Director: Janek Glomb
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There’s a subgenre of war film that likes to emphasize the absurdity of war by showing how people who have no quarrel with each other and exist in the backwaters of battle react, not like dehumanized enemies, but rather as quirky individuals who dare to think for themselves. Mediterraneo, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and even MASH turn soldiers into hapless sensualists easily coopted by the life-loving populace of the invariably small towns onto whose proverbial shores they land. Operation Danube slots itself firmly in this template to chronicle the 1968 crackdown of Warsaw Pact forces on the liberalized Czechoslovakia of reform-minded president Alexander Dubček.
The film starts on a Polish army base near the Czech border. The commander is cuckolding her lower-ranking husband with an enlisted man, Romek (Przemsław Bluszcz). In retaliation, when the call comes to “liberate” their noble Czech brothers from the dreaded Hun, the captain assigns Romek to an outmoded “mascot” tank. He and three comrades fall far behind the tank convoy once they cross the border, lose their way because Czech partisans have removed the road signs, and end up crashing their tank through the front of a tavern in which a retirement party for Kulka (Rudolf Hrusínský), the local postmaster, is underway.
There’s nothing that happens from here on out that would be a surprise to anyone. Petra (Martha Ossivá), a Czech patriot, alienates her sophisticated boyfriend from Prague who can’t get their Radio Free Czechoslovakia station off the ground and falls for a more technically adept adversary from the tank crew. Romek finds love with a Czech beauty who is aroused by a tattoo on his arm. And the Czechs help the Poles get their tank moving to evade a Russian tank crew that is coming to their “rescue”. Predictably, a face-off between the two tanks results in the death of an innocent, just to remind us that war is hell. Except in movies like this.
None of the actors are asked to transcend their stereotypes, and they are engaging only so far as their characters are. I liked Jiří Menzel, director of I Served the King of England as the philosophical stationmaster Oskar and Rudolf Hrusínský as Kulka, who locks himself in a closet and then pretends to be dead when he is forgotten by the others, eliciting a New Orleans-style funeral procession to compensate for the slight. The film can be fun for people who have little experience with the Czech sense of the absurd and the Polish sense of suicidal honor. For the rest of us, this film is a yawn. l