New Czech wartime film 'Shadow Country' wins praise at London festival

A massacre at the end of World War II is the backdrop for an examination of two decades of village life

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston
Published on 14.10.2020 15:20 (updated on 22.10.2020)

The new Czech film Shadow Country (Krajina ve stínu) has launched onto the international film festival circuit, earning positive reviews at the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

Director Bohdan Sláma’s seventh feature film is inspired by a massacre of 14 ethnic Germans in the Czech–Austrian border village Tušť at the end of World War II. The screenplay by Ivan Arsenjev follows life one family in a similar but fictitious village from 1930 to 1950, as history went from the First Republic to Nazi occupation and then communist rule. The border town, over the past century, had shifted back and forth from Austrian to Czechoslovak rule and had a mixed population of Czechs, German-speakers and Jews.

The black-and-white production was shot on traditional 35 millimeter film by cinematographer by Divis Marek, who had worked with Sláma on five previous films. The story has been in development of 14 years.

The film had its Czech debut at the Uherské Hradiště Film School in August and hit Czech screens in early September.

Peter Debruge, writing for trade magazine Variety, called Shadow Country a very strong film that was “absolutely worth seeing on the big screen,” though local audiences will now have to wait to be able to do that, as cinemas have closed temporarily.

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Screendaily’s Wendy Ide praised the stark cinematography and called the film an accomplished piece that combined images of harsh beauty with accounts of humanity at its most grotesque. “It’s a picture which, in normal times, would likely find acclaim on the festival circuit. In the current climate, it could be of interest to curated streaming platforms,” she added.

Sláma has described the film as a celebration of female sensibility and sanity. Screendaily’s Ide agreed.

Scene from Shadow Country / via Bonton
Scene from Shadow Country / via Bonton

“In common with most of his work, Shadow Country celebrates the decency and common sense of the female characters: they are the chink of hope to which we cling in the face of the cruelty, savagery and spiteful retribution meted out by the men of the village,” she wrote.

Jack Hawkins, writing for his site Dmovies, gave the film five stars. The site focuses on “dirty movies” that challenge and provoke the viewer. He said the film was about how individuals will turn against others within their group in order to survive, adding that the message is relevant to our current time. “Shadow Country is a subtle yet very deliberate excoriation of groupthink in an age where it is rampant, causing this Czech epic to be necessary viewing.

Scene from Shadow Country / via Bonton
Scene from Shadow Country / via Bonton

Neil Baker, writing for Cinerama Film, also gave it five stars, calling it “a stunning, intricate portrait of human fragility and community segregation."

He found similarities to Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird. “However, unlike the uncompromising and relentless horror of Václav Marhoul’s masterpiece, Sláma delivers a far more nuanced reflection of humanity during war,” he said.

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Meredith Taylor in Filmuforia gave it four stars, calling it “a deeply affecting film that avoids melodrama or a sentimental approach,” going on to compare it to both The Painted Bird and Charlatan.

Scene from Shadow Country / via Bonton
Scene from Shadow Country / via Bonton

Before the Czech Film and Television Academy (ČFTA) announced that it was submitting Charlatan (Šarlatán) for consideration for a nomination for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, formerly called Best Foreign Language Film, some people were pushing for Shadow Country to get the nod.

“In all of his work, Bohdan Sláma’s convincing characters display a profound humanity as well as human fallibility. This quality elevates the narrative of Shadow Country, one of the best and most devastating films I have seen in 2020. Shadow Country illustrates that Sláma is a cinematic master. I would recommend this film as the Czech International Film Oscar submission,” Alissa Simon, senior programmer of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, said.

This would have been the second time for Sláma. His previous film Ice Mother (Bába z ledu) was submitted in 2017, but did not get a nomination.

Scene from Shadow Country / via Bonton
Scene from Shadow Country / via Bonton

The last Czech film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award was Želary in 2003, and the last film to win was Kolja in 1996.

Shadow Country stars Magdaléna Borová, Stanislav Majer, Bára Poláková, Csongor Kassai, Petra Špalková, Zuzana Kronerová and Pavel Nový.