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Over the last few years, many of the countries from the former Soviet bloc have produced films looking back at the abuses of the Communist era. This year the Czech entry for the foreign language Oscar, In the Shadow, is set in Prague in 1953 and focuses on the horrendous show trials that condemned many innocent people to death. One of the stars of the film, Sebastian Koch, co-starred in an earlier Oscar winner, The Lives of Others, a brilliant dissection of East Germany’s Stasi. Koch’s new film, expertly directed by David Ondricek, takes an equally scathing look at the Czech State Security apparatus. But it may be that the overfamiliarity of the subject will keep it from attracting an American distributor.
The film opens in the style of a film noir from the ’50s, with handsome, dark-toned cinematography (by Adam Sikoba) of a couple of crooks stealing a cache of jewels. When the police come in to investigate, Captain Hakl (Ivan Trojan) suspects that something more than a simple robbery is involved. Clues point to a group of Jewish immigrants as the thieves, and State Security contends that they have stolen the jewels to finance a Zionist operation aided by the United States. A German agent (Koch) is called in to help with the investigation, which makes Hakl doubly suspicious of the anti-Semitism underlying the charges. The German turns out to be more complicated than Hakl initially suspects, but the Jews are indeed being unfairly targeted. Yet they confess to the crimes and are brought to a trial that is little more than a propaganda show.
Hakl is portrayed as one honest cop fighting more insidious Communist authorities, but he’s waging an uphill battle. The film succeeds as both a good police procedural and as a biting political commentary on the era. The characterizations, however, could use more texture. It’s never quite clear why Hakl’s marriage is faltering. Trojan, who looks a bit like David Strathairn, is not a conventional leading man, but he brings a convincing sense of integrity to his portrayal. Koch finds depths in his troubled character, and Sona Norisova brings warmth to the rather unformed role of Hakl’s wife. The actors playing the Communist officials are appropriately oily and menacing.
The film’s production design is impeccable, and the haunting music by Jan P. Muchow and Michal Novinski contributes to the ominous mood. A couple of scenes of graphic violence may be offputting to the arthouse audiences that support this type of film, but Shadow succeeds in bringing a disturbing period back to life.
Cast: Ivan Trojan, Sebastian Koch, Sona Norisova, Jiri Stepnicka, David Svehlik, Marek Taclik
Director: David Ondricek
Screenwriters: Marek Epstein, David Ondricek, Misha Votruba
Producers: Kyrstof Mucha, David Ondricek, Ehud Bleiberg
Executive producer: Pavel Cechak
Director of photography: Adam Sikoba
Production designer: Jan Vlasak
Music: Jan P. Muchow, Michal Novinski
Costume designer: Jarmila Konecna
Editor: Michal Lansky
No rating, 100 minutes
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