REEL Review – Shadow Country (2020)

Director: Bohdan Sláma | 2h 15mins | Drama, History | Language: Czech

In a small border town between Austria and Czechoslovakia, the town folk must decide whether to align with the Germans or to identify as Czechs. After the war is over, those who aligned with the Nazi’s have to suffer the revenge of those who suffered during the war.

The reason World War II has been so widely covered cinematically is because of it’s widespread relevance. American cinema opted for a more heroic exposure, but in Europe the outlook becomes much more complex. Sláma’s feature is a tale that raises ethical questions, not just during the war, but of the decisions made by those who survived the gruelling treatment the Germans dished out.

The town is very communal, everyone knows each other but there is already a split between Austrian natives and those who are Czech. One thing that the film does is cover all bases, following a married couple comprised of a German man and a Czech woman, a jewish family who’s only non-Jewish member becomes a resistance and every other local who has their own connection to the divide. A slight problem the movie has early on though, is that spanning so much space with so many characters leaves the emphatic moments to a minimum. We don’t necessarily connect with the characters, leaving scenes that are supposed to be heartbreaking less impactful. These scenes aren’t nearly as striking as they’re meant to be, trying to force a greater reaction out of you than you are willing to give.

Something the film keeps thematically running is a sense of lost identity. The War is a time of significant change but for this village in particular, it’s monumental. One villager mentions that this village has been under three different occupations over the last three years, it’s citizens are constantly battling with the identity of themselves as well as what the village stands for, and in the end are led to contemplate just how where their allegiances lie. Some go off to War in search of national pride and glory, others cower away and some fight the good fight. All of this implodes when the War eventually ends.

The end scenes do somewhat drag, but the most important thing they do is raise the films ethical questions.

Once it does end and village looks for peace resistance fighter Josef, one of the only people to be outspoken against the Germans, returns home after years in prison. He’s like a horrifying reminder for the people that what happened in the village will not go away, that their zipped-lipped attitude isn’t enough to merit going on living their lives the same way they did before. Josef invites Czech officials to come and ‘clean’ the town of the German sympathisers, and what follows is a horrifying strip of the entire towns identity and communal atmosphere.

The striking visual that the film has been searching for really come out in these last 20 minutes, a harrowing execution scene sees multiple people killed in a ditch as some of the villagers watch, others see houses ransacked and the most devastating of all is watching Marie, the Czech lady who married a German man, come back to find what once was her warm family home turned upside down and stripped of everything. The whole thing left is a devastating reminder of what happened.

The end scenes do somewhat drag, but the most important thing they do is raise the films ethical questions. The way the Czech people acted was similar to the ruthlessness of the German army. It was done for revenge that was deemed justified. But the movie delicately poses it’s questions in scenes of soft reflection, people realising that the retaliation wasn’t worth the pain caused afterwards. It’s been done before, but Sláma is very good at rediscovering the lost punch that so many modern War films lack.

A visually stunning film that’s shot in a bleak black and white, each frame is subtly beautiful. And despite it taking a while to earn it’s emotional punch, when Shadow Country is nearing it’s third act it redeems itself with thought-provoking imagery and ethical questions that are comparable only to the very best War films.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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