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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - SHADOW COUNTRY

shadow country review
In the years preceding and following WWII, a village on the Czech/Austrian border turns on itself.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Bohdan Sláma

Starring: Magdaléna Borová, Stanislav Majer, Bára Poláková, Csongor Kassai, Petra Špalková

shadow country poster

Watching director Bohdan Sláma's Shadow Country is like observing an x-ray time-lapse of a tumour, one that quietly festers, then explodes before receding, only to return to cause irreparable damage. The tumour in this case is nationalism, which tears apart a small Czech village on the Austrian border in the years preceding and following World War II.

shadow country review

As the opening text informs us, the village of Tust was originally part of Bohemia, before becoming Czech in 1920. Sláma's film opens in the late 1930s, as the village is set to be swallowed into Germany by Hitler's expansion. This divides the villagers, with half of them happy with this coming arrangement due to their German heritage, and the other half, the Czech half, revolted by the idea.

[ READ MORE: BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - The Disciple ]

Shadow Country introduces us to several characters, perhaps a few too many as we never quite get inside the heads of any of them to a fully satisfying degree. If there's a central figure it's Marie (Magdaléna Borová), an ethnic Czech whose ethnic German husband forces her to declare herself as German when the Nazis arrive in order to keep their home and farm. Marie is initially strident but we watch as she retreats within herself during the war, later accepting her fate when upon liberation in 1945 she is treated like a German and expelled to a refugee camp on the other side of the Austrian border. Borová's performance is striking in how subtly she conveys her character's arc from patriot to pragmatist. In Maria we see the brittleness of nationalism, and how identity is more often a burden, making you a convenient target for someone else's rage.

shadow country review

For the first half of Shadow Country we watch as the German community turns on its Czech neighbours, with many of the latter sent to concentration camps while the few that remain are subjected to daily degradations. Later the worm turns as the Czechs take their revenge on their German neighbours, some of whom deserve their fate, while others are simply marked by their heritage. Ironically, it's the village idiot who is the smartest resident of Tust, playing both sides, always aware of which way the wind is blowing. His arc is as fascinating as Marie's, as he goes from digging graves for the Germans to filling them with corpses for the Czechs. He's the most contemptible character, because he stands for nothing, but are the alternatives as presented here worth standing for?

[ READ MORE: BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - Mogul Mowgli ]

Shadow Country refuses to take a side, instead dispassionately viewing both its German and Czech characters through a misanthropic lens. You might find yourself wishing it would get off the fence, as despite how nasty the Czechs behave in the latter sections, they are after all taking out their anger on people who played a part in one of history's greatest atrocities. Given the findings of recent polls among young westerners - many of whom are at best oblivious to the Holocaust or at worst, believe it was a hoax - you worry that they might come away from Shadow Country believing that both sides were as bad as one another in this conflict. The movie's portrayal of a family of Jews strays unfortunately close to anti-semitic tropes as they refuse to join the resistance and instead keep their heads down until the war blows over.

shadow country review

In attempting to give both sides their fair due, Sláma's film is often alienating. Aside from Marie, there are no characters we can readily anchor ourselves to. Sláma's camera is that of a wildlife documentarian refusing to intervene as a gazelle is taken down by a ravenous pride of lions. We're left to watch as this small village eats itself from within. There is little sense of hope. What is the lesson here? To listen to both sides? Neville Chamberlain tried that, and it didn't work out too well for the Czechs.

Shadow Country plays on BFI Player as part of the BFI London Film Festival from October 14th.


2020 movie reviews