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Set in 1989 at the end of the Communist era even as the Berlin Wall was falling, a humble train dispatcher who's lived all his life in a small hamlet on the Czech side of the Czech-Polish border has been tormented by disturbing dreams about what happened to his ethnic German babysitter at the end of WW II. At the same time, a strange man of few to no words (is he mute?) in his mid 40s, shows up in the small hamlet with an old photograph and an ax. Much ensues...Written by
Gloomy, atmospheric low-level drama about uncertain futures and unpleasant pasts.
"Alois Nebel" is an intriguing Czech melodrama which unfolds amidst the backdrop of the collapse of socialism in the country in the late 1980's and a train station platform-set rape incident which happened during World War Two catching up on the then-present day. Despite these ambitious ideas, it works surprisingly well as a low-level drama about a mentally ill man who doesn't seem to be able to find pleasure in life; who lives the sort of existence where time just seems to tick by, where you might find yourself staring out of a window at nothing in particular, where people and events just seem to take their course around you. It operates on two strands, even managing to briefly overlap them, in its telling of its story, one of which is why this character is so upset, and is, on the whole, a satisfying piece of drama film-making.
"Alois Nebel" is, in this sense, a very Czech film to the extent it tackles probably the two major points of interest relevant to the nation of Czechoslovakia within the twentieth century and does so, unsurprisingly, in a very stern, stiff, serious way. Broadly speaking, the film centres on a man from whom the film derives its title, Alois Nebel (Miroslav Krobot), who is somebody approaching the autumn of his life in the autumn of 1989 as the decade, plus a ruling ideology, enters their respective winters. Nebel is not the most stimulating of protagonists, but his back-story and the events that happen to him over the winter of 1989-90 make for interesting viewing none-the-less. He is haunted, if you will, by a kind of PTSD which is only very slowly revealed to us through ghostly flashbacks; something which has the film, despite it taking place in the real-world and dealing with some incredibly grounded and real issues, fly off into scenes of the avant-garde and the magical as Nebel either hallucinates or suffers flashbacks. Complimenting this is the fact the film appears to have been re-rendered as a three-quarter animation, the likes of which you will have seen in something like "Sin City".
Nebel is a guard at a train station in the Czech countryside which serves the town of Bily Potok, near what must be the Polish border. He sits in his office; puts milk out for a cat which comes and visits and generally makes sure the set-up runs efficiently with his co-worker, who has a father who knew Alois' father, such is the intimacy of the surroundings. Having lived in the area his whole life, and being a certain age, he is able to remember when, during the German occupation during the war, the station was used as a stop-over to transport Czech Jews to the concentration camps. His bland orating of the various station names along the line that he operates might just as well be the names of the victims of those camps, the film appearing to deliberately track over a graveyard the first time he does this.
Meanwhile, on the other side of said border, a younger man appears to be making a break from Soviet soldiers, whom we recognise as shouting 'Stoy' because we're all able to distinguish Russian from Czech, aren't we? Ambling across, he turns up at Nebel's little platform and, for whatever reason, possesses a photograph from years prior depicting both station guards' fathers standing together on this very platform. The burning question at the core of "Alois Nebel" is as to why he has this picture and why would he risk such bad news in crossing over into Czech territory when there is not, if we all know our Communist societies, a tremendous deal to gain?
The film is, therefore, a mystery story, but it is not a mystery story its lead character attempts to solve. Indeed, Nebel could not be further away from where he should be and, if anything, it solves itself in the background with Nebel happening to be around when it happens. A lesser film might have told the film from the perspective of this border-jumper, who has to go through being caught; beaten up; imprisoned and must, ultimately, look for a certain individual for certain reasons connected to the past - a past which overlaps with this stranger's.
"Alois Nebel" is more preoccupied with the travails of its eponymous hero, who is whisked off to the big city after he attempts some treatment on his would-be depression; seeing, for himself, just how bad, I think, life can be for men in his position when things go really wrong. The film is ridden with interesting subtexts and juxtapositions - there is a heavy emphasis on trains and the railway industry more broadly, which is at once both a source of and reason for: employment; unemployment; despair; fear; life; history; panic and national character. As a new decade blooms, people whose lives are essentially over seem to celebrate, despite the fact their society is heading into a wider unknown.
Tantalisingly, the film cannot settle on what it perceives as a good ending or a bad one: what will come of the railways once capitalist reform takes place? Is bloody revenge justified within the context of the back-story which reveals itself, furthermore if the authorities can hardly be trusted? Is all you need in life, ultimately, another human to love? This will have the film sound more philosophical than it is, but as far as 80's set semi-animated Czech films go, "Alois Nebel" is worth checking out.
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