The Munich Conference of 1938 and the crisis of appeasement is familiar to all with a knowledge of European history. When Neville Chamberlain returned to London and announced “Peace for our time”, he expanded with his statement of how absurd it would be for Britain to go to war for the sake of a quarrel in a “far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. The cession of Czechoslovakia’s predominantly German speaking areas to Hitler’s Reich was the consequence, and soon followed by the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and the attack on Poland the following September.

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Shadow Country (2020)

What is less well known is that, with the re-establishment of Czechoslovakia’s frontiers post war (minus Ruthenia), a decision was made to expel Germans from the country. This was by no means unique – the same had happened when Poland lost its eastern territories to the Soviet Union and absorbed large areas of Germany. However, Germans had lived in these areas for centuries and the population constituted a third of that in prewar Czechoslovakia. 

The movement of frontiers and transfer of populations were accepted as a legitimate way of resolving conflict, and the Czechoslovak solution was agreed in principle by the Allies as early as 1943. The process comprised the so-called ‘wild transfer’ of 1945 (660,000 expelled) accompanied by the Allies-supervised ‘organised’ transfer of 1946 (2.26 million). The second involved internment in camps and deportation while the first involved extralegal violence, the quest for revenge and appropriation of property.

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This provides the complex background to Bohdan Sláma’s powerful new film Shadow Country (Krajina ve stínu), which deals with events in the Czech-Austrian border village of Tušť from the late 1930s to the 1950s. As one villager puts it, in his lifetime, he has lived in 3 different countries without moving house.

The film is basically an account of how ordinary people respond to changing circumstances and directives with all their ideological and racial implications. Most are compromised in one way or another while remaining prisoners of their human flaws. Many of the real villagers were, in fact, bilingual despite ‘national’ allegiances. Prepared over many years, Ivan Arsenjev’s screenplay draws on real incidents without in any sense becoming a drama documentary. While the film focuses on different characters at different stages, the film’s strength lies in its portrait of a village community far removed from today’s atomised existence.

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Something like Happiness (2006)

Bohdan Sláma is best known for films centred on provincial life – especially breakthrough films such as Wild Bees (Divoké včely) and Something like Happiness (Štěstí, LFF 2006), which show a degree of authenticity and spontaneity derived from his own experience. While he worked on Arsenjev’s script, he came late to the project when – by chance – the producer had decided to shoot the film in Sláma’s own village.

Bringing his local knowledge to bear, he made the film against a familiar background, using non-actors among his cast of professionals. Shot on film, in wide screen and black and white, the film’s tableau-like scenes allow for continuous group interaction. Asked about influences, Sláma has described his admiration for Andrei Tarkovsky – although the film is in no sense style-centred. The acting, however, is unusually nuanced. Facing different choices and ideologies, his characters frequently show hesitation and discomfort as if engaged in behaviour they would rather avoid.

The film’s ultimate focus is on a mixed marriage – a Czech woman married to a principled German. Along with other Germans, he is murdered in a semi-sanctioned execution and buried in a mass grave. This is the real case of genocide that constitutes the film’s climax (14 were executed under the authority of a ‘people’s court’ chaired by a concentration camp survivor). Sláma describes Shadow Country as a celebration of female sanity and sensibility in the sense of valuing community, but his film is not that simple.

Apart from its political and historical importance, the film is groundbreaking on a number of levels without sacrificing audience involvement. Its carefully elaborated screenplay successfully transfers identification to multiple characters. The real village environment is conveyed through the use of long shots, with up to 30 characters on screen while the use of film enables a greater depth of field.

Similarly, the acting occurs in a wider interactive context, in which small details and responses can be simultaneously conveyed. The village is virtually a living organism caught in historical cross currents, which is probably the most accurate way of perceiving its development.

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The Painted Bird (2019)

Discussion of this era was suppressed under the Communists and rarely addressed on film (František Vláčil’s Adelheid in 1970 was a rare exception). When President Václav Havel apologised for the expulsions in 1989, it provoked a storm of controversy from both sides. Sláma’s film may well do the same. It will inevitably provoke comparison with another Czech film, the recently released The Painted Bird (2019), also photographed on film and in black and white widescreen and equally long in preparation. Václav Marhoul’s faithful adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s apocalyptic novel was not, however, set in any one country (Polish critics of the novel assumed it to be Poland). Agnieszka Holland’s recent film Charlatan (2020) reconstructs the case of a Czech healer who equally treats ordinary people and the German occupiers and is tried for collaboration. 

The 3 films together constitute a disturbing reminder of the consequences of right-wing extremism for a world in which democratic values and institutions can no longer be assumed. Sláma, who attended this year’s 75th commemoration of the events comments: “I have no illusions that what we see in the film could not be repeated.”

Originally published: 13 September 2020