shoah" for some time now...I just need to set aside the requisite 8 hours for it.

    Glad that you liked "Distant Journey"!

    ReplyDelete
  5. "Shoah" is a film that stands alone.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great review. I'll have to watch this one sometime as I am interested to see this since it came out so soon after the Holocaust.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks! I provided the link! I'm VERY interested in what you have to think about it!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Excellent and insightful review, Nate. I haven't seen this, but am grateful for the link. I've watched a couple of the movies you've provided or linked to on Youtube. That is such a wonderful thing to do for your readers, especially with one like this that isn't readily available.

    I wonder if the Europeans were ready to see movies like this more quickly after the war because they really had been dealing with it since the early 30's. No one could have imagine the horrific final outcome, but it all came about during a long period of a whole decade. The attacks on World Trade Center were out of the blue, like Pearl Harbor, to a country that was unaccustomed to such things on its own soil. I'm not forgetting the Oklahoma City bombing or the first WTC bomb, but they seemed to come more from individual people. However, the well-conceived and carried out brutal attack in 9/11 was a total shock to the national consciousness in its scope. Perhaps that's why -- there wasn't any real build-up as in 1930's Europe, just wham one sunny day.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks for checking in, Becky! I was afraid that Rana and Chris were the only two people to read this article!

    First, I didn't put this movie on youtube...it was already there. In fact, somebody recommended this movie to me specifically because it WAS already on youtube.

    Second, I think that Radok was fully aware of the extent of the Holocaust. The characters in his film seem to be very aware that they are being outright exterminated. Also, many of the camps were next door to European villages and towns who "never bothered" to see what the source of the giant, acrid-smelling smoke plumes were.

    Becky, I'm not totally sure...but are you an American? Silly question, I know. Your response was very insightful and I was just curious.

    ReplyDelete
  10. LOL Nate! It's not a silly question with internet friends! Yes, I'm as American as can be, born and raised in Indianapolis! I'm just a voracious reader, had smart parents, and am just basically genius-material....as well as being very humble!

    Have you seen "Judgment at Nuremberg"? I imagine you have. It was such an openly damning account of the regular German people who pretended not to know, not to see anything. It was a very open and disturbing account of the Holocaust for its time. What did all those people in adjoining towns to Auschwitz think all that ash was, a volcano? Fear is so powerful in a dictatorship, and there was a lot of bigotry anyway.

    Thanks for your compliment Nate! We all need that sometimes...

    ReplyDelete
  11. Ah. Just wanted to be sure. I've talked to Europeans before who didn't understand why 9/11 was so important and so devastating to the American psyche.

    Anyhow...I HAVEN'T seen "Judgment at Nuremberg." I haven't seen EVERY film ever made (although I'm trying to fix that...). I have read plenty on the subject of how people in Germany and occupied Europe tended to ignore the atrocities that occurred around them. One of my favorite anecdotes from history was during the liberation of one concentration camp (I can't remember which one...) the American soldiers forced the villagers from an adjacent French village to clean out the camp, forcing them to come eye-to-eye with the atrocities that they "ignored."

    ReplyDelete
  12. Haven't heard of this film, but this is a great review of what sounds like a fascinating movie. It must have been a deeply personal project for the director. Thanks for posting the link.

    ReplyDelete
  13. You're more than welcome! I hope that you enjoy it!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Here it is:

    http://themostbeautifulfraudintheworld.blogspot.com/2011/07/them-them-them-or-how-i-learned-to-stop.html

    Thanx
    Kevyn Knox

    PS-My weekly feature at Anomalous Material (10 Best 1950's Sci-Fi Films) will be up either Thursday or Friday. I do not have a link for the piece since they review and post it for me and I will be on Holiday (w/o wifi) until Monday. But if you wanted to link to it you can go to Anomalous Material and it should be under features (or on the home page). The link for their home page is http://www.anomalousmaterial.com/movies/.

    ReplyDelete