London Film Festival 2020
History repeats itself to quite a grim effect in Shadow Country, an epic portrait of a border town that keenly demonstrates how the poor can be continuously screwed over no matter who is in charge. While historically potent and politically fascinating, it never quite asserts itself in an artistically satisfying way.
It takes place in the small Czech-Austria border region of Vitoraszko, which historically switched places throughout the 20th Century. Returned to Czechoslovakia in 1920, the area becomes under a mortal threat with the rise of the Nazis. But there is multiple cross-pollination between the inhabitants of a small village where Shadow Country is set. This cross-cultural identity is stressed through the language, characters speaking in a combination of Boarisch (Bavarian-Austrian style German) and Czech.
The film follows this group of people between the late thirties all the way up until 1952. It features, in no short order, anti-Semitic persecution, summary executions, several rapes, and the cold harsh face of bureaucracy. Yet there is a point to all this grim repetition, Shadow Country examining the ways hatred can fester in the most remote regions of the world, as well as the way history can overcorrect itself to an infinitely harsh degree.
While its quite cathartic to see Hitler get shot in the face at the end of Inglorious Basterds, it’s quite another thing to witness the persecution of German-allied Czechs, as well as their defenseless children, during the last half of Shadow Country. Any retribution here feels enervating, with director Bohdan Sláma both-siding the way that war can turn nearly us all into victims of circumstance. It would be fascinating to see how it plays in the Czech Republic. Both criticizing the way some Czechs collaborated with the Nazis, and the unfair retribution, including kangaroo courts, that followed the wake of the war, it paints a highly negative picture of the country. The best scenes are those that capture people stuck between a rock and a hard place; such as those who are unwilling to lose their own privileges, even if it means sacrificing the rights of others.
The film, shot in black-and-white and making use of long takes, feels like a compilation of other, more pronounced arthouse films. The opening village shot of animals feels like a homage to Sátántangó, its complex tracking shots and historical sweep — especially the transition between fascism and communism — brings to mind The Travelling Players, and its grim survey of life under the Nazis feels akin to last year’s The Painted Bird. While the artistic merit and ambition of the film are to be applauded, it never seems to establish its own unique visual identity.
Additionally, this is a real group tragedy, with no one focus on any character in particular, making it hard to find an anchor for this story. Multiple characters come and go, often for only a couple of scenes, Shadow Country’s ambition overreaching its grasp. A more focused picture, like in The Painted Bird, may have really brought the effects of this awful time to the fore. This film veers closely to arthouse European misery porn, a litany of tragedies without a clear reason for the viewer to be invested. While this will be a goldmine for regional historians, especially those focusing on cross-border communities, the average viewer is likely to be turned off by this film’s lack of narrative clarity.