Fall Of The Innocent aka Lidice

Czech Republic (2011) Dir. Petr Nikolaev

The atrocities of World War II mean every country, especially in Europe, has a tragic story to tell, many of which have subsequently been made into a film. The complete evisceration of the village of Lidice is the Czech Republic’s entry into this vast canon, and while a lesser-known chapter from this global skirmish, it remains the only recognised act of genocide by the Germans.

At the same time the Germans arrive in Lidice, a fight breaks out at a celebration between František Šíma (Karel Roden) and his drunken son Eda (Adam Kubista) by Šíma’s mistress Marie Vaňková (Zuzana Fialová), Eda is accidentally killed. Šíma is jailed for murder, leaving his invalid wife Anezka (Zuzana Bydzovská) and other son Karel (Ondrej Novák) behind when the Nazi’s arrive. The assigned Reichsprotektor Heydritch (Detlef Bothe) is later assassinated, leading to the demise of the village.

Forgive the reductive plot summary to open this review but this is a story that unravels in way becoming of the unique perspective from which it is told, a metaphorical oak tree of emotional trauma born from the most unassuming of acorns. The atrocities committed by the Nazis aren’t skipped over, showing enough in context to upset the audience with the stark realities of how senseless the resultant loss of human life was.

Zdeněk Mahler’s script is a little hazy at first, not doing the best job in introducing the characters or explaining the scenarios, flitting about between set-ups with a cast of similar appearance that confused this writer into thinking we were occasionally watching flashbacks. Eventually things settle down and the mist clears just before we are hit between the eyes with the unpleasantries of the Nazi regime.

Šíma and Marie’s affair is less an intrinsic part of the plot and more a catalyst – the irony being that the product of this forbidden love ultimately saw Šíma jailed, thus he was actually in the safest place when the Nazi occupation began in Lidice. Not that jail was a cakewalk but all he lost as his liberty for five years – in other words, accidentally taking a life saved his life.

Yet forbidden love once again forces fate to deal another cruel hand with greater, far-reaching consequences. Playboy musician Václav Fiala (Marek Adamczyk) already has a girlfriend but that doesn’t stop him from pursuing idealistic factory girl Anicka (Veronika Kubarová) by pretending to be a resistance fighter, which shockingly works, although Fiala isn’t aware how out of his depth he is.

One of the many letters Fiala writes to Anicka boasting of his faux heroic activities against the Nazis is intercepted during the investigation into the assassination of Heydritch. Under the command of Weissman (Joachim Paul Assböck), the Germans dogged search for the culprit comes up short, leaving them to take this misleading missive as hard evidence and progress is at last made.

Weissman is the closest this film gets to portraying the Germans in the typical mould of the stoic, psychotic monsters, imbuing his personality instead with a slight sense of black humour to his rampant ego. Heydritch on the other hand, is man who tries to fit in with the locals, at one point substituting for the violinist in a Czech musical quartet and stunning everyone with this emotive playing.

Following Heydritch’s assassination and the reading of Fiala’s letter, the gloves come off and whatever latitude the Nazis gave the village was revoked, revealing their true colours in the process. As families are being marched out of their homes en masse and the buildings torched, Weissman invites his superiors to dine with him right in the middle of the village square.  

This is where the film takes the dark turn the first hour has been building up to. Director Petr Nikolaev paces it perfectly to relate the confusion and disorientation of the Nazis summarily evicting everyone from their homes and forcing them into trucks, separating men from the women and children. Superbly composed wide shots of the convey of Nazi’s trucks rolling through the country lanes heightens the sense of impending doom as they dip in and out of view from behind the trees with relentless purpose.

Opting for the less is more approach, Nikolaev keeps the execution scenes brief and definitive, this same visual economy making the horror of the fate of the children in particular a chilling experience to witness. But it is Šíma’s release from prison to find no trace of his former home where the film’s true emotional weight lies, essayed with heartbreaking conviction by Karel Roden.

In illustrating the sense of isolation and devastation, Šíma’s release takes place during a snowy winter and via aerial shots, the story is told through the gorgeous visual of this small lone figure trudging across a vast untainted white expanse with seemingly no end in sight. It’s difficult not to be moved by this, even after the harrowing execution scenes from earlier.

Yet this film isn’t as terminally bleak as it sounds, but it is persistently frustrating due to a lack of bureaucratic empathy both before after the war. Šíma is told at one point that he sees things in black and white too much but the truth is that he is the least guilty of this, and suffers as a result. Perhaps he would have been better off dead like his family and friends after all.

The Fall Of The Innocent is a unique WWII film by not having a central protagonist defined by heroic deeds and fortitude in fighting to protect their country from the Nazis. Instead, it is a tale that details an avoidable and needless tragedy, recognising a heartache and huge scale human loss the likes of which many of us are unlikely to experience firsthand.

Superbly acted, rich in careful period reconstruction and sumptuously photographed, this slow burning film eventually grows into a bone-chilling essay in poignancy and tragedy, providing an education for generations to come.