Romeo, Julie a tma (1960) Poster

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World War 2 love story and psychological drama.
ebbets-field9 March 2002
A love story, wartime thriller, and social commentary set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Artfully shot in black and white, and undergirded by a strong musical track, it explores the risks of sheltering a Jewish fugitive whose a life might be saved (or might not), but where the lives of many bystanders are thereby put in peril.

Fritz Lang's earlier US-made "Hangmen Also Die" dealt with the same historical event (the assassination of occupation head Gen. Heydrich), but his was a more kinetic and extroverted treatment compared to Weiss' more personal, introspective, and poetic view. In a sense, this is the Anne Frank story moved from Amsterdam to Prague.
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Oasis of innocence amidst Heydrich fallout
Here we have a love story set in a quadrangled apartment block in Prague during the Second World War, as background the real life assassination of cruel Nazi despot Reinhardt Heydrich, and the resultant inhuman reprisals. By coincidence, a young Jewish refugee, Hanka, arrives at the apartment block a day after her contacts have departed, totally alone, she is befriended by Aryan teenager Pavel who stows her away in a storeroom up in the rafters where he usually develops photos.

There's something very curiously appealing about the motif of the isolated ethereal and quiet Jewess, Hanka in this movie is reminiscent of Rowena in Sir Walter Scott's famous novel Ivanhoe; though speaking in ethnic terms is somewhat of a betrayal of the love between Hanka and Pavel: he points out that terms like Aryan are "their language".

I think that innocence is the prevailing theme, the setting a rather barren and lonely one for such a pretty flower. In my corner of the world teenagers video-message each other home-brew pornography, watch videos of beheadings on the internet and play vandal-simulation computer games. In the world that Jirí Weiss has created/resurrected, the lovers discuss moving to the North Pole, as a day there lasts six months of the year. For them it is a magic place heard of only in books, instead of a place which a group of idiots race to in a four-by-four on television (if you don't teeth with that popular culture reference, consider yourself fortunate).

What's quite realistic in the movie is the way in which love thrives on reliance. Hanka is dead without Pavel, who sells off prize possessions in order to keep her fed. This in counterpoint to modern times, and my corner of the world, where a woman needs a man, as they say, like a fish needs a bicycle, and often romantic love exists, if at all, as a knowing post-ironic pretence rather than as an enveloping universe or the velvet swaddle that it can be. An analogy of Hanka and Pavel's love in the movie is of a binary system, two stars orbiting around one centre of gravity, alone together in vastness. By the by Pavel identifies Proxima Centauri as binary, whereas in fact it is nearby Alpha Centauri which is binary.

Hanka is so curious, she has mysterious aquiline features, and a feeling of comfortable fatalism, if that isn't too odd a thing to say, which is shown in material terms by the ease with which she wears her Star-of-David-tagged overcoat. If you've ever held a small bird you will know this feeling of fragility, hollow bones and feather contribute to a feeling that you're holding a fragile almost-nothingness in your hands. There's something of that in spritely Hanka. I think Pavel is a great and interesting Romeo, he's so gentle and kind, but really powerless, which you can see when a false alarm happens and he almost disintegrates.

The ethnic tensions in the movie are worth exploring, Prague was historically a multicultural city and contained a sizable population of ethnic Germans (Aryans) and also German-speaking Jews. It's therefore not unusual to find a lady in the movie who is Czech by nationality but also speaks fluent German and has taken up with a German Wehrmacht officer. This population of German speakers lived under considerable threat, naturally viewed as collaborators (with varying degrees of accuracy), an end to occupation a threat as much as a relief. Indeed after the war the controversial Beneš decrees realised that threat and initiated the forced exile of the majority of the German-speaking population.

There's potentially profit to be gained from comparing this to another Eastern European WWII city under siege, Lwow from Zulawski's The Third Part of the Night (1971). Zulawski's film is all blanched nausea, surreal, fractured, like a fever dream. Romeo, Juliet and Darkness by contrast is more benign, chary of showing violence, sedate and making good use of suggestion and implication, for example the lingering thought of the night-time of six months (which is basically the Heydrich incident). Despite the very innocent and unassuming nature of both the filming, characters and the subject, I think the movie speaks loudly of love and tolerance, and should be commended.

For my friend Claire.
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Beautifully-told tragedy
Auteurist-en-Ecosse8 March 2008
Jiri Weiss's 1960 film Romeo, Juliet and Darkness is a wholly convincing, tightly controlled account of the human costs of despotism. The story takes place against the background of the Nazi occupation of Prague, and more specifically the horrible repercussions visited upon the population after the assassination of Heydrich, the leading Nazi in Czechoslovakia. A young man, in his final year at school, takes in and shelters in the attic of his mother's house a Jewish girl of the same age, going to great pains both to conceal her presence and to find food for her. Weiss's direction is superb, with particularly good establishment of the atmosphere of the flats where most of the action occurs. Watching the move now, one almost feels one is present in the Prague of 1942, the movie being particularly effective at showing how routine life goes on under even the most harsh of political circumstances. The two young actors in the lead roles both give excellent and very moving performances. There are also a range of vividly-drawn characters in the background. At least two things make the film noteworthy, looking at it from today's perspective. First, the film is almost wholly free of any propagandistic elements, presumably quite an achievement given the time and place of its production. The film, with its emphasis on a humanistic depiction on the trials of ordinary people, points towards the Czech New Wave films which would appear five or six years later. Second, Weiss's direction is such that the film is simultaneously vivid and yet understated, the relative absence of histrionics making it all the more absorbing. The denouement is very powerful indeed, making the film (available on DVD in the UK) one that is very worthwhile seeking out. I bought the DVD not knowing what to expect; I ended up watching a masterpiece.
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"I don't want to be put in a cattle wagon like an animal."
morrison-dylan-fan12 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Talking to a DVD seller (who is also a fan of Czech cinema) I found out that UK DVD company Second Run had put out a Czech title set during the German occupation of the country. Gathering up Czech movies to view,I decided that it was time to take a glimpse at a Czech take on Romeo and Juliet.

The plot-


Just before the family are taken to a death camp by the occupying Nazis,Hanka escapes from the transportation and goes to hide in an empty attic inside an apartment block.Finding Hanka in the attic, Pavel decides to do everything he can to keep Hanka safe.As Hanka and Pavel start to have feelings for each other,Pavel's family begin to fear about what will happen if they are caught with Hanka,as Nazi death squads start going round killing "betrayers" who have been secretly housing Jewish citizens.

View on the film:

Whilst there are some large spots of dirt,Second Run still deliver a good transfer,with the whispered dialogue being crisp and the look of fear on Pavel & Hanka's faces being clear to see.

Taking all of the life out of the country,co-writer/(along with Jan Otcenásek) director Jirí Weiss & cinematographer Václav Hanus show the war-torn streets of Prague in their starkest form,as lone footsteps walk down the eerily empty streets,whose silence is broken from the gunfire of Nazi death squads.Hiding in the attic,Wesiss strikes a superb contrast between night and day,with the attic being filled with shadows which allow the romance to grow in the darkness.Keeping a close watch every time he steps out of the attic,Weiss and Hanus give Pavel's daylight scenes a brittle quality which is lit up by an atmosphere bubbling with dread over fears of Hanka being discovered.

Leaving the country himself as a Jewish refugee for the US during WWII,Weiss and co-writer Jan Otcenásek open the Occupied Czech of Otcenásek's novel in a strikingly fearful manner,by making anyone who Pavel can put his trust in be willing to become an informant or turn complacent on the horrors destroying the country. Taking loose inspiration from Shakespeare,the writers avoid teen hormones for something more touchingly poetic,that allows for the excellent dialogue to build a psychological depth to the love that Pavel and Hanka have for each other,and the sounds of war surrounding their attic.

Appearing in the first of just 7 films,the alluring Daniela Smutná gives an incredible performance as Hanka,thanks to Smutná opening Hanka's feelings in an extremely expressive manner which perfectly capturing the lowing of Hanka's guard,as she starts to fall for Pavel.Joined by a wonderfully brisk Jirina Sejbalová as his mum, Ivan Mistrík gives a fantastic performance as Pavel.Hitting every note of sincerity with an expert eye, Mistrík gives Pavel a hard edge of determination in keeping Hanka alive,as Romeo and Juliet go into darkness.
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