In 10 Words or Less
Not your usual Nazi-evading love story
When the Oscar nominations came out this year, and Downfall, a German film about Adolph Hitler's last days, was nominated for best foreign film, it didn't surprise me. I asked anyone who would listen, why it was the world couldn't go a year without making a film about the Nazis. It's almost a cliche now. Thankfully, studios don't listen to me, otherwise we wouldn't have Zelary.
Produced in Czech in the Czech Republic, it follows the story of Eliska, a medical student working with the Czech resistance during World War II. Caught in the middle of the war against the Nazis, she soon finds herself on the run from persecution. The best place for her to hide is the mountain village of Zelary, as the wife of Joza, a simple worker who crossed paths with Eliska during a somewhat drawn-out opening sequence. Though it puts Zelary at risk, he is willing to help her hide.
Eliska marries Joza, but the marriage is a sham, as the educated, cultured woman has trouble acclimating to the rough-hewn village. But as she spends more time with her new husband, she begins to see what kind of man he is, and finds she might be falling for him. But life isn't easy hiding from the Nazis, especially when a neighbor with a wandering eye threatens to cause trouble. Joza may be simple, but he's not about to stand by and let someone mess with his woman. It's shows of kindness like this that make it easy to believe Eliska could love the big galoot.
The relationship between Eliska and Joza is so interesting that when the Nazi element reintroduces itself, it's almost a shock, as if Saving Private Ryan was invading a love story. But it's that kind of impact that makes the love story work so well. Instead of their relationship being fueled by some artificial motivation, their love has a natural feel to it, for such an unnatural situation.
Such a contradiction makes for a film that moves like lightning, despite its length. There are some weak points, like the pathetically staged fighting, but the rest of the film well overshadows them. Unfortunately, the ending isn't satisfying, but then, the ending of the Holocaust couldn't quite be satisfying either. Art imitates life.
Zelary arrives in America on DVD packed in a standard keepcase, with a promotional insert that contains no info about this film. The static menus are anamorphic widescreen, with options for languages, special features, scene selections and previews. The language options include English and French subtitles, while the scene selection menus have still previews and titles. Oddly, for a film 150-minutes long, there are just 14 chapter stops.
With lush green hills filling the screen for much of the film, this is one of the more beautiful Nazi films to be released in recent memory. Whether a scene loaded with snow, a interior moment or a beautiful Spring day, almost every inch of film unreeling here looks tremendous, as the encoding goes as high as 9Mbps at times. Details are crisp, blacks are solid and colors are vivid. Towards the end of the movie, some dirt sneaks in, but overall, Zelary is simply gorgeous.
The audio, presented in 5.1 Dolby Surround, is excellent, with very powerful surrounds and a crystal-clear center channel presentation for the dialogue. Though most of the people who watch will not understand what's said, the emotional meaning isn't lost.
Besides a selection of eight trailers for Sony Classics films, including this film, there are three extras on this DVD. A set of deleted scenes runs a bit over 4:30, in letterboxed and cropped widescreen, with a 2.0 soundtrack. The footage is roughly the same quality as the rest of the film, making it seem as though these were late cuts from the film. Nothing changes the original film.
In terms of featurettes, there are two behind-the-scenes looks at Zelary. First up is "Travel for Oscar," a reel of raw full-frame footage shot on video during a trip to Los Angeles for the Oscars in 2003, when the film was nominated. Mostly it's some of the cast and crew driving around or walking around. There are subtitles for what they are saying, but you won't really need then. Unfortunately, the bitter text ending cuts down on the "glad to be here" vibe.
The other featurette, "The Making of Zelary," also in letterboxed widescreen, has plenty of behind-the-scenes footage for those interested in seeing what filming is like outside of Hollywood. Running just over 22 minutes, with English subtitles, the documentary focuses on the tougher aspects of filming, mixing in impromptu on-set interviews for a good look at a foreign production.
The Bottom Line
If this movie was made in America, with, say, Cate Blanchett in the lead role, it would be the kind of film that everyone would see. But because it's foreign (and worse yet, in Czech) the audience is cut down to just a fraction. That's a damn shame, as this is one of the better World War II-era I've seen, one where the timeframe is just that, a timeframe, and not a raison d'etre. As a result, this film transcends the Holocaust-film ghetto. The DVD isn't exactly fulfilling, though the making-of featurette is pretty good. Definitely give it a look if you can deal with subtitles.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.