The Fifth Horseman is Fear [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (4th October 2021).
The Film

Forbidden from practicing medicine by the occupying forces, Dr. Braun (Ikarie XB 1's Miroslav Machácek) now meticulously catalogues the properties of Jews who have been deported out of the country to concentration camps. Returning from work late every day, he keeps to himself amidst the running and shouting of his neighbors in a crumbling apartment building owned by attorney Vasely (Tomorrow, People Will Be Dancing Everywhere's Jirí Adamíra) whose top floor apartment is a haven of luxury for his wife Marta (Distant Journey's Zdenka Procházková ) and son Honzik (Tomás Hádl). The deaf music teacher (Late August at the Hotel Ozone's Olga Scheinpflugová) constantly fights with the building's civil defense commander Fanta (Concert at the End of Summer's Josef Vinklár) who frets about being expected to bend the rules for his neighbors. Vera (A Report on the Party and Guests' Jana Pracharová) is spending all of the money earned by her butcher husband Sidlák (The Cremator's Ilja Prachar) on illusory materialistic comforts. When Sidlák appeals to him to treat his partisan fighter brother Pánek (Karel Novacek) who has been shot, Braun at first refuses despite the butcher entreating him about the importance of the resistance ("I was never interested in politics"). Braun relents and treats the wound, but he knows that the man will need morphine to treat the pain and keep him from crying out and rousing the neighbors. Although Braun initially tries to push the responsibility of obtaining the medicine onto Sidlák, he ends up seeking out former colleague Dr. Weiner (Witchhammer's Cestmír Randa), which is only the start of a nocturnal journey in which he observes the misery and absurdity around him and comes to understand his place within it.

Part of substrate of the Czech New Wave that used the historical subject the Nazi occupation of the country and the Holocaust to criticize the current Soviet-lead authoritarian regime, The Fifth Horseman is Fear – forming part of a triptych of such films by director Zbynek Brynych that also included the somber ghetto drama Transport from Paradise and the science fiction-infused I, Justice – eschews documentary in favor of film noir paranoid subjectivity. The macabre nature of Weiner's Kafka-esque bureaucratic work is such that one questions the utility of such detailed cataloguing of the belongings of people erased from the Earth, whether it is just busywork for Braun and others like him or to provide a morbid provenance to the belongings once they have come into the possession of others. Braun's walks to and from work are literally "haunted" by the specters of representatives of the moving companies that transport the belongings of people to the depot – a closed-down synagogue – for him to catalogue (in this case, the British term "removal men" takes on a more sinister significance than mere "movers"). Having realized that they are "liquidating ourselves" and that his age means he may soon be bound for deportation, Braun lives an almost ascetic lifestyle in an apartment that looks cell-like and significantly different from the apartments of his neighbors, insular worlds that offer the delusion of escape from the outside: be it the middle class comforts of the Veselys, the comparatively tatty mirror imitation of the butcher's wife, or the hoarder's paradise of the piano teacher; all of which run along a spectrum to the ruin that is the home life of Dr. Weiner and his suicidal wife (Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea's Slávka Budínová). The disparity in class of the residents suggest that either the Veselys who own the building need poorer neighbors to lord over with their luxury or that these various people have been relocated by the Nazis and quickly tried to reestablish senses of normality even as they may soon be moved somewhere else or deported. Between visiting the drunken and suicidal wife of Dr. Weiner – "Hate is contagious," observes Weiner, "more so than the plague" – and nearly being mistaken for an inmate when he travels to an asylum upon Weiner's recommendation to request some contraband morphine from Dr. Ruzicka (The Death of Tarzan's Ivo Gubel), Braun seems to address the audience in the sudden Last Year at Marienbad-esque pause in the clamor of a nightclub when he remarks "Terribly stupid." The character arc of an antisocial character reluctantly getting involved, realizing that he can no longer be passive, and taking a stand should be obvious but it is so understated that when Braun does stand up to the authorities – not the Nazis but his own countrymen as collaborators drunk on their own relative power in a manner to which Fanta could never strive even as his pride is wounded by Vasely's dismissal of his authority – it feels less like futile than a brave act of defiance.


Picked up for international distribution by Italian producer Carlo Ponti (Doctor Zhivago), The Fifth Horseman is Fear appeared in Italy and America in a form quite different from the Czech original (see the extras below). Second Ru's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray is derived from a new HD transfer from the Czech National Film Archive. As with some other Czech titles put out by Second Run, this is not a restoration, so it is not immaculate, but the rare instances of wear seem part of the texture of the film and the content is suitably absorbing that it does not distract.


The LPCM 2.0 Czech mono track boasts clear dialogue and some emphatic sound effects, but most of the film's psychological manipulation comes from the dissonant scoring of Jirí Sternwald (A Local Romance) which alternately jangles the viewer's nerves or mocks the uneasiness of the protagonist with lyrical passages. Optional English subtitles are provided.


The film is accompanied by a new audio commentary by The Projection Booth podcast featuring Kat Ellinger, Jonathan Owen, and Mike White who note the film's surrealistic and film noir touches, Brynych's deliberate use of post-WWII locations and other visual cues to suggest that the film's setting is more contemporary in slyly criticizing the communist regime, as well as the significant contributions of Czech New Wave muse Ester Krumbachová (Daisies) who is credited with the costume design but also worked on the screenplay, and the way the film differs from the novel source.

The disc also includes two lost sequences from the 1968 American and Italian release versions. The film material for these sequences is lost, but they did appear on a panned-and-scanned TCM broadcast and were known to exist on Italian VHS (the latter of which was used to source these scenes since it is semi-letterboxed). Whereas the original film was unspecific about the year and the Nazis were an unseen presence, Ponti brought back Brynych to shoot two new scenes to make the film more palatable to international audiences: the first was an alternate Italian opening sequence (3:15) with narration that set the scene of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The second was a lengthy brothel sequence (10:14) and the second was a salacious sequence set in a brothel – complete with shower scene featuring plenty of nudity for a late sixties film – its presence justified by bring back Machácek to have his character visit the establishment in search of his sister who works there as a cleaning woman. The disc closes with Žalm (14:12), a 1966 poetic short film by the renowned Czech filmmaker Evald Schorm (The End of a Priest).


Housed with the disc is a 24-page booklet with new writing on the film by Jonathan Owen who reiterates some of his points about the film's temporal displacement and Brynych's uneven career of hits and misses (some of which were supposedly the price he paid for being allowed to leave the country to make other films in Germany), as well as an appreciation by filmmaker Dominik Graf who likens the surreal touches of the film to the works of Terry Gilliam.


Perched between the documentary drama of director Zbynek Brynych's Transport from Paradise and the science fiction-infused I, Justice, the film noir-ish, surrealistic The Fifth Horseman is Fear may have the protagonist whose plight is most universally resonant.


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