…and the Fifth Horseman is Fear (1965)
Directed by Zbyněk Brynych
Written by Hana Bělohradská and Zbyněk Brynych
Cinematography by Jan Kališ
Edited by Miroslav Hájek
Music by Jiří Sternwald
Filmové studio Barrandov
Distributed by Ústřední půjčovna filmů
Released in the U.S. in 1968
(1:40) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
The Czech New Wave film …and the Fifth Horseman is Fear (1965) presents us with another movie that may lead viewers to ask, “Is this really film noir?” If paranoia, dread, betrayal, and fear (which is, after all, in the title) are elements of film noir, the answer must be yes.
In an unforgettable performance, Miroslav Macháček plays Dr. Braun, a Jewish doctor living in a rundown apartment complex in Nazi-occupied Prague. (More on this in a moment.) But Braun doesn’t want anyone to know he’s a physician, since Jewish doctors are forbidden to practice medicine. As far as his neighbors and the authorities know, Braun is a man who spends his days cataloguing the confiscated possessions of his countrymen who’ve been sent to the death camps. (Imagine identifying and cataloguing all the items housed in the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you sort of get the idea. Yet when you think about the number of people these possessions come from, it's staggering.)
When a wounded resistance fighter stumbles into his building, Braun knows that the man’s pain will become so intense he’ll begin screaming, which will alert the authorities to his presence. During the brief time the man is asleep, Braun will have to go out to find some contraband morphine, placing himself in jeopardy.
(During this journey, one of the places Braun visits is an asylum. Director Miloš Forman, also a Czech filmmaker, must have patterned the setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after this scene.)
Braun’s building is filled with eccentric, strange, and possibly crazy neighbors who’d sell out a resident in a second to secure favors from the Nazis. Each of these neighbors could star in their own film, from the piano teacher who gives loud, impromptu recitals at all hours of the night, to a nervous man who collects newspapers, books, and magazines. “I read everything,” he tells an interrogator. The building also houses Dr. Veselý (Tomáš Hádl) a recognized doctor who seems to live in luxury compared to his neighbors. Is this someone Braun can trust, or will this doctor (who has his own secrets) seek to turn him in? We learn something about Dr. Veselý when his young son asks him, “Daddy, who’s a real hero?” Veselý responds, “A man who dies unnecessarily, as opposed to those who live unnecessarily.”
The film is loaded with one brilliant scene after the other, making use of high-contrast black-and-white cinematography by Jan Kališ, and one of the most effective musical scores - a combination of classical, jazz, and avant-garde - by Jiří Sternwald. Yet one of the film’s most effective scenes is a simple one (at least visually) with Braun trying to convince himself (and possibly rehearsing for a jury) that he should help this wounded resistance fighter:
“I simply cannot stop thinking. You’ll always find somebody who doesn’t think at all. And so he wants to think for the rest and decide everything for them. Life, death… Simple, clear. Death’s a trifle, unless it should happen to be my own. It doesn’t even hurt.”
…and the Fifth Horseman is Fear is a surreal, frightening look at oppression, occupation, and the previously mentioned noir elements of paranoia, dread, betrayal, and fear. This is a totally absorbing film that makes the unique decision to call the occupiers Nazis, but nothing in the film visually points that period, suggesting that the film is also speaking to the Soviet occupation taking place while the film was being shot. (A similar technique is used in the 2018 German film Transit.)
I’m not sure this film is available anywhere right now besides the Noir City International virtual festival. If this is the case, you should go to the festival website right now, buy a ticket, and watch this film. It may be your only opportunity to see it for a long time. I know I keep saying it, but do not miss this film.