Distant Journey [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (21st June 2020).
The Film

At the height of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, those complicit to the rise of the "Second Republic" set out to correct "mistakes" including ridding businesses of Jewish partners, and optometrist Dr. Hana Kaufmanová (Witchhammer's Blanka Waleská) is asked to leave her position (her superior suggests she either practice elsewhere or find another kind of job). With the threat of transport on the horizon, her colleague Dr. Antonin "Tonik" Bures (The Great Adventure's Otomar Krejca) asks her to marry him since the spouses of Aryans can escape transport orders for now; even though it comes at the cost of him losing his job and being forced to work at work camps for Aryan husbands. Despite the misgivings of Hana's childhood friend Honza (Jirí Spirit) and Tonik's cobbler father (Border Village's J.O. Martin), Hana and Tonik try to have normal lives even as Hana's parents (Lemonade Joe's Viktor Ocásek and The Inspector General's Zdenka Baldová) receive their transport orders and Tonik's brother (Action B's Josef Chvalina) is arrested for keeping a wireless radio to listen to broadcasts by the Allied forces. Hana is able to keep in touch with her parents who are in the Terezin camp through the guard Noha (Tragic Monday's Rudolf Deyl), but Tonik must infiltrate the camp disguised as a Jew when communications stop. After learning that her parents have been taken away to Auschwitz and seeing the danger Tonik is in as the husband of a Jew, she takes it upon herself to move to Terezin where she tries to apply her medical knowledge to help others; that is, until the populace realize that among their daily duties is constructing the means by which they are to die.

One of the first Czech films about the Holocaust, made so soon after and possibly before audiences were ready to face it – particularly since the film largely sidelines the German presence in favor of the more local faces of not only Czech collaboration and complicity but Jewish warders like the despised Margit (Anna Vanková) whose prize of a locket is devastating confirmation to Hana that her parents are truly gone – Distant Journey is particularly extraordinary for the aesthetic approach taken by director Alfréd Radok who had once himself been in the Terezin ghetto and lost family members to the Holocaust. Exposition about the narrative's historical context comes in the form of excerpts from German propaganda films – including Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will – offered not as fact but with Tonik's narration about the changing nature of truth and as counterpoint to the dramatic story seen picture-in-picture as an optical against the propaganda backdrop. The dramatic section of the film is not played in the neorealist and New Wave styles emerging in European in the aftermath of the war; rather, as observed in the booklet included with this release, the film's stylistic approach has drawn comparison with Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Indeed, the film's heavily-shadowed, canted-angle expressionistic lensing occasionally invokes Hollywood film noir as it does German expressionism, largely depicting an ordinary-seeming world – the world that Hana recognizes as her own even when others do not – and turning its tricks towards depicting the inner anxieties of characters with not only the cinematography of Josef Strecha (Intimate Lighting) and the scoring of Jirí Sternwald (I, Justice) – which makes use of classic Jewish pieces to vertiginous effect – but also some incredibly pointed use of sound design, from the sharp tinkling of crystal in the shop of a junk seller who terrifies a customer with a mad dance that tangles him in a bolt of fabric decorated with the Star of David which will soon be used to distinguish Jews from the rest of the Czechs, and the increasingly maddening piano scales that drive a music teacher who has just received his transport orders to suicide, to the jangling of high tension strings in an upright piano frame struck repeatedly by a woman to summon the prisoners of the ghetto who are unsure whether her cries of freedom are truth or madness. The depiction of the relationship between Hana and Tonik is rather low-key, and one wonders if Tonik made the proposal of marriage out of pity and if Hana believes it; and their own personal miseries that they try to conceal from one another are more compelling – including Tonik's fear that his wife has committed suicide causing potentially lethal objects in her Jewish employer's examination room to take on sinister significance – until the climax of the film in which the terror of the Terezin residents realize the manual labor they have been carrying out without question is to build a gas chamber. Even if the main couple is saved at the end, and there is much celebration in the Terezin square, in which "mankind won" but not without the massive loss of life that will haunt the protagonists as they walk away from the camera through a graveyard of hundreds of stars and crosses.


Released theatrically stateside in 1950 by Artkino – and reissued by Radley Metzger's Audubon Films as "Hitler's Inferno" – Distant Journey has been released on English-friendly DVDs in the Czech Republic and in the U.S. from Facets Video (as per typical, a PAL-to-NTSC conversion of an older master) but was not available at all in the U.K. until Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray (and separate DVD edition) which is derived from a 4K restoration by the Czech National Film Archive. As stated in the opening text, the goal of the restoration was to replicate the film as it appeared originally by retaining certain defects of shooting, processing, and projection including the cue marks, light surface scratches, and some instability in the opticals. The variable contrast, heavy grain, and damage in the propaganda film excerpts is inherent in the dupe materials originally used but the original footage is clean and crisp, conveying the textures of the labyrinthine Terezin ghetto and revealing one shot that anticipates the delirium of Vertigo's "dolly zoom" to have been executed as an optical rather than a camera move.


The sole audio option is an LPCM 2.0 mono track in which the Czech dialogue is subtitled whiel the German - restricted entirely to the propoganda film excerpts - remains untranslated by design, in keeping with the film's focus on the Czech Jews and the collaboration of their fellow countrymen. Dialogue is always clear and audible but it is the sound design where the track really impresses in conveying how everyday sounds become complicit in the persecution of some of the characters.


The film is accompanied by an audio commentary by the Projection Booth podcast film historians Mike White, Samm Deighan, and Kat Ellinger who note the film's position as one of the earliest films about the Holocaust and its distinctions from the films that emerged later, the reasoning for the lack of subtitles for the German dialogue, and the bold statement made by protagonist Hana that she is both a Jew and a Czech, and that she still regarded the country as her homeland as well as reflecting on Radok's visual style. They also provide some historical background to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in which Czech's were regarded as possible to "Germanicize" in contrast to the Slovaks, as well as the various marriage rules imposed by the Germans that the protagonists used to keep Hana out of Terezin. The disc also includes a pair of short films, "Butterflies Don't Live Here" (1958; 14:24) by Miro Bernat, depicting the artwork of children in Terezin and how their drawings of faraway homes evolved to include features of the ghetto, and "The Opening of the Wells" (1960; 18:24), Radok's segment banned from inclusion in the feature Laterna magika II – which features segments by Milos Forman (Amadeus), The Shop on the High Street's Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, Emil Radok (Universe of Energy), If a Thousand Clarinets' Ján Rohác and Vladimír Svitácek, and Karel Zeman (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen) – featuring the music of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů's famous cantata of the same and inspired by a poem of Miloslav Bureš – as well as the film's theatrical trailer (1:01).


Packaged with the disc is a 20-page booklet featuring a new essay by film historian Jonathan Owen who discusses the origins of the project in an outline by attorney Erik Kolár, noting a rejected draft co-scripted by Milos Makovec (Lost Children) and Frantisek Vlcek (The Apple Game), Radok's decision to move away from Kolár's "unpoetic copying of the reality of everyday life – the style in which the majority of films are now made" in favor of a more artistic stylization, and that the film was approved for production and was completed only to have its premiere cancelled and be effectively buried even though it was never banned and was exported to critical acclaim. The essay also looks at the film, its structure, vignettes involving characters peripheral to the main characters, and the power of the film's editing.


One of the first Czech films about the Holocaust, made so soon after and possibly before audiences were ready to face it, Distant Journey is particularly extraordinary for the aesthetic approach taken by director Alfréd Radok who had once himself been in the Terezin ghetto and lost family members to the Holocaust.


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