Distant Journey, part of Berlinale Classics this year, is one of the first films to depict horrors of the Holocaust
Distant Journey was banned by the Stalinist censors. Now, the digitally restored version will premiere in the Classics section at the Berlinale this year.
A couple of weeks ago, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wrote about Claude Lanzmann’s marathon French documentary, Shoah (1985). A few days from now, at the Berlin Film Festival, a different kind of Holocaust film will be featured: Distant Journey, by Alfréd Radok.
This one’s in Czech, and the most important aspect of the film is its timing. It was released in June 1949, less than four years after the end of World War II. Along with The Last Stage – the 1947 Polish feature directed by Wanda Jakubowska, depicting her experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp – Distant Journey was one of the first films to depict the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Cinema of Central Europe, edited by Peter A Hames, contains a quote by Radok about how the falseness of Nazi propaganda incited him to make this movie: “I wanted to stress the paradox that so many people – and this was true of so many in Communist Czechoslovakia – simply don’t see things, don’t want to see them or see only the picture of Hitler and the little girl.” He’s talking about the 1933 photo of the Nazi leader hugging six-year-old Rosa Bernile Nienau, whose grandmother was Jewish. This was the time Hitler was being presented to the world as a kindly, avuncular figure. The little girl even called him “Uncle Hitler”.
“And that is the horror of it. Everything that they wrote about in the newspapers was depicted as the best... Hitler promised Czechoslovakia the only possible salvation... If you really want to get a picture of that period, you have to see the one and the other, not one but two, both sides.” Distant Journey, therefore, is both feature film and documentary. It tells a fictional story about a mixed marriage in Prague, between a Jewish doctor (Hana) and her Aryan colleague (Toník) – but it uses footage from lips from newsreels and Nazi propaganda films, including Leni Riefenstahl’s now-legendary Triumph of the Will (1935).
When (in the fictional story) Toník proposes to Hana, there’s a menorah between them, and soon, the camera isolates this symbol of Jewishness and reduces it to a picture-in-picture (or a frame within a frame), as we cut to real-life footage of a Nazi rally. The mix is hardly subtle. But you have to factor in the time – the time the story takes place in, and the time the film was made. Besides, otherwise, there is a lot of sophistication in form. When (within the picture-in-picture, where the parallel story is unfolding), Toník buys flowers for Hana, the small frame expands to fill the screen again. As Toník passes a wall with “JEWS GET OUT!” graffiti, his shadow becomes Expressionistically larger, looming over the hateful words. As part of his race, he is complicit, too.
The artifice of the staging (even a mirror is kept at an angle, slightly skewing the reflections on it) becomes a superb artistic choice. It highlights how “abnormal” this all must have seemed then. Even today, it seems so surreal that people like Hana’s parents were transported to camps (undertaking the “distant journey” of the title), from where they wrote letters asking for black hair dye, because “they kill old people straight away”. If a lot of the framing is reminiscent of Citizen Kane (say, the low-angle shots that capture not just the dramatically positioned figure in front but also the ceiling behind him), it’s no accident. Radok was a huge admirer of Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece.
For the longest time, Hana – because of her marriage to an Aryan – doesn’t suffer the fate of the others of her family, her race. But once Toník is taken away for a minor infraction (he’s found with a cigarette, which is contraband), she finds herself in Terezín, a transit camp and a ghetto for Jews. And once Hana’s (fictional) plight worsens, so do the (real-life) images in the parallel narrative. A (fictional) German officer brings his boot down on a woman cleaning the street. The image shrinks to a picture-in-picture. The rest of the screen is now occupied by (real-life) piles of corpses, backed by martial music. And before you know it, back in Hana’s story, a gas chamber is being built.
The film ends on a happy note – at least, as happy a note as the circumstances will allow. The Allies arrive. Freedom, at last. In the last shot, the camera follows the shadows of two people walking, and as the camera looks up, we realise we are in a field of crosses. One of the people says, “Mankind has won.” But the voice-over narrator knows better. He supplies the coda: “Oswiecim, Majdanek, Treblinky, Golnov, Ravensbrück, Oranienburg, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Lodž, Terezin, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen. Seven million people died in concentration camps of fascist Germany. Over 140,000 people from all of Europe went through Terezin. And just a few of them have survived.”
There do exist earlier examples of films that addressed the atrocities of the Nazi party – say, Charlie Chaplin’s satirical The Great Dictator (1940) or Andre DeToth’s None Shall Escape, Hollywood's first (fictional, dramatic) confrontation with what was happening in concentration camps. But for filmmakers from Central and Eastern Europe, World War II was a much more immediate phenomenon, far more personal and brutal – they endured the Nazis first and then the Russians. (Radok was himself imprisoned in the Klettendorf camp.) And unlike in the West, these films were made in Communist regimes, which restricted a lot of what could be said.
Distant Journey was actually banned by the Stalinist censors, and the ban stayed for almost four decades. The film was finally seen on Czech television in 1991, and now, the digitally restored version will premiere in the Classics section at the Berlinale, along with The Last Stage, also digitally restored. The presence of these films is to commemorate 75 years of the end of World War II. On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Ben Mankiewicz wrote in The New York Times: “(On days like this) we naturally call to mind all that was at stake, all the men who gave their lives for it, as well as the survivors...” But films like Distant Journey are more than an act of remembrance. They are an act of record. Or, as Radok called it, an “artistic report”.
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