The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (…a paty jezdec je Strach)

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Les Wright
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The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (…a paty jezdec je Strach) (1964)

Before the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution in 1989 came what Western journalists dubbed the Prague Spring. During the 1960s, social revolution and cultural experimentation were abroad in Europe. This short-lived period of political liberalization, crowned by the election of Alexander Dubecek in 1968, was quashed a few short months later by invading Soviet military forces. For those few years Czechoslovak film makers engaged in intensive narrative and formal experimentation. Few films of the Czech new wave cinema stand out as powerfully moving––for both narrative experimentation and formal elegance––as The Fifth Horseman is Fear, the recently re-released masterpiece by director Zbynek Brynych.

The metaphor of the film’s title refers to the Biblical prophecy of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, traditionally understood to represent War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death. Following author Jana Belehradska ‘s short story of the same name, director Brynych sets out to depict how the modern apocalyptic power of totalitarianism wields its instrument of genocidal destruction. The Fifth Horseman is Fear is a close and subtle study of manipulation by fear.

During Nazi-occupied Prague, the medically trained Dr. Braun (Miroslav Machacek), a Jewish persona non grata and resident of an apartment block, suddenly finds himself confronted with a deep and personal moral dilemma. He had resigned himself to his fate under Nazi rule as a calculated attempt to spare his own life. Yet, when a neighbor in desperation approaches him to save the life of a seriously wounded resistance fighter, Braun finds himself torn by his own conscience. The web of fear is complex, and every move Braun makes sends out ripples, triggering others’ fear-based reactions.

The dream-like opening montage, of violins, brass instruments, clocks, and pianos crammed into an almost fun-house-like warehouse, suddenly comes into conceptual focus––Dr. Braun is a receiving clerk for the confiscated possessions of interred Jews. The montage shifts to cobbled streets of Prague, busy intersections, back alleys, a single man standing eerily outlined by a door frame, a bar full of drunken men and women. As this hellish vision comes into focus, Dr. Braun enters the narrative, speaks to a former colleague, desperate to find morphine for his patient.

Brynych draws upon German Expressionist film techniques, blending both Hollywood noir and classic horror film styles. He cannot help but reflect the Prague of those times, as rendered in the fiction of German-Jewish author Franz Kafka, and uses Hitchcock-like crosscuts to heighten suspense while suggesting off-camera violence. And using a surprisingly large musical palette––cool 1960s jazz tracks, for example, alternate with somber classical symphonic piece––Brynych foreshadows, underlines, impregnates, and ironizes the narrative.

As Braun begins to come back to an ethical life, in a society where holding ethical values has become a lethal trap, he is suddenly confronted by a host of dangers. The other tenants of Braun’s apartment block, representing the odd collection that is humanity, pose a danger to each other as they feel the constraints of the tangled web of fear that ensnares them all. The audience is caught along with Braun and his neighbors in this Orwellian nightmare. The effect is all the more powerful as the film deliberately avoids alluding to the ever-present reality of the concentration camps. Zbynekr Brynych’s critique of pre-1968 Soviet Stalinist occupation resonates just as powerfully today, as if made to reflect today’s realities.

Les Wright

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