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FIFTH HORSEMAN IS FEAR, THE (…a páty jezdec je Strach)(director/writer: Zbynek Brynych; screenwriters: Ester Krumbachova/Ota Koval/based on a novel by Hana Belohradska; cinematographer: Jan Kalis; editor: Miroslav Hajek; cast: Miroslav Machacek (Dr. Braun), Olga Scheinpflugova (Music Teacher), Jiri Adamira (Mr. Vesely), Ilja Prachar (Butcher), Mr. Fanta (Josef Vinklar), Zdenka Prochazkova (Mrs. Marta Vesely), Slavka Budinova (Mrs. Wiener), Alexandra Myskova (Eccentric Singer), Jiri Vrstala (Police Inspector), Jana Pracharova (Butcher’s Wife), Cestmír Randa (Dr. Wiener), Tomás Hádl (Honzik), Bohuslav Dodek (Dr. Ruzicka); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carlo Ponti; Sigma III Corp.; 1965-Czechoslovakia-Czech with English subtitles)
“Offers a harrowing depiction of life in Nazi occupied Prague.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Offers a harrowing depiction of life in Nazi occupied Prague, but can also be taken as a comment on Czechoslovakia under the oppressive rule of Soviet communism or for that matter any other universal message against evil rule. It’s based on a novel by Hana Belohradska. New Wave Czech filmmaker Zbynek Brynych (“Transport from Paradise”/ “Sign of the Virgin”/”Rhythm of First Love”) brilliantly keeps it frighteningly dark and uses German expressionism to convey its bleak Orwellian vision. The ominous atmosphere created by acute angled shots, sharp editing, focusing in with repeated shots on an apartment building’s spiral staircase that looks sinister, and the use of harsh lighting for the black and white photography lends itself well to the director’s aim to show that “Fascism is an international disease that can be perceived as a cancer.” It presents a courageous act in the face of hopelessness that is so compelling it sinks under one’s skin and becomes unforgettable.

A persecuted Jewish doctor, Dr. Braun (Miroslav Machacek), who because of his religion is forbidden to practice in Nazi-occupied Prague, calls himself a realist and has found a depressing job in a Nazi warehouse of home registration that is responsible for confiscating Jewish property–making him seem like a collaborator. He looks upon himself as an embittered elderly man who has nothing to live for, whose only joy is to secretly play the forbidden violin he keeps in his flat. One day, in his building, a gun shot wounded Resistance fighter stumbles into his cousin’s apartment. He’s the next door neighbor of Braun’s, a butcher (Ilja Prachar) by trade, who hardly spoke to Braun before, but asks the doctor to risk his neck to operate on the wounded man and doesn’t even offer a chance of his friendship. Though conflicted, Braun decides to do it for the greater good of humanity and performs the successful surgery and then tries to find him morphine for the great pain.

The search for morphine virtually defines the horrors of the times and the fear that grips everyone, as it takes Braun to a depraved bordello maintained for German troops with ordinary women forced to service the troops, a nightclub where the patrons try to put on a happy face to forget the war and finally to a Jewish sanitarium where he finally scores the drug. To conceal his patient from a police search, the doctor takes him to the attic. But he’s spotted by a snooping, fearful, slimy tenant, Mr. Fanta (Josef Vinklar), who is only too glad to cooperate with the authorities and be an informer. When the police come to search the building for Braun, they herd all the fearful tenants into the cellar. Braun soon arrives and proudly confesses he saved the underground fighter’s life, and then swallows a cyanide tablet. The police bring the tenants up from the cellar and make them look at the corpse, as they file past him to return to their apartments as the Fascist radio blares its announcements that it’s the citizen’s duty to turn in suspicious citizens to ensure everybody’s safety.

This unsentimental and uncompromising war drama lacked any light moments, and although critically praised never caught on with the American public like other Czech New Wave transports such as Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains or Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde. This film had more of a raw power of truth that those other excellent New Wave films, even though it makes no pretense to cover up that it’s filming modern Prague and not going back to the studio to give it location details from the war years.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”