In September 1938, the infamous Munich agreement allowed Nazi Germany to annex a large portion of Czechoslovakia with impunity; the dog, having been thrown a bone by France and England, was supposed to halt its expansionist tendencies there. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his unfortunate statement about having achieved “peace in our time” and six months later the Nazis marched into a defanged Czechoslovakia and began a full-fledged military occupation. Appeasement, once considered a tool of enlightened diplomacy, had forever become a pejorative term.
Many Czechs fled their homeland once the occupation began, including several thousand soldiers and fighter pilots who first joined France in its fight against the Nazis and, after that country’s fall, the English in the Battle of Britain. The Czech pilots who fought along with the Royal Air Force (technically, they were considered “reservists”) and survived returned to their homeland after the war as, briefly, heroes. But after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the official line became that those who had fought alongside the English were, at least, tainted by their subversive Western association, and at worst traitors or even spies. Stripped of their military standing, many of the pilots were jailed, some beaten, all eventually released and forgotten.
This is the backdrop of Dark Blue World, a new film by director Jan Sverák and his screenwriter-actor father Zdenek, the same team who made the 1997 foreign-language Oscar winner Kolya. The film can be seen as part of the ongoing post-Communist rehabilitation of the Czech fighter pilot, as it proceeds from the realm of scholarly books to the more emotionally stirring arena of popular culture. Inevitably, a certain immediacy is gained while a truckload of nuance is lost. This is a grim story full of cruel ironies, and the Sveráks’ instinctual taste for satisfying sentiment, as evidenced by Kolya, would indicate that they might not be the best candidates to effectively render its mix of heroics and horror.
The movie bears this out. It begins in a Czech labor camp in the ’50s, a sullen place presented in bleached-out colors. Franta (Ondrej Vetchy), an ex-pilot, is telling a fellow prisoner the story of how he came to arrive at this bad end, setting up the movie’s flashback structure, with a dangerous but exciting and somewhat roseate past alternating with a monochromic and hopeless present.
After some pre-occupation set-up scenes, establishing that Franta has a cute girlfriend and an even cuter dog, the Nazis arrive and kick the plot in gear. Franta and his young protégé, Karel (Krystof Hadek), escape to England where, with some fellow expatriates, they must bear the indignity of being treated by their RAF superiors as untested recruits. Eventually they’re deemed ready for combat and so begins a series of somewhat confusing and only moderately exciting dogfights.
The Sveráks seem to be fumbling along during the movie’s first portion, with the historical-political context rapidly sketched and the action rudimentary. They unfortunately hit their stride once Karel crashes his plane in the English countryside and wanders to the home of Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), whose husband is currently MIA. Susan’s loneliness and Karel’s general horniness mesh into a convenient affair, which the young pilot confuses with the Real Thing. Soon Susan meets the manly Frante and (rather quickly, but then it’s wartime and everybody may die tomorrow) they’re furtively coupling behind Karel’s back, while dark thoughts of Pearl Harbor flit through the viewer’s mind.
Will Karel meet some untimely demise? Will Susan’s husband eventually reappear? Will Frante ever see his cute dog again? If you can’t answer these questions, you probably haven’t seen many movies. Dark Blue World gets a few extra points for meaning well and for suggesting enough to make at least me do a little research on its back story. But in the end it’s just too hackneyed and predictable to achieve the impact it seems, at times, to be reaching for. It’s a timidly conventional film about extraordinary heroics, like a traditional Hollywood film that just happens to be subtitled.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.