Zbynek Brynych is one of the important yet lesser known film-makers of the Czech New Wave. His directorial debut, A Local Romance (1958) gained him international attention, screened at Cannes and nominated for Palme d’Or. However, Brynych is well-known for Transport from Paradise (1962), adapted from renowned Czech author Arnold Lustig’s stories, and for The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (‘…’, 1965), an adaptation of the novel by Hana Belohradska. Similar to the distinctly artistic works of his counterparts, Jiri Menzel, Jan Kadar, Jan Nemec, Jaromil Jires, Karel Kachyna, Mr. Brynych used the historical occupation of Nazis during World War II to contextualize the then present-day grim governance of Czechslovak communists (the brief creative and political freedom in the socialism state was totally suppressed following the August 20th, 1968 Soviet invasion).
The Fifth Horseman Is Fear is a brilliantly visualized film, evoking an atmosphere of intense fear and anxiety prevalent in a fascist state. The expressionist imagery and the ‘Kafkaesque’ protagonist of Brynych retain an overbearing sense of foreboding from the first to last. The magnificently composed haunted cityscape and the atmosphere of disaffection found here were later channeled into some of the memorable masterpieces of Czech New Wave: The Ear (1970), The Cremator (1969), etc. The adapted screenplay was co-written by Ester Krumbachova (her first stint as screenwriter who is also a renowned costume designer). It’s interesting to note how Krumbachova and Brynych had displaced Nazi insignia in the narrative, making it a universal (not topical) account of fascism.
The Fifth Horseman Is Fear begins and ends with an excursion through the Prague, which doesn’t have anything to with the plot but bestows the narrative with a unique rhythm. Critic Roger Ebert in his four-star review of the film commented that ‘the technique itself is such a pleasure to observe that the emotion steals unnoticed into the back of your mind.’ The opening images also sets off a sense of claustrophobia that only gets intensified in the later darkly lit tenement scenes (the central spiral staircase adds to the brooding anxiety).
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The film tells the story of Dr. Braun (Miroslav Hajek), who being Jewish is not allowed to practice medicine, but forced to work as a low-level bureaucrat in a giant warehouse that holds the properties confiscated from Jews (one of the few indicators that the narrative is set in 1940s). When we first see him, Dr. Braun wanders through huge halls filled with furniture, dishware, clocks, pianos, etc. Brynych often juxtaposes these images with the image of a wall full of posters asking people to ‘report any suspicious behavior’. Dr. Braun lives at the top, attic-like space in the rundown apartment complex.
The doctor’s neighbor at the top floor is a wealthy man named Mr. Vesely (the only wealthy family in the tenement) who is estranged from his wife, and their 10-year-old son, ignored by his parents, is the quiet witness to the dramas unfolding in the space. Lower down, an elderly piano teacher lives alone, anguished by the memories of her dead son. There’s an eccentric bureaucrat with rat-like features (Josef Vinklar) in one apartment, who fervently listens in radio to the occupiers’ propaganda. At the ground floor lives a neurotic old lady raising rabbits and hates Nazis. There’s also a young couple living in one of the lower floors, who actually sets off the conflict within Dr. Braun.
Dr. Braun is initially shown off as a timid man whose current role of collaborator has only pushed him through an existential limbo. He goes to theaforementioned young couple’s abode to treat a wounded partisan fighter. Although Braun hesitates to do the job, after a lengthy conversation with his self, decides to remove the bullet and save the man. After succesfully operating on the man, Dr. Braun goes on a trip through the occupied Prague to get morphine. Otherwise the wounded partisan may scream in pain which might alert the authorities. Although Dr. Braun acquires morphine after taking a brief yet disorienting excursion through a decadent late night party, the authorities are somehow notified and they search each house in the tenement. The very sight of police chief (Jiri Vrstala) incites fear and makes the apartment dwellers feel like a hunted animal.
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In The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, writer/director Zbynek Brynych evokes a sense of nightmare and hallucination throughout the narrative as in one sequence the very drunk Dr. Braun at a late night party is suddenly uprooted to a mental asylum; the stylistic association between the two places adds to the overall presentation of occupied Prague as the grotesque stage exhibiting facism. The unbalanced close-ups and wide-screen framing where unfilled space occupies the frame are all often employed to create a disconcerting effect.
Music is also used to great effect to cause discomfort among viewers. When the wounded partisan arrives at the apartment complex, driving a bicycle, a cheerful music is played in the background, and the whole thing is perceived as a comedy by a 10-year-old boy. Violin and pianos become an important motif, further hinting that the discordant music often experienced in the narrative as the sign of oppressive times.
Overall, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (100 minutes) is a grim moral fable that perfectly works on a number of levels. It’s an intensely emotional film that identifies with the emotional state of an oppressed man in the landscape of fear.