Directed by Bohan Sláma and written by Ivan Arsenyev, following life in a Czech-Austrian border village from the 1930s-1950s, which saw a community sacrificed to political ideology. Starring: Magdaléna Borová, Stanislav Majer, Csongor Kassai and Barbora Poláková.
Trying to make a World War II film feel original and make it actually have something new to add to the conversation has become increasingly difficult with how saturated the market has been in the last few years but Shadow Country approaches the war with a different angle, location and discussion. The film doesn’t simply take place during the war, it introduces you to this very small community before it begins, during and after, it explores the changes to their behaviour at each stage and how the experience changes them as people, more often for the worse. Fair warning, being an exploration of human behaviour, you’re best not to dive in with any expectations of happiness or joy, it has its feet grounded in reality much too strongly for that.
The earliest stages of the film are the community divided, with the majority believing that they should accept the NSDAP, or Nazi’s, into the village to protect their own livelihoods and to keep their farms afloat. It’s a fascinating perspective to see the war through, living so remotely and to not have an in-depth grasp of the horrors of what was happening, trying to feign an ignorance of them or simply not caring because the non-Jewish citizens simply believed it wouldn’t affect them. It’s just the very beginning of an emergence of questionable behaviour that then evolves into something much darker. As the story moves along, it’s a compelling exploration of human behaviour during such a severe, harsh time and how traumatic events can change your ideals and values into something unrecognisable. Watching them stride so casually into the horrors of war and not realise until its too late the firmly dangerous grip on them is riveting.
The visual creates a brilliantly authentic feel to this historically set story, not simply the black and white cinematography but the costumes, the pastoral locations and the sincere grit that it has to it, embracing the dirt and a simpler living befitting its era. The tangible effort that has gone into creating a film that fits right at home in the 1940s is incredibly impressive, it’s exactly what you want from a film in the sense that as soon as it begins it draws you straight into the era, there’s no question. Added with the writing, it creates a very humble, earnest tone which is amplified by the filmmaker’s choice to use only a very minimal score, keeping your focus on the characters and their plights.
However, once the film moves past the war and into the village’s rather warped attempt to restore itself, it slows down immensely and loses a lot of that previously engrossing atmosphere. By that point, it also loses the strength to its emotions, scenes that should be more powerful can’t quite bring that edge to the table. It’s unfortunate that every aspect worked so succinctly initially to be then overly drawn out, not just by the change in pace but the sheer amount of characters that it tries to cover. It simply spreads itself too thin, there are what you could consider lead characters and it’s a shame to move away from them to other members of the village as it creates scenes which feel unnecessary or disconnected to the larger story. As those types of scenes become more prevalent in its latter moments, the film starts to feel as though it becomes indulgent and needed to pull itself back slightly rather than letting scenes continue unnecessarily.
Shadow Country is visually superb, it captures such a wonderful authenticity for its era which is undeniably impressive. Its story is compelling and creates a fascinating exploration of human behaviour during the war, as well as doing so from a refreshing perspective, avoiding all the well-travelled roads that most WWII features continue to traverse. Unfortunately, it just tries to do too much and ultimately takes away from the strongest elements of its story, giving it a more aimless destination despite the best of intentions.