BFI LFF 2020

Shadow Country review – fascinating look at fascism and moral decay

Bohdan Sláma's film about a village on the Czech-Austrian border in the years before, during and after WW2 is bleak but gripping

The weight of history bears down on the inhabitants of a small village on the Czech-Austrian border in this stark and gripping drama from filmmaker Bohdan Sláma, set in the years before, during, and after World War Two. Shadow Country chronicles the influence of fascism on a divided community whose allegiances shift over the course of several decades, their choices resulting in the slow erosion of the village's moral backbone, essentially bringing everyone's lives to ruin.

The film is essentially an ensemble piece, set between the 1930s and the 1950s, Sláma's freewheeling camera moving through the muddy streets and the village square, into houses, pubs, stables, reconnecting with characters as they make decisions that will have a domino effect on the community at large. Amongst them is Josef (Csongor Kassai), a pillar in the community who opposes the Nazis and is berated by those who welcome their country's annexing. Then there are the villagers who just aren't sure, many of whom relent to the occupation for want of an easy life. After the war, the fallout of the divide comes to a head – a kangaroo court is formed and justice is dealt, disastrously, from within.

Writer-director Sláma shoots all this in striking monochrome, perhaps for no other reason than it would have felt wrong for a film imbued with so much dread to be allowed the luxury of colour. Some might find it resembles Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, thematically, in its explorations of the intersection of fascism and rural life, though at times there is something almost flat about the material – perhaps on account of its naturalistic approach and minimalistic set design, inhabitants more like real, boring people than memorable characters. But by the end I was convinced that its dreariness and refusal to give in to any inherently cinematic moments served its purpose well. Sláma, wisely, is level-headed in his approach, well aware of the difficulties involved in passing judgement on situations as complex as these with the benefit of hindsight.

Instead Shadow Country poses ambiguous questions about collaboration and revenge and morality and paints a picture that is relentlessly bleak – especially as the inevitable outcome of the betrayals and cowardice becomes apparent: a scene of horrific violence that unfolds with little fanfare and is all the more disturbing for it. When it's all over, it's as though the film – not short at just over two hours – has ended abruptly, without a real sense of closure. Of course, that's the point: the damage done in villages such as this would carry on for decades more, passing from generation to generation, a perpetual horror-tragedy without a proper end in sight.

Shadow Country was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. 

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