The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1965) Directed by Zbynek Brynych
Starring Miroslav Machacek, Olga Scheinpflugova, Zdenka Prochazkova, Jiri Adamira, Josef Vinklar, Ilja Prachar, Jana Pracharova, Jiri Vrstala, Slavka Budinova
Czechoslovakian artists walked a fine line between freedom and Communist suppression, having to hide any criticism of the Soviet rule beneath metaphor and simile. While the 60’s were a relatively open period culminating in Alexander Ducek’s Prague Spring, when proposed reforms were so threatening to Brezhnev that he orchestrated an invasion by members of the Warsaw Pact to reinstitute hardline Party rule, the knowledge that censors could bar the release of anything and land your name in a police file was there. Many Czech directors fled the country after the invasion, most notably Milos Forman, and those who were unable to or chose to remain found themselves placed under stricter government censorship than ever before.
Just that small amount of context makes it clear that The Fifth Horseman is Fear is an amazingly bold piece of work. The film deals with the effects of oppression on people, masquerading Communism beneath the Nazi flag.
Dr. Braun (Miroslav Machacek) is Jewish living in occupied Prague. Barred from practicing medicine he works for the Germans cataloging the possessions of deported Jews and living in a sparsely furnished attic apartment overlooking a much used soccer field. He is broken, knowing full well that the familiar names and addresses he receives over the phone line will never return, although he might not understand the significance of the smokestack he sees every morning from his window, but he has found a position which makes him useful and therefore, he hopes, immune to sharing their fate.
His neighbors are a mis-matched assortment of displaced Czechs thrown together by the circumstances of war. A rabbit raising, half-deaf woman has a room beneath an upper-class doctor and his pampered family, who live below a man working the slaughterhouse and his young wife and newborn. There’s a former piano teacher who keeps a barking dog and an ardent sympathizer who keeps radio reports from the occupying government cranked all day. Past their doors Dr. Braun shuffles, worn thin by the years and what they have brought, hardly able to meet their eyes.
When the rich doctor’s boy helps an injured partisan into the building Braun finds himself in an ethical crisis. His neighbor is in the resistance and implores him to operate. Trembling with fear and muttering to himself, knowing that his life is now in jeopardy, Braun agrees to the surgery as the young bride, more fascinated with movie posters and her hat than a crying baby and the operating theater on her couch, disposes of the resistance fighter’s pistol. The partisan is held down by his comrade, Braun boils his tools in a pot, there is nothing but a sip of liquor to serve as anesthesia.
Although the bullet is successfully removed Braun knows his patient, the first in years, will need morphine or his agonized screams will attract attention. Gathering himself, doubly imperiled, he sets out into the night seeking medicine. His journey is a descent into madness, where the twisting back streets of Prague promise arrest and the safety of crowds offer a nightmarish waltz through Hell. Seeking a former colleague Braun is confronted with a woman who has fallen further into despair than him, crazed and displaced beyond conversation with a familiar face. The colleague has thrown down his medical bag for drink, drowning himself nightly at a bar where the wealthy still find solace during the occupation with string bands, pool and dancing. A last stop at the Jewish Sanatorium bottoms the evening out where Braun disappears into the throngs of patients who writhe and twist on the floor, babble nonsensically or stare into space.
Fighting free of the city streets Braun seeks safety only to discover his building has come under Nazi scrutiny. A search of each apartment yields only intimidation and humiliation but the pressure erodes any sympathy Braun may have received from his neighbors. Any home can be targeted for the slightest cause and the tenants know that turning in a rogue Jew could spare them further investigation.
Brynych knew better than to frame the story as a fast-paced thriller, understanding quite well that the decay of a broken people crawls painfully slow. There are no chases, no hiding in the sewers, no shootouts or partisan bombings; the danger is a constant element breathed as air by everyone, stifling their lives invisibly. Tension is constant, accentuated by the barren back streets and the deep shadows of the interiors. Every conversation seems stilted, as though each participant knows their words must be chosen carefully or they will return to haunt them. The camera creeps, always plainly in view but never acknowledged; secrecy was not a necessary tactic for the Nazis and everyone knew they were vulnerable, day or night. While stylish and almost irreverent at times (some sequences seem to bring to mind Charlie Chaplin as much as they do Godard) the movie carries itself as a serious drama of the time.
The deviation of style which takes place during Braun’s search for morphine simmers up from the collective fear like mercury, hitting hard but not bluntly. The camera begins to spin and lurch, dancing with the actors and the suddenly saccharine music, playing with the wine and pearls of those who choose to live on decadently without remorse for the loss of their country and freedom. This becomes a lurching experience when Braun enters the sanatorium where the delusional patients dress not in furs and suits but clinical white, unshaven and filthy. Here is the flip of the coin, those who found solace not in pretending they could live on through drunken revelry but through descending into an animalistic debasement. Obvious comparisons would be Fellini’s mid-period works or Bunuel’s post-Dali films but lean towards the latter’s most frightening fits of amoral chaos.
The entire cast is very good, but Miroslav Machacek is nothing short of amazing. The facial expressions, slight or anguished, he brings to the lens are a full palette of emotion. His tortured movements mirror his broken soul, his curt responses lash out like an injured dog at those around him. Isolated and afraid Machacek nails it and proves a sturdy anchor for the various threads of story which tie his fate to his neighbors.
Facets released the DVD here and the print looks great, the contrast (which can be extreme at times) is clear with no obvious defects. The subtitles are literate but frequently lag behind conversation or drop out for an exchange– this can be very frustrating for obvious reasons. The sound is clear and the music, sparingly used, suits the mood of the three segments of the film perfectly. What I have learned subsequent to watching this is that the source Facets uses omits about ten minutes of the movie, a scene early in Braun’s quest for morphine that takes him to a brothel. It’s unclear why the scene wasn’t on the print Facets received (political censors seem less inclined to yank sexual material than American conservatives) or why no mention is made of this but when the film was originally shown in the states in 1968 the scene was included and another version with subtitles is out there. That’s pretty disappointing to find, especially as reviews I’ve read find such significance in that missing ten minutes, and unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a DVD release that is complete.
Roger Ebert reviewed the film when it was initially released and mentions the omitted scene.
The folks at Film Walrus have a much more capable review which discusses technical elements and film theory.