On 24 May, 1945, 14 people in a small town in Southern Bohemia were condemned to death by their own townspeople. They were charged as Nazi collaborators — but they were in fact guilty only for considering themselves German nationals. In its depiction of this incident, Czech filmmaker Bohdan Sláma’s Shadow Country — which is available to watch online in the UK between 14th-17th October as part of London Film Festival — illustrates the truism that ordinary people are capable of extraordinarily evil acts. A dark but effective film, Shadow Country vividly portrays a situation where civility slipped away, and people acting in vengeance, directed harm towards others that far outweighed the hate that they had themselves received.
Set in the Czechoslovakian village of Tušť, the film draws real events from between the late 1930s and 1950s
Set in the Czechoslovakian village of Tušť on the Austrian border, the film draws upon a number of real events that occurred between the late 1930s and 1950s, including this massacre. The action deals first with the Nazi occupation of the town and the expulsion of the village’s Jewish community, before depicting the post-war reaction against the German residents — who are threatened, driven out, and ultimately murdered by a people’s court led by one embittered man who has returned from the concentrated camps. Almost every character becomes compromised as identities clash and nationalistic ideologies assert themselves amidst shifting territories, policies, and priorities.
Tušť was not the only village where such reprisals took place. “As crazy as it may seem, this is just one story,” Sláma explains. “If you imagine our history as a one-thousand-page book, this incident would only occupy less than half a page.” After Hitler’s defeat, Czechoslovakia began to expel vast proportions of its German-speaking population, many of whom had roots in the area stretching back centuries. Many Germans were sent to internment camps, while others faced vigilante violence. It is estimated that as many as 3 million German speakers were expelled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War. The number of deaths remains unknown. As Sláma notes, the events seen in the film, though extreme, reflect things that “were happening all around the country”.
Nonetheless, the cruelty of the expulsions remains a chapter of history that not all Czechs or Slovaks are keen to revisit. “The question is about how many people want to know this information,” Sláma says. Under socialism, the state often suppressed discussions on the darker parts of Czechoslovakian history. It was only in the 1990s, when then-President Václav Havel issued an apology for the expulsions, that a dialogue truly began to reopen. Now, Sláma feels that the time is right for further introspection. “Year by year, I feel that people are more open to understanding how history actually was. In the context of that history, this movie makes a very painful point,” he says.
But the film is a personal one for Sláma, who lives in a small rural village himself, the one in which the film was shot. The location — which consists of homes, a few communal buildings, and a large central outdoor square — was chosen for its “claustrophobic optics”, capturing the sense of belonging to a small community where people are “intertwined in each other’s relationships,” says the director. It reaches such a point, he insists, that villagers start to think alike. But it was also the prospect of unpicking such close-knit relationships which drew Sláma to the script, he says. It was shocking to see a community “deteriorate to such an extent that one neighbour could kill another.”
Sláma came to the film via scriptwriter Ivan Arsenjev, who had already spent many years developing the project before visiting Sláma’s village with another director attached to the film. “I was angry that another filmmaker would be shooting in my village,” Sláma laughs. That director later backed out of the project after producer-director relations declined: Sláma expected to be invited to read the script, but instead had to ask. “[Arsenjev] said that he thought I wouldn’t be interested in something so grand scale, as I’d worked on more intimate films before,” he says. The director had made a number of intimate familial dramas before, most recently Ice Mother (2017), the Czech Republic’s nomination for Best Foreign Picture at the Academy Awards that year, but nothing this formidable. Yet Sláma still pushed to direct the film, drawn to the potency with which it detailed “how ideology could destroy the human community so easily.”
Sláma’s previous work with human stories, rather than historical epics, now drives Shadow Country forward. Complex inter-community relationships are prioritised in what is essentially an ensemble film which gives each villager as much screen time as any other. Scenes play out in long takes with elaborate camera movements that recall films by Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky (who Sláma cites as influences, alongside experimental Czech filmmaker and playwright Alfréd Rado), moving between dozens of characters.
“Some of the characters are played by very popular actors in the Czech Republic, but they accepted that in some scenes their presence would be minimal,” Sláma says. “In each character, we looked for small things: looks or gestures that could bring a background character to life, or introduce their participation in the bigger picture even when they had no lines.” Many of the scenes involved improvisation. “I always had a plan for the camera motion and the principle activity in the frame, but many of the specifics within a scene were just inspiration.” The film was shot in just one month, but rehearsals took place up to a year before shooting, giving each actor time to learn the story of their character and how best to embody them.
“In this village, by the end, there is nothing: only fear, lies, and guilt”
Creating such characters — many of whom behave in awful ways — also meant diving into the darker parts of the human psyche. “I tried to imagine what is inside of all of us at the deepest level,” Sláma says. “It is a very primitive thing: we react on instinct, and in those moments find out who we really are.” When shooting, the director himself began wondering what the value was in depicting “such ugly situations”. It was only after he wrapped and started editing that he realised how relevant the story was — not just as a means of facing the past, but also as a warning amid the turbulence of 2020. It encourages viewers, he says, to think about what it is that is keeping society together. “In this village, by the end, there is nothing: only fear, lies, and guilt.”
Meanwhile, Sláma says he has nightmares about whether the hatred seen in Tušť could ever reappear. “If this situation arose in contemporary times, I do, on some level, feel that people here could act the same,” he admits. For this reason alone, Sláma’s film feels relevant to modern audiences. “Some people will refuse to see a film that tells the truth of a history that they don’t want to acknowledge,” the director says — but those are who he wishes to reach most of all. “Nearly everybody is somehow connected to this, it is our history,” he says. “[The film] really provokes emotions. It’s one thing to rationally accept our guilt, but it’s taking it to another level to accept it emotionally. Cinema provokes emotions and make them real.”
Shadow Country is available to stream as part of London Film Festival between 14 and 18 October, 2020. To watch the film online on BFI Player, click here.