Romeo, Julia a Tma
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 09 May 2008
Source Second Run DVD
The name of Czech director Jirí Weiss is hardly a familiar one – he predates the more renowned directors of the Czech New Wave of the sixties, Forman, Passer, Nemec, and the like – so some sort of initial backgrounder is in order. Weiss was already a documentary maker before the Second World War, and he continued making documentaries in exile during the war before returning to Czechoslovakia at its conclusion. He turned to feature-filmmaking in the fifties, and the wartime setting of Romeo, Juliet and Darkness was one that he returned to, including his last film Martha and I, the only film he made in the 23 years that followed his second escape into exile, this time fleeing the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring.
Romeo, Juliet and Darkness takes place in Prague in 1942. In fact, we can place the date even more precisely as there are background references to the assassination (May 27) and subsequent death (June 4) of the Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi’s vicious ruler of Czechoslovakia. (The story of Heydrich’s assassination will be familiar, in a suitably romanticised form, to anyone who has seen Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die.) The story is centred on 18-year-old student Pavel who lives in an old apartment block with his mother (who runs a dressmaking business out of their home) and grandfather. As the film opens the apartment block’s only Jewish residents are seen leaving in the early morning, as other Prague Jews are being forced to do, to join a transport – as we clearly understand, although the film doesn’t spell this out – to the concentration camps.
Hardly have the Jewish family left than a young Jewish woman, Hanka, arrives, hoping to find shelter with them. Pavel has already shown his sympathy for and friendship with the departing Jewish family and it’s almost instinctive on his part that he hides her in the attic that he and his mother use. The story then plays out in the contrast between Pavel and Hanka’s developing love, nurtured in the attic room that is sealed off from the world outside, and the palpable sense of fear and threat which opposes that love.
Weiss’ own family background obviously comes into play with this wartime setting (a setting he never directly experienced) that he returned to repeatedly in his films—he was born into a German-speaking Jewish family. But although Romeo, Juliet and Darkness is a film that deals with the Holocaust, it’s never made the centrepiece of the story; instead, it’s shifted to the background in the same way that Hanka herself is kept at the periphery, an almost exotic figure that both Pavel and the film are fascinated with but one that is kept at a distance, one that is in a sense outside the world of the film in the same way that she’s hidden away in the upstairs attic of the apartment building. Everything, including Hanka, is seen through the eyes of the “ordinary,” Gentile Pavel.
You can’t really say that Jirí Weiss is some kind of forgotten Czech master. He’s pretty representative of a certain kind of Eastern Bloc cinema of the fifties, solid, intelligent, underpinned by an ethical humanism, along the lines you find in an early Wajda film like A Generation or a film from the Soviet thaw like Ballad of a Soldier. There’s a straight-forwardness to his work, even a conventionality, which has very little to do with what was to come with the Czech New Wave of the sixties. The ambiguities of characterisation and the disruptions to narrative expectations that you get in Czech masterpieces like Passer’s Intimate Lighting or Nemec’s The Party and the Guests are a different world entirely. Romeo, Juliet and Darkness has a certainty about its moral position – Pavel’s decision, for all his fearful apprehensions, is not only right but inevitable – and if we can only agree with that decision, yet the film never disturbs us or gets under our skin in the way the similarly Holocaust-themed Passenger does, made in neighbouring Poland only a couple of years later.
Weiss makes great play with contrasts of dark and light, both in the way he cuts from the darkness of Hanka’s attic refuge to the brightness of the world outside and in the way he contrasts the dark-haired, dark-complexioned Hanka with Pavel’s blonde girlfriend Alena. Alena’s insouciance about the horrors of the world around her – waiting on the street, she seems oblivious to the movement of Germans behind her until she registers it as the sexual threat posed to her by one German – becomes almost a moral vacuity in Pavel’s eyes, and it’s inevitable that he’ll drop her in favour of Hanka.
In fact, Weiss contrasts Hanka with two other women. The second one is Kubiasová, the young Czech mistress of a German officer who takes over the apartment vacated by the Jewish family. Pavel is repelled by her moral cynicism – she asks Pavel’s mother to alter a coat that belonged to one of the Jewish neighbours with the comment “She won’t be needing it in Theresienstadt” – but equally by her sexuality. When she meets Pavel in the stairwell, she’s playful and provocative with him, shining a torch into his eyes. He literally flees from her, but that image of the torch light is then repeated, this time in Pavel’s hands as he searches for Hanka in the dark of the attic. Yet the tone here is different, more sombre, with an implicit rejection of Kubiasová and a reminder of the physical danger Hanka is in, both aspects underlined by the background sounds of the Germans carousing in Kubiasová’s apartment.
Later, Pavel again flees from Kubiasová when she tries to kiss him—there’s an immediate, contrastive cut to Hanka, and the chasteness of this scene with her reflects back on the overt sexuality projected onto him by Kubiasová. Now, it might have been more interesting – and more convincing – if the film had proposed Kubiasová as a more complex character and had shown Pavel being attracted to her (this scenario is implicitly there), but that’s not the kind of film Romeo, Juliet and Darkness is. There are no shadings of grey, the choices are all black-and-white in tune with Pavel’s own youthful moral idealism.
What Pavel does is as much youthful rebellion against the moral compromises of adulthood, represented above all by his mother. Pavel’s mother is simply concerned with getting by, with surviving in a time of great danger, keeping her head down, accepting the inevitable compromises (don’t have anything to do with the departing Jewish family at the beginning of the film, take on work from Kubiasova out of fear of what she might do to the family). She warns Pavel against foolish, pointless romantic gestures: “You can’t make a difference. They’ll lock you up, kill you. Who for? What for?”
But Pavel has the purity and idealism of youth. When his mother accuses him of acting like a child, he accepts that “childishness” willingly, as the assertion of his opposition to what adulthood represents in this world. The space he creates in the attic with Hanka is his refuge from and resistance to that world. This is underlined by Weiss in two key scenes. In the first, the physical confines of their surroundings literally fall away when Pavel and Hanka dance together in the attic room—the camera spins around them as the background transforms to a vista of sky and clouds. In the second scene, the two escape into a contemplation of the night sky above them. When Pavel talks of Proxima Centauri – “two stars revolving around the same centre of gravity” – with obvious reference to the two of them, he’s setting a cosmic perspective to their situation, and this wider perspective continues as each of them imagines their future self after the war. Yet there’s a poignancy to this scene as well, for over it all hovers a feeling of an inevitable tragic outcome to their story.
Weiss never portrays the violence of the Nazi occupation directly. The atmosphere of fear and oppression is built up allusively, through newspaper and radio reports, loudspeaker announcements, the movement of German soldiers played as a backdrop to the foregrounded characters of the story. The one act of violence – a Gestapo officer, appearing in Pavel’s classroom, sadistically steps on the fingers of one of his classmates – stands out, in spite of the minor quality of its violence, because so little is otherwise shown of what the Germans do to the Czechs. Hanka’s end is shown with similar subtle restraint – off-screen sounds (we’re kept inside the apartment building with Pavel as Hanka deliberately closes the front door on him from the outside) and a cut to the now-empty attic room. An overturned chair and the breeze turning the pages of an open book are enough to give expression to the violence that has been done.