Director: Tomás Lunák
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Railway tracks can take you places: to Lisbon or to Auschwitz, to your own past or even to your doubts, the traces of what your parents, friends, and enemies have left behind.”
The psychic landscape of individual and collective memory infuses writer Jaroslav Rudiš and illustrator Jaromír 99’s graphic novel trilogy Alois Nebel (Bílý Potok [White Brook] 2003), Hlavní Nádraží [Central Station] 2004) and Zlaté Hory [Golden Hills] 2004). Each book is named for a Czech railway station and based on stories about Rudiš’s grandfather Alois, who was a railway worker. The popularity of the trilogy was a surprise to its creators. Even more surprising was the proposal to turn it into a film and its eventual choice as the Czech Republic’s official entry for Best Foreign-Language Film in the 84th Academy Awards race. Leave it to the Czechs to recognize the worth of a rotoscope-animated film that leaves most of the Oscar contenders and winners in the dust.
Armed with little more than a teaser description, a single image from the film, and an enthusiastic love for Czech cinema, I paid my money and opened myself up to an enveloping experience of peculiarly quiet intensity. Alois Nebel is, appropriately, image-driven, with little dialogue and a subtly communicated plot. Its central character, Alois Nebel, works at the Bílý Potok train station in the Jeseníky mountains of what was once the German Sudetenland, and it is his memories from 1945, when Germans were expelled from the region, that provide the key to the drama underlying the film’s events.
The film begins in 1989, before the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and Czechoslovakia. A voiceover repeats names of train stations and arrival times repeatedly. A man on the run, carrying an ax crosses the guarded border and darts into the trees. As the pursuit of the man ends with him killing a dog sent to track him down, a more down-to-earth scene follows at the Bílý Potok train station. Alois (Miroslav Krobot) emerges from the station house and pours some milk into a bowl for his cat. “Where were you last night?” he asks, as the cat laps at the milk. His coworker Wachek (Leos Noha) is a crude loudmouth who keeps an eye on Alois, lest he interfere with the black market transactions he and his father (Alois Svehlík) use to keep the old man’s trailer park business afloat. The uncommunicative Alois pays little mind to Wachek, however. He goes about his business, having dinner and a beer at the local pub, and reading the timetables to relax a troubled mind that sometimes drifts into a frightening fog.
One evening, Alois’ vision of the deportation of a German woman (Tereza Vorísková) who used to care for him after his mother died emerges from a fog. The disturbing vision turns into a fuller memory of her rough treatment during the deportation, one that sends Alois over the edge. Wachek finds him sitting in the john, refusing to emerge, and Alois is taken to a mental hospital for a time. There he meets the man on the run, the mute (Karel Roden) Alois calls him, who was picked up outside the Bílý Potok train station in front of Alois. When Alois is released, he finds his old job and living quarters have been given to someone else, and goes to Prague to get his job situation sorted out. He sleeps in the train depot with other unemployed railway workers until the bathroom attendant, Kveta (Marie Ludvíková), takes a shine to him and sees to his needs. The end of the Soviet bloc proves the end of Kveta and Alois’ courtship as well. When next we catch up with Alois, he has grown a beard and is posted to a remote station deep in the mountains. He reencounters the mute, and pieces of his past fall into place as the mute finally speaks and declares his intentions.
The choice to use rotoscope animation was a compromise between the wishes of the graphic-novel creators to maintain the look and feel of the books and director Lunák’s cinematic approach. Not a fan of the rotoscoping of Ralph Bakshi, I was prepared to feel underwhelmed by its use in Alois Nebel. The film would have worked as a traditional feature film, with the performances underlying the illustrations still boldly in evidence. Yet, the black-and-white animation emphasizes the grave, colorless world Alois inhabits, the joylessness of everything from liberation from the Soviets to an abortive love affair. Alois’ offering of carnations to Kveta could have popped with some color, but the answer to her question, “How did you know I like carnations?” is a truthful “I didn’t,” thus bleaching the moment of some of its romantic potential.
A horror-movie atmosphere pervades the mental hospital sequence, with prolonged and graphic depictions of electroshock therapy the equal of any dripping nightmare from Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010). Indeed, there are many elements of this film that are reminiscent of that horror movie, from recovered memories to crazed vengeance and ever-present water. The use of trains approaching us head-on from out of the screen is a familiar, even clichéd image, but one that is turned on its head as having nothing to do with Jewish deportation, but rather, German expulsion.
All of the actors are riveting, no matter how small their roles. Svehlík is a bilious old Nazi sympathizer who constantly fiddles with his old service revolver and keeps his greasy son on a short leash. I took note of the only time in the film when the younger Wachek smiled—a toothy grin for a larcenous Soviet official who was clearing out of the country. Roden’s periodic appearances in the film are perfectly timed to forward the central plot with the patience his character had to endure to realize his goal.
Yet, it is with a slow rhythm and the enigmatic magnetism of Alois that Krobot ensnares us. In an age when audiences, particularly American audiences, are drown with too-revealing dialogue, even fed entire plots in movie trailers, Krobot’s reticence and and Lunák’s very sparing use of flashback maintain a mystery that is intriguing to follow. Krobot fends off the cinematic voyeur, reacting more than revealing, accepting without being submissive, creating an indelible character who has witnessed much and learned to channel his distress with the routine of his timetables. How one gets so much from a monochrome line drawing of the man speaks to the skill of the actor, director, and animator.
Bílý Potok is the wettest place in the Czech Republic, and the film makes great use of a torrential rainstorm to bring its story to a dark and inevitable climax. Rushing water cascading through the mountainous terrain seems as ready to sweep away Alois’ future as it does his past. When the film draws to a close, people are where they should be, with the trains back on schedule and the past finally put to rest.