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First Run Features
2000 / Color / 1:37 / 86 min. / Street Date November 19, 2002 / $29.95
Starring Jan Wiener, Arnost Lustig
Cinematography Gary Griffin
Film Editor Amir Bar-Lev
Produced by Amir Bar-Lev, Jonathan Crosby, Alex Mamlet
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Fighter begins without exceptional promise, as two very fit elderly gentlemen plan to revisit the sites of a drama that took place 60 years before. Jan, a trim boxer with a proud moustache, is worried that his story be told correctly; Arnost, a plump, mentally sharp teacher with a great imagination, immediately seizes on the irony that retracing their trail of tragedy is in actuality going to be a lot of fun!

Because of the two gentlemen's personalities, and their willingness to (very adroitly) express their thoughts, Fighter quickly becomes a fascinating diary docu. Cleanly assembled and very accessible, the show gets these fascinating, articulate men under our skins. We eagerly hang on their words, as they quarrel bitterly over the meaning of their lives, and share moments that only the two of them could understand. This is a terrific docu, and a very positive emotional experience.


Documentary cameras follow Czech Holocaust survivors Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig, as they retrace their stories across Europe. Lustig was interred in the Teresienstadt concentration camp, and survived to serve in the post-war Communist government in Prague, before becoming disenchanted and emigrating to America. With his mother in a concentration camp, Jan fled with his father to Yugoslavia, encountering hardship and imprisonment on the way, eventually serving in the English RAF. Now, touring from one tragic location to another, the men in their late 80s find they have incompatible personalities - the softer Arnost tries to interpret events of the past, which the 'fighter' Jan takes as meddling nonsense. The two travelers argue and reconnect on the road from Prague to Southern Italy.

Fighter stands out because of the total openness of the two gentlemen, both of whom have resided in New England for decades and express themselves beautifully in English. Their combined stories encompass a big chunk of the Holocaust experience: Arnost remembers his father laughing at Hitler's radio speeches in the '30s, and Jan his utter shame when the Munich pact sold his country down the river. Jan's flight across Europe was a solitary ordeal kept alive by hatred of the Nazis and the Czech official who laughingly told him that as a Jew he didn't have much of a life expectancy.

It's hard to express exactly how, but these two gentlemen have such different yet outgoing personalities, and are in such good physical and mental shape, that they transport us back to events of 60 years ago much more effectively than the newsreel clips we see. That they aren't of the same mind (Jan clearly has a low opinion of Arnost's intellectual imagination) gives their explanations and mild arguments an edge - each wants very much for the other to see his point of view. We get the full benefit of their minds, and see the limitations of each. The pairing is inspired.

The range of responses is exhilarating. They discuss the women of the time, with Arnost willing to make guesses about Jan's attractiveness to the opposite sex. Jan resents Arnost's constant attempts to interpret Jan's experiences - he's eager to tell his story his way, yet considers the meaning of past events to be unknowable, and Arnost's urge to imagine and invent, lies and bullshit. The exact chemistry between the gentlemen (their interaction is never less than civilized, even when Jan is furious) comes out in every encounter - with the cops in Genoa, a Nun in Prague, and a pushy Prague groundskeeper who Jan confronts like a prizefighter. Both men are very conscious of their age, but Arnost has it right when he calls Jan a warrior - the man so badly needs a foe to oppose, that he fights age by keeping in top shape. The much more reflective Arnost seeks reconciliation with the past, but reacts to Jan's stiffening attitude with passive humor. The film in a sense becomes a primer on why old people can be difficult to deal with.

The best scenes come when Jan and Arnost have to face the issue of postwar Communism. Jan was one of the 'Dark Blue World' pilots imprisoned by the Communists (1950-55) just because they were independent-minded. He doesn't forgive Arnost for becoming part of the Communist government, even though Arnost eventually abandoned it when he saw how repressive and brutal it was. They argue, but with reasoned arguments. They're both right, and we see a perfect example of how two good men are separated by their essential philosophies. It's Jan who eventually rejects everything Arnost says, and tries to shame him for being foolish enough to attempt to reconcile the insanity of the past.

At one point we're told that the film was suspended for three days while the two men cooled down. Although the journey ends with them not speaking (yet remaining gentlemanly companions), what we remember are their earlier moments of emotion. In the Yugoslav room where Jan watched his father and stepmother commit suicide rather than be taken, Arnost characterizes the possible greater sacrifice and bravery of Jan's father. Arnost is applying his need for harmony and reconciliation, but this time Jan responds positively. You see many moments of easy hugs and sentimentality in diary-docus, but there are emotional moments in Fighter that cut to the bone.

Fighter is not all that well known right now, even though it has won more than its fair share of festival prizes. It's entirely free of agenda-based political messages. Director Amir Bar-Lev's direction is precise and unmanipulative. The two 'stars' provide the direction and the director hasn't distorted any of it. Every once in awhile Bar-Lev allows a hint of a crew, or a flash of camera awareness to show in his subject's faces. We need it to remind us that this is all real, that the 'actors' aren't being directed. I can't recommend this disc highly enough - it's about a lot more than just the War, or the Holocaust.

First Run Features' DVD of Fighter is terrific. The video and audio are very clear, with a good music track featuring old and new Czech and Italian recordings.

The filmmakers give a thorough commentary track that Savant sampled and will want to return to later. Another section has a dozen or so deleted scenes, that are all good, including one where Arnost finally gets to tell his joke, while Jan refuses to respond. Photo and trailer galleries are also in the menus.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fighter rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: outtakes, trailers & promos
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 31, 2002


1. Arnost Lustig's first name has a Czech middle-European diacritical mark above the 's', a shallow cup-like mark (not a 'v'). I couldn't find a universal HTML command that recreates it.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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