Directed by Alfréd Radok
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: