Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Part of the Czech New Wave of the early 1960s, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear purports to be about conditions under the Nazis during World War 2, but the enthusiastic critics who saw it at film festivals recognized its 'historical' context as a barely disguised look at present-day conditions under the Czechoslovak communists. Director Zbynek Brynych uses a nightmarish "Kafkaesque" style to show the deteriorating mind of a man who defies the harsh anti-Jewish regulations, knowing that he will soon be caught.
Dr. Braun (Miroslav Hájek) lives in an existential limbo, keeping track of items in an enormous warehouse of confiscated Jewish property. No longer allowed to practice medicine, he keeps and plays a forbidden violin and lives in an apartment building where the tenants stare at each other while wondering who will be the next to be denounced. In one apartment a well-to-do wife diverts herself with expensive purchases, unconcerned that some of her neighbors live in abject fear. An old lady has become neurotic with worry that her dog and illegal rabbits will be seized, while another neighbor stares through a small window at the staircase, afraid not to report every suspicious thing he sees. Dr. Braun is already enduring increasingly vivid hallucinations when a neighbor begs him to remove a bullet out of an injured resistance fighter. Without knowing how he got involved, Dr. Braun is soon hiding the patient and sneaking around Prague looking for morphine to ease his pain.
Forty years of movies about alienation and psychotic states have softened the edge on the cinematic effects in The Fifth Horseman Is Fear but in 1964 the film was hailed at European festivals as creative and highly original. In grim B&W widescreen, the paranoid Dr. Braun moves quietly through a haunted cityscape, telling himself he's seen enough and is ready for the end. Braun has survived by maintaining a posture of quiet compliance. He witnesses the destruction of his community as he catalogs the fine furniture of 'missing' citizens. Choice apartments are being purchased for next to nothing, while moving vans are a sinister sight on the nearly empty cobble-stoned streets.
Dr. Braun avoids human contact, never knowing if the next person he meets will object to living near a Jewish man. In the handsomely decorated penthouse apartment above his own, the pressures of the times are felt in unspoken marital problems - the unhappy wife avoids her problems by going shopping. The other impoverished tenants live as lonely eccentrics on the verge of madness. Dr. Braun knows this is happening to him as well, as he is assaulted by unwelcome paranoid visions and phantom music.
When Dr. Braun takes on the challenge of healing a wounded partisan, his story becomes even more Kafkaesque. A neighbor begs for his help but offers neither thanks nor friendship. Braun has soon assumed full responsibility for the gunshot victim, and when hauling him on the stairs is seen by a potential informer. Braun risks his life to contact clinic doctors in search of morphine for the wounded man. The bearded, introverted doctor finds himself an odd guest at a relaxed and decadent party, a lone hunted animal in an alien environment.
Cold, methodical police swarm through the building but at first do not detect the partisan, and Braun escapes capture. The tenants react in muted terror, revealing guilt for unrelated crimes, denying personal involvement and hoping someone else will take the blame so their lives can proceed undisturbed. The weary but relentless chief policeman (Jirí Virtalá) waits patiently for Dr. Braun to return.
The most important thing about The Fifth Horseman Is Fear is that it abandons any pretense of a period setting. Framing images show modern traffic in Prague, and Dr. Braun's window looks out on a modern soccer stadium. Other than some Nazi posters urging informants to be prompt and accurate, there are few indicators that this is 1943. War bulletins heard on the radio are mostly unspecific. Dr. Braun appears to be a ghost from the past living in Prague of 1964.
Dr. Braun is a purposeful anachronism from the Nazi past, as his shabby cloth coat and "Jewish" appearance (beard, glasses) conflict with the world around him. Other gentlemen have modern suits and collars, and the secret police resemble Communist agents, not local surrogates from the Gestapo. Jews are being pushed out and restricted, but nobody hurls threats at Dr. Braun over his ethnicity. The Fifth Horseman Is Fear is definitely a protest against present conditions in Communist-dominated Czechoslovkia, and not a story of WW2.
Facets' Video's DVD of The Fifth Horseman Is Fear is an improvement on many of the company's Czech film releases. The B&W transfer is in enhanced widescreen, which gives better definition to the slightly soft image. Zbynek Brynych's carefully composed images were surely meant to be sharper, with deeper blacks. The film is intact and reasonably free of defects, although the soundtrack picks up a buzz in the last few seconds. 1
A hastily taped interview features Kinoeye contributor Andrew Horton speaking about the film and its relationship to the Czech New Wave. An insert book of notes is listed in promotional materials but was not included with the unpackaged review copy. Director Brynych followed up the well-received The Fifth Horseman Is Fear by writing and directing I, Justice (Ja, Spravedinost). It's a science fiction film about another Czech doctor kidnapped during the Nuremburg trials to take care of a secret patient, who turns out to be Adolf Hitler.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fifth Horseman is Fear rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Good -
Supplements: Introduction with Andrew Horton, Cine-Notes Collectible booklet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 12, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
A note from correspondent Chris D., 10.02.08:
1. Hi Glenn, I was browsing through your index looking up some Czech films, and I read with interest your review of The Fifth Horseman Is Fear. I had been overjoyed after watching the pan-and-scan version on TCM a few months ago to find it was out on DVD from Facets in scope ratio, but was then dismayed when I read several reviews on Amazon that claimed the print used for the DVD cut out almost the entire brothel scene (which involves extensive nudity). This is an exceptionally nightmarish sequence lasting at least 6 or 7 minutes with the doctor searching for the morphine, coming upon the gils' shower room where many are constantly showering since they have to constantly service eager SS troops who hang out carousing on the first floor and in various rooms. He then makes the rounds of the rooms, running into strange couples, looking for his contact (who I believe is his sister, if I remember correctly!). This scene was unexpurgated on TCM. Anyway, you made no mention of this in your DVD review, that there was missing footage, something which you may not of known if it was the only version you've seen.
Was hoping against hope that maybe those reviewers were wrong, and this scene was included on the DVD after all. Can you let me know? I'd still like to get the DVD to see it in scope, but do not want to shell out the money if its not the complete version.
If this footage is missing on the DVD, you may also want to amend your review. Many thanks, Glenn. Hope you're good.
-- Chris D.'s note is correct; I did not know the footage was missing from the film! -- Glenn
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson