" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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In a tenement in Prague during the war, there are few Jews left. Only Dr. Braun remains, and he’s not allowed to practice medicine anymore. Instead, he works at a giant warehouse, cataloging the property confiscated from Jews. The nightmare images that haunt him are not a weapons or the dead, but moving vans. They are everywhere on the streets of Prague, and they all end up at his warehouse.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Residents from across the social spectrum share the tenement's central spiral staircase
Residents from across the social spectrum share the tenement’s central spiral staircase

Residents from across the social spectrum share the tenement’s central spiral staircase. Dr. Braun lives near the top, near the one wealthy family in the building. The man of that house may one day be called a collaborator, but for now, he’s simply doing his best to get along. His wife takes the scarcity of war personally and blames her husband for not getting them even more than they already have. Their 10-year-old son, ignored by his parents, takes in the rules of society at war by silently watching the drama in the building and on the street.

Lower down is a bureaucrat, a little rat of a man, so used to following rules that he can’t understand anyone disobeying even the cruel Nazi edicts. An old woman gives piano lessons, and on the ground floor, a “cat lady” (she raises rabbits, actually) abhors the Nazi occupiers.

There is also a selfish young lower-class couple just starting a family. They bring a wounded friend to Dr. Braun and beg him to remove the bullet. Dr. Braun protests that he’s not allowed to practice his profession anymore, but the young couple convince him to try, by saying that the same is true for the shot friend.

Coming Together

Braun is able to remove the bullet, but when the friend wakes up, he will be screaming in pain, which will undoubtedly draw the attention of the authorities who undoubtedly shot him. The central conflict of the film may be Braun’s trip through occupied Prague, after curfew, looking for morphine for his patient so that he doesn’t draw the attention of the Nazis.

The setting, characters, and story are so fascinating that it’s hard to imagine any movie made from them turning out badly. Still, a worse movie could have been made, because everything seems to come together in The Fifth Horseman is Fear.

The first, most noticeable quality is in the production itself. The Fifth Horseman is Fear is released by Facets. Though their catalog is impressively deep, not every title has aged well. But The Fifth Horseman is Fear is beautifully shot in something like cinemascope (the disc doesn’t say for sure what the format is, but the aspect ratio is probably 2.35:1), and the picture quality is very good. The DVD does say that the disc is “newly mastered from a restored print from the National Archives.”

The movie as a whole is very good, too. Its uniquely Czech take on fascism and repression makes it a timeless cautionary tale. The acting is very good, especially from Miroslav Machacek as Dr. Braun, but all the actors help bring their diverse characters to life. It’s not that the individual performances are good, rather, it’s that the ensemble is good. You really get the sense that circumstance has forced these disparate people to live in the same building.

The film’s pacing is excellent, too. The movie opens on a montage of street scenes, followed by a painfully long take (under the credits) of Dr. Braun tuning one of the dozens of pianos that have come under his control. The contrast between the montage and the long take declares that the editor is firmly in charge and that you can trust him with the telling of the story (and indeed, it’s true).

(Lest you think mere contrast constitutes “good editing” I’ll add that the street scenes not only establish the setting, but when they are repeated later, the repetition gives the film structure and rhythm. And the long take seems mostly justified by the titles, it also sets up a certain ceaseless, slow, relentless tension as Braun tunes the piano, one half-step up the octave at a time.)

Of course, none of the above would count as much if the movie itself didn’t tell an interesting, tense, and satisfying story. Audiences with limited attention spans may be dissatisfied that the movie doesn’t have a more straightforward story arc, but the dense atmosphere and rich characters more than make up for a hook or a twist.

DVD Extras

As with most Facets releases, the DVD is fairly bare-bones, but it does include one extra feature. It’s a dry essay on the Czech new wave, written and read by Andrew Horton “of Kinoeye.” I wish the DVD explained what Kinoeye is, and what it says about Horton that he is affiliated with it. His monologue/reading is shot on a camcorder in a nondescript corner of an apartment. If the production quality weren’t so distractingly cheap, or if Horton had been speaking more and reading less, it might have been more interesting. Nevertheless, he seems to know his stuff, and those truly interested in the Czech New Wave will be able to follow along (and get some further recommendations if you like The Fifth Horseman is Fear.)

How to Use This DVD

There is a four-page essay in the DVD booklet that’s worth reading (or skimming) before you watch the movie, just to get a little background and context for what is about to illuminate your TV. If (and only if) you liked the movie and want to know more about the Czech New Wave, watch the interview with Horton. Have a pencil and paper ready (or your Movie Habit Rent List) so you can write down the other titles he recommends.