On the 26th November 1941 Anna Flachová, an aspiring ballerina who had been studying the
discipline at Ivo Váňa Psota’s prestigious ballet school in Brno, received the order to be transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She was 13 years old. She survived the horrors of internment at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and went on to become lead dancer at the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava. Hers is just one of the stories that forms the mosaic plot of Zdeněk Jiráský’s film In Silence (V tichu).
The film was originally conceived as a documentary based around a series of first-hand accounts of the persecution of Slovak and Czech Jewish musicians during the holocaust, but over the course of its production it metamorphosed into a dramatic feature. One result of this route of development is the innovative use of speech in the film: it is completely bereft of dialogue, instead using voiceovers of inner monologues to expose the thoughts, motivations and emotions of each central character. The effect created is striking, but is not the only noteworthy thing about the film; recent holocaust films such as Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Oscar winner The Counterfeiters have tended to avoid aesthetically pleasing cinematography as well as overt sentimentality. In Silence actively embraces both.
Up to a point, the film’s sentimentality is arresting and effective. The scene depicting an elderly musician playing the piano for what he knows is the last time as the Nazis enter into his apartment is riveting, as is the yearning for one another of a recently married couple as they endure the terrors of Nazi brutality in separate concentration camps. But to pay such a great amount of attention to the emotional turmoil wrought on a young woman forced to give up her pet dog, or to mourn the split-up of a successful barbershop quartet, seems a little shortsighted given the scale of tragedy that forms the context of the film.
Visually the film is highly stylised. In the first part, where we see the protagonists’ idyllic pre-war lives, tension is maintained by repeated juxtaposition of the scenes of carefully choreographed happiness with the recurring motif of a sinister printing press producing copies of Herbert Gerigk and Theophil Stengel’s Lexikon der Juden in der Musik, a central ideological text for the Nazi persecution of Jewish musicians. Later, as focus is shifted to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt, the director juxtaposes the misery and tortuous suffering with dream sequences, flashbacks and the escapist fantasies of the victims. One thing that unites all scenes in the film is the filmmaker’s use of colour. The bright and high-contrast pastel palette certainly makes In Silence look and feel fresh and contemporary, but at certain points also detracts from the film’s visual effect: its depictions of the violent and hectic deportation process and the crowded conditions of the camps are among the most vivid and unforgiving yet captured on film – but one questions the value of presenting these scenes in a way that makes it seem they may have all been filtered through Instagram.
The holocaust film has been a distinct cinematic genre since at least the 1970’s, and In Silence evokes a number of previous works on the subject: its focus on musicians makes it difficult not to think of The Pianist, while the more lighthearted pre-Nazi scenes and escapist dream sequences in the camp are reminiscent of the Italian classic Life is Beautiful – but thanks to its innovative use of sound and visual stylisation, the film is never in danger of being derivative. Despite its faults, it’s an original and worthwhile film that deserves an audience.
Zdeněk Jiráský’s In Silence was part of the Czech Centre London’s ‘Made in Prague’ Festival (2nd-30th November), in association with the UK Jewish Film Festival.