'In Silence (V tichu)': Karlovy Vary Review
This beautifully composed docu-musical pays tribute to Jewish musicians and performers persecuted by the Nazis during their wartime occupation of Central Europe.
Putting a fresh slant on well-worn cinematic themes, In Silence is a stylized docu-drama drawing on the lives of real Jewish musicians in Czechoslovakia and Germany who were persecuted during the Holocaust. A Czech-Slovak co-production partly financed by Czech television, writer-director Zdenek Jirasky’s sophomore feature is saturated in music and ravishing pastel-tinted cinematography, which transforms even the most harrowing scenes into painterly tableaux.
Premiered in Karlovy Vary last week, In Silence is as beautiful as any movie about real-life historical genocide can be. Its evergreen theme and eye-catching look should make it a good bet for further festival bookings, with potential for TV sales and niche theatrical interest in overseas markets.
Before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, Edith Kraus (Judit Bardos) is an acclaimed concert pianist and Alice Flachova (Valeria Staskova) an aspiring teenage ballerina. In 1942, both are deported to the Terezin concentration camp 40 miles north of Prague. Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German, was a notorious Nazi propaganda weapon, sold to Red Cross observers as a “model” internment facility whose inmates enjoyed classical music concerts and relatively comfortable living conditions.
The reality was much grimmer. Out of 144,000 Jews sent to Terezin, over 88,000 were later deported to death camps while 33,000 died in squalid conditions, crawling with lice and rampant infections. Only about 17,000 survived. Kraus escaped extermination purely because she could play Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin and Verdi from memory. Her husband, father, sister and other relatives were not so lucky. All were murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
In parallel with Kraus and Flachova, In Silence also tracks the persecution of other musicians, composers and conductors, including the German-Jewish vocal group Comedian Harmonists, who eventually disbanded under Nazi pressure and scattered abroad. Instead of conventional dialogue, the characters narrate their stories in episodic voiceover, contemplating events at one remove from the action on screen. Poetic and hypnotic, the effect is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life in places.
The internal rhythm of In Silence sets up a visual and musical counterpoint between the destructive nihilism of the Nazis and the romantic, life-affirming creativity of their victims. A sinister printing press serves as a recurring leitmotif, hammering away at a manual of banned Jewish musicians that will soon silence their Bohemian rhapsodies. Jirasky is not afraid to use poetic license and heavy symbolism here: a spontaneous tap-dancing jazz number on a Prague streetcar, a grand piano crashing to earth from a rooftop apartment, a fantasy ballet scene inside a concentration camp.
In Silence is not the first film to tackle the theme of Jewish prisoners whose musical skills helped keep them alive during the Holocaust: Daniel Mann’s 1980 TV movie Playing for Time and Roman Polanski’s 2002 Oscar-winner The Pianist are obvious reference points. Jirasky digresses from the somber realism of both, and in doing so arguably risks over-aestheticizing a true horror story. But he can counter such accusations with a happy ending of sorts: It is no spoiler to reveal that several of the musicians memorialized here survived their ordeal and flourished after the war. Edith Kraus died only last year, aged 100, a stirring testament to the power of human resilience over unspeakable evil.
Production company: Furia Film
Starring: Judit Bardos, Valeria Staskova, Jan Gallovic, Kristina Svarinska, Jan Ctvrtnik
Director: Zdenek Jirasky
Writer: Zdenek Jirasky
Producer: Livia Filusova
Cinematographer: Michal Cerny
Editor: Hedvika Hansalova
Music: Martin Hasak
Sales company: Furia Film, Bratislava
No rating, 84 minutes