LFF 2020 ‘Shadow Country’ Review: A Terrifying New Warning

Holocaust films are an established genre of cinema. Over the past seventy years many filmmakers have attempted to capture the truly devastating scale of Europe’s greatest shame. In Eastern Europe, on the borders of Austria and Czekoslovakia, writer Ivan Arsenyev and director Bohdan Sláma find a new story to tell, one of great pain and retribution.

Covering roughly twenty years of history, the film documents the inhabitants of a small village with an identity crisis. With some identifying as Austrian and others as Czech and with some sympathising with socialism and others with fascism, tensions are evident from the very beginning. The village is a microcosm of the tensions that tore Europe into pieces in the middle of the 20th Century, and which threaten to do the same today.

As the decades pass the Nazism that was once tolerated as an eccentricity visits true horror upon the village and its inhabitants. What’s fascinating is how the film moves past this period to explore what comes next. With the war lost for the Nazis and Czech forces looking for vengeance, the village is home to a second wave of violence that is just as unthinking and prejudiced as the last.

Shadow Country is stunningly made, with gorgeous black and white photography and wonderfully portrays the pastoral lifestyle of the villagers before the chaos sets in. Once the violence starts there’s a stark and terrible beauty to the carnage. In execution, it resembles Come and See in its frank brutality. The complexity of it’s staging fully expresses the scale of these terrible acts on the small village. It’s an intimate but grandiose horror.

Arsenyev’s script is beautifully rich with complex characters who are changed by the times. The wheel of time sees the victim become the oppressor, the fool becomes the dictator, and the soldier becomes the one digging their own grave at gunpoint. Sympathies shift and it becomes hard to see how these people can possibly continue to exist together. But the film does not overlook catharsis.

Shadow Country shows the real cost of the lines moving on a map. It portrays a village torn apart and set against itself in a manner all too familiar and contemporary. As a microcosm, it’s a poignant warning but as human drama it’s extraordinary.

Five Stars

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