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DVD/Blu-ray: The Fifth Horseman is Fear | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: The Fifth Horseman is Fear

DVD/Blu-ray: The Fifth Horseman is Fear

Gruelling, gripping Czech thriller set in Nazi-occupied Prague

Miroslav Macháček as Dr Braun in 'The Fifth Horseman is Fear'

One of several 1960s Czech films which explicitly addresses the Holocaust, Zbyněk Brynych’s 1964 thriller The Fifth Horseman is Fear ( …a pátý jezdec je starch) wrong-foots us from the first frame.

There’s Jiří Sternwald’s jagged, brittle score, and the glimpses of contemporary Prague. The lack of explicit period detail is deliberate, Brynych admitting that “our story begins in 1941, but it could have occurred at another time.” The parallels between the Nazi occupation and Czechoslovakia’s post-war plight would have been as clear then as they are now.

cover The Fifth Horseman is FearAdapted from a novel by Hana Bělohradská, the film follows Miroslav Macháček’s Dr Braun, a Jewish doctor forbidden to practice medicine and now reduced to cataloguing confiscated Jewish property in a converted synagogue. Staircase walls are lined with looted musical instruments and dusty books pile up, the most poignant sight being a huge wall full of ticking clocks. That, along with one of Braun’s colleagues telling him that “something’s in the works”, is one of several oblique references to historical events, the removal lorries which Braun repeatedly encounters on his journey home underlining the point. We catch sight of the other residents of Braun’s apartment building, their heads peering down through the stairwell (pictured below), voices echoing. Especially repellent is Vlastimil Fanta (Josef Vinklář), a perspiring, rule-obsessed civil defence warden, screaming at his neighbours for making excessive noise and flouting petty regulations. Braun is approached by the butcher Šidlák to help a wounded resistance fighter; fearful that the injured man’s cries might be heard by fellow residents, he ignores the curfew and sets out in search of morphine.

Fifth Horseman staircaseStripped to its essence, this is a straightforward tale of a good man trying to do the right thing. Braun’s quest takes him to a crowded Jewish bar as he searches for a former colleague who can help him, the atmosphere increasingly oppressive and desperate. Tipsy after a couple of large brandies, his next port of call is an asylum, where the doctor who eventually provides the morphine initially treats Braun as if he’s in need of incarceration. The film’s final act is unbearably tense, the resistance fighter sedated and hidden under a bed while Gestapo agents search the building. How the different residents respond is telling; Jiří Adamíra’s affluent, self-obsessed Dr Veselý is a scene-stealer, and there’s a nice turn from the veteran Olga Scheinpflugová as an elderly music teacher. Most of them are implicated to varying degrees in Brynych's bleak denouement, the final scenes reminiscent of Priestley's An Inspector Calls.

This is an extraordinary, important film which really should be better known, and it looks and sounds immaculate in Second Run’s reissue. Jonathan Owen’s booklet essay is a good read, tracing the peaks and troughs of Brynych’s career and explaining how The Fifth Horseman is Fear was acquired for international distribution by the Italian producer Carlo Ponti in the mid-1960s. Ponti, seeking to make the film more commercially viable, persuaded Brynych to shoot a salacious additional sequence set in a Nazi brothel. Included as an extra, it feels tonally very wrong, as does the recut prologue produced for the film’s Italian release. Stick with the 1965 original.


Zbyněk Brynych’s 1964 thriller wrong-foots us from the first frame


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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